The Quintessential December Season experience: A sabha’s perspective

A sabha is an organisation that conducts carnatic concerts. They usually have a tie-up with a concert hall, and all their concerts throughout the year take place there. The trials and tribulations that sabhas go through stem from the fact that they are an organisation in a creative field- where there is none. Steady revenue is a long forgotten dream. The sabhas make more than 50% of their revenue in December. This month is a time of frantic activity, with concerts going on throughout the day. The challenge faced by the sabha is to merge the requirements and expectations of the artists and the listeners.

Apart from money, artists have other expectations which have to be met. The sound system needs to be managed professionally, by someone who is knowledgeable about music, and knows his way around a stereo. Many senior artists are only available on their own time, the sabha has to prepare schedules accordingly. Artists also demand respect, which is something that sabhas have to be very careful about. Hurt egos and sentiments can go a long way in ruining a reputation. Sabhas have to look after these needs while handling hundreds of applications from budding artists looking for a slot in their tight schedule.

setting up mikes is a perpetual headache for the sabhas…

On the other hand, there are the listeners who demand the complete experience. It’s not only about the music- It’s about the hall, the food, the atmosphere. Sabhas are forced to keep morning and afternoon concerts open to all, partly for promotion but mainly because of peer pressure. Most listeners are not ready to pay money for short concerts performed by upcoming artists. Then there are the evening concerts, where crowds in the order of thousands have to be managed efficiently without incident, day after excruciating day.

All in all, the role of a sabha is as difficult as it is important. After all, they provide the crucial interface between the artists and the listeners.

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The Quintessential December Season experience: An artist’s perspective

The whole place was a mess. The small one bedroom apartment smack dab in the middle of Mylapore was engulfed in a Pandora’s Box of instruments, tuning boxes, notebooks, speakers and cups of water. The Artist returns from yet another busy day of hopping from one concert to the other, to his makeshift home. He falls asleep as soon as his head hits the floor, still clad in a kurta and dhothi. His lips curl into a smile- it was all worth it.

The life of The Artist is typical of many professionals I the Carnatic music field. December is crunch time. Coming to Chennai from Bangalore, he has to find an affordable place to say- hotels are out of the question. Concerts are arranged beforehand-two a day is common. With so many concerts, rehearsals are not possible. The beauty of this form of music and the skill of the artists combine in such a way that a concert, performed by three people who see each other for the first time on stage, appears completely and seamlessly in sync, as if rigorously rehearsed. Everything is impromptu. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it.

Everything is impromptu, so the rapport between the performers is important.

The Artist, when he is not playing a concert, spends his time listening to one or enjoying a meal at the sabha canteen or practicing and perfecting his already well-honed skills.

Monetary benefit is not sufficient to make a living, which is why, for eleven months a year, The Artist is a software engineer in a corporate based in Bangalore. But come December, ha and his 800 square foot apartment are completely drenched in his passion and profession- music.

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The Quintessential December Season experience: A listener’s perspective

Any Chennai-ite worth his salt will know that, come December, there is a buzz in the air. And it is not the unusually cold weather. It is the constant chatter of housewives pouring out of concert halls, the whirring and whining of strained motorcycle engines, their owners frantically moving from one concert to another, instrument in hand and clad head to toe in sparkling white traditional attire, unmindful of the dusty roads that surround them, and the muffled sounds of music, emanating from ‘soundproof’ concert halls throughout the city. It is the onset of the December Season, and the excitement that surrounds it.

One can spend the whole day, immersed in Carnatic music, performed in over 100 concert halls spread throughout the city. If one is comfortable with the age old system of public transport, with it’s rickety buses and dust-laden trains, all that is required for a complete experience are a wallet (with money) and a well adjusted pair of ears.

A typical day would start with an early concert- as early as 7:30 AM- for those who can wake up as the sun rises. These are usually unconventional ones, like lecture demonstrations, where everyone from a new listener to a seasoned performer stands to learn something or the other. This is followed by breakfast at the famed ‘sabha canteen’. These canteens offer a wide variety of south Indian delicacies- each canteen different from the other. From Mountbatten Mani to Nyanambika, there is a vast array of options. This food is as important a part of the December season experience as the music- these is a class of people who go concert hopping just for the food!

Canteen food is a very important part of the experience!

A short bus ride to ponder over the events of the morning is followed by a series of mid-morning and afternoon concerts at the same hall, separated by lunch in a different canteen. These concerts are usually performed by less experienced and budding artists, and are typically pretty short. One can sit through two or three of these after lunch, and also catch up on some much needed sleep in the dark, cozy, air conditioned hall. So far, the money spent only involves travel and food, since most of the morning and afternoon concerts are not ticketed.

Reinvigorated after a nap and strong filter coffee, the next step of the journey takes us to one of many premier concert halls in the city- Music Acadamey, Narada Gana Sabha etc. – to witness the highlight concert of the day, the one with the biggest stars and popular faces in the music sphere- this is the Super Bowl of the music season.

It is here that the December season explodes into life. The huge crowds that throng venues leave you wondering whether this is a concert or a cricket match. Halls fill up beyond capacity, with people even sitting outside to watch on TV screens. It is a sea of colour, followed by the captivating tunes of seasoned experts, followed by the smell of well seasoned canteen dinner. Overall, an assault on the senses.

The last item on the agenda is a final ride on the bus, amidst the constant chatter of people discussing everything from T.M Krishna’s pallavi to Bombay Jayshree’s red saree.

After a good night’s sleep, rinse and repeat!



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Appreciating Carnatic music

I’ll start off by saying that I’m not crazy about music. Music is not my heart and soul. I’m just another guy who plugs in his earphones whenever I’m travelling, bored out of my mind, or can’t get a song out of my head. I can’t even claim to be a Carnatic music buff. The 5000 songs in my iPod would beg to differ. But Being from Chennai, the Carnatic music capital, I was exposed to a lot of Carnatic music from a young age.

Carnatic Singers

I would be dragged to concerts where I would either fall asleep, or watch the funny hand gestures made by the singer. I found it very difficult to understand how people could enjoy music that seemed to have no impact on the listener. My father always used to tell me that it takes time, and a lot of hours of listening, to appreciate Carnatic music. It didn’t make sense to me how effort can help you appreciate a form of music. A few years on, I think I understand.

Carnatic music is one of the most organised and complex forms of music, which is why it is so difficult to appreciate at first. Any song you hear is set to a specific tune or ‘ragam’, and each ragam has a unique set of notes or ‘swaras’. The number of ragams present today is uncountable. Since there are only twelve notes, the number of ragams containing all the notes are limited (72), and this number can be calculated by basic mathematics. All other ragams are based on these 72 ragams.

The beat of the song is characterized by the ‘thalam’. Again, the number of thalams present are many. The 4 basic thalams are in multiples of 3, 4, 5 and 7. The beat of any song, western or classical, from any part of the world, can be classified in this thalam system.

This is just scratching the surface, and there are many more concepts and intricacies in Carnatic music. I’ll leave it to the reader to explore.

Carnatic Music

A concert typically consists of a main performer (a singer), a violin, and a mridangam along with a ghatam or kanjeera (the drum instruments). Concerts cannot be rehearsed as such, and they are an expression of creativity of the singer and the supporting instruments. This is one of the highlights of Carnatic music, where nothing is fixed and all the performers are free to express themselves. It is an uninhibited form of music. Therefore, the rapport between the singer and the supporting performers is important. The duels between different instruments and/or the singer are fun to watch, for the slightly trained ear.

There are many people who appreciate Carnatic music at their first concert, but this requires a high level of temperament for music. For the rest of us, understanding the intricacies of Carnatic music keeps us interested, and eventually, we really start to enjoy it.

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