The city where stars are made
Published in the Hindu, December 2012
Published in Kannada Prabha for Centenary of MS Subbulakshmi, Sep 2015
That Chennai is the mecca of Carnatic music is an undeniable truth. It is to Carnatic music what Mumbai is to Bollywood, and Hollywood is to, well, Hollywood. It is also equally true that Carnatic music today flourishes in cities across India such as Bangalore, Mumbai, Thiruvananthapuram as well as across the world in London, San Jose and Sydney. Most of the before mentioned cities have students, performers, teachers, audiences and venues aplenty, and hence artists are able to make a living out of music through performing and teaching, without ever having visited or performed in Chennai. Yet, it is interesting that, barring a few exceptions, all the ‘stars’ of Carnatic music – those who attract full houses, are able to sell tickets and are written about in the media are either from Chennai, or have lived in Chennai for enough time to be considered a ‘local’. This poses an interesting question: in this day and age of frequent-flying, emails and Skype, is it still necessary to have Chennai as home base in order to be a certified Carnatic music ‘star’?
Let’s rewind to some decades earlier, when Chennai had become the new seat of Carnatic music, with a critical mass of organizers, patrons and artists. In an era before the internet and affordable civil aviation, it was but natural that artists who were serious about a performing music career come to Chennai to further their prospects. Being in Chennai provided easy access to meet Sabha secretaries, to be seen and heard at important venues and also to imbibe the rich concert culture that Chennai afforded. Why, some of our greatest stalwarts (such as GN Balasubramaniam, TN Krishnan and others) got their ‘big breaks’ by performing ‘replacement’ concerts, where a senior artist could not show up. It is hard to imagine being able to do that living in Bangalore, where it would take two or three days for a letter to reach, and another day or two to get to Chennai. Second, while we are often led to believe that PR and networking for concerts are recent phenomena, anecdotes and biographies indicate that even back then, developing good relations with Sabha mamas was a must, and one had to circulate at chamber concerts, music conferences and the right coffee houses, so that one could ‘accidentally bump’ into a Sabha secretary, and casually inquire about performing in the forthcoming festival. There are several who opine that great musicians such as a Sripada Pinakapani or a Susarla Sivaram never got their full due as a result of their disadvantageous geographical location.
In the present day, a cursory study of the concert listings on any given day in the Season shows that about a third, if not more, of the concert slots are taken up by artists residing in other cities/ countries. And these are not just the wannabes. Well-known senior and respected concert musicians from other cities feel the need to perform in Chennai. Why? Certainly not for the concert remuneration, or for the joy of singing to halls jam packed with empty chairs. And one has to keep in mind that these are musicians, who, in any other city attract good crowds, remunerations and concert slots. But, most are unable to ever make it to the list of popular musicians in Chennai.
And then, there are the others, who even in this day and age decide to move bag and baggage to Chennai, so that they can be considered ‘locals’. Just as there are tales galore of film aspirants arriving at the Mumbai railway station and sleeping on platforms and bus stands, so also, there are musical aspirants who come to the city leaving behind their cushy homes, live with grandparents or relatives, and work towards success and stardom in classical music. What is the attraction that Chennai still holds?
The answer lies in a very fundamental human desire – the need for acceptance. At some level, we all need to feel loved and respected by those that matter. And in Carnatic music, acceptance is measured by concerts, crowds and critiques in newspapers in Chennai. This city has, over the years, built up a reputation as an opinion-maker, and other cities such as Bangalore and New Jersey, look up to Chennai as one would to an older brother, for opinions and judgments. And despite the proliferation of Carnatic music around the globe, where else will you see a standing-room-only auditorium for a lecture demonstration on thanam singing at 8am on a weekday? It is this kind of devotion that still makes this city the last word in music.
And Chennai, for all its opportunities, is not as unbiased as it would like to believe. Just as an IPL team may have a Ponting or Malinga performing brilliantly, but the adoration and adulation is still reserved for enga thalai Dhoni, similarly, for all the concerts that Hyderabadis or Keralites perform in Chennai, it is generally the namma paiyyans of Chennai who will be loved and feted. There are of course several prodigiously gifted artists, right from the time of Mysore T. Chowdaiah and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar to Balamurali and Yesudas to the Malladi brothers today who have gone on to become darlings of the Chennai rasikas. But given that all the other three southern states have had similar hallowed traditions of classical music, surely there should have been plenty more?
What about the great stalwarts such as R. K. Srikantan and Parassala Ponnammal, both from neighboring states, who are today celebrated as the torchbearers of the Carnatic music tradition, one may ask. And yet, were these artists lauded and feted when they were in their prime as they are today? Did crowds throng to their concerts in their heyday, the way they did for a Semmangudi, GNB or a Madurai Mani? Were they at the centre of controversies and rivalries, the essential ingredients of stardom, like the local greats? And it is perhaps because of the fact that they continued working on their music away from the limelight, which allowed them to introspect and understand their music better, and gave their music that vintage sheen that we respect them for today.
So, while Carnatic music continues to grow in its reach and spread, the surest way to increase your chances of becoming a Carnatic star is to have a pincode that begins with 600!