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Music > Review
The CUSP Festival
07 February, 2020

In a day-long session four panelists engaged themselves, all in their own manner on how the method of art curation had been envisaged in their respective fields. The four were Savitha Narasimhan, Bhooma Padmanabhan, Pandit Janardan Mittta and Praveen Sparsh. The event was compered by Ms. Devina Dutt who introduced the participants and appraised us on “First Edition Arts” which had completed 5 years and this new attempt at Chennai named CUSP was an encounter with art curators and arts producers. They had thought of a way to put together an interdisciplinary arts festival to discuss at length the difficulties and challenges in organizing arts festivals and also simultaneously learn from each other too.

 Savitha Narasimhan started by saying that each city and Madras too, has its own ecosystem that allows for students to engage in the arts, and especially learn music or dance. Irrespective of whether they convert to performers or not, do opportunities exist for them to pursue their avocation (or vocation) in right earnest was the question she had to address. Further outside of the regular sabhas that provide platforms for performers she found that there were a considerable number of art-lovers who remained untapped but for one reason or the other, still felt wary of getting at least familiar with say carnatic music or dance.  In the worst case they had tried but could not succeed in getting the “know-how” to appreciate art (read music or dance) itself. Further no museum worth its name for the performing Arts is in existence in Chennai. This appeared peculiar to her as it was not the space constraint that stood in the way but more the lack of awareness on this. She cited San Diego, in California where a museum is housed in just about 2500 sq.ft. This became one of the main reasons for her to set up MOPA (Museum of Performing Arts) in Chennai. Then she also recounted how the veena that Muthuswami Dikshithar, one of the greatest composers had played was lying in a glass case with one of his descendents and it gave a shudder to know what would happen to it after about 50 years. Who would take care? Whose responsibility would it ultimately be? She put it in much simpler terms where she found that one of her present day students could not identify a simple cassette, leave alone knowing about ancient music instruments, composers and compositions. For that matter children lack a sense of history, a sense of their roots this set her thinking of the yawning gap that needs to be bridged and bridged urgently too. She said that she chose to focus on Sangita Kalanidhi, Balasaraswati (Bala) on whom she first concentrated, as a whole fund of material was made available by her grandson Aniruddha Knight, material strong and authentic  enough  for stories to be told about her. “And the best way to relate to a period or a personality is through stories and not abstractions”, Savitha emphasized. Moreover she wanted to understand Bala with all her complexities, one who was standing at the cross-roads between traditional practitioners of dance and modern India that was taking on an altogether new path.

Bhooma Padmanabhan, co-curator, Chennai Photo Biennale 2020 told us that this photo-event opened hitherto unknown and shut spaces for the public and made it inclusive, the Senate house for instance. A whole process of recontextualization has taken place and new ideas have been formed about heritage itself. This photo Biennale had come into being in 2015/16 and she recalled the role played by Goethe Institut /Max Mueller Bhavan and of Helmut Schippert its Director in taking an active part. In fact public spaces like Nageswara Rao Park and the MRTS stations have been used for display. She told us about how it has become a collaborative exercise where Indian and German curators did this work jointly. It is perhaps too early for her to share fine details as she expects a concrete document to come about sometime in February, 2020. She observed that there was a need to engage in art education as the present curriculum in the art schools were woefully outdated and she shared the Kochi Biennale experience that was held recently where she had a chance to go to many schools and engage in conversations with children about art. She felt it was therefore important to connect all these dots and then arrive at a conclusion.

Pandit Janardan Mitta, eminent sitarist and disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar, who addressed us next told us how interest in Hindustani music has been kept alive in Chennai (Madras), a predominantly carnatic bastion on account of  many musicians from the North having come here to perform with abundant enthusiasm . These musicians (from the North) have been introduced by “locals” like  GNB, T V Gopalakrishnan (TVG) and many such stalwarts and of them the most important to occupy the stage with unfailing regularity has been Pandit Ravi Shankar. He recounted how every year on 31st December his concert customarily would go beyond midnight, at the Music Academy, with Ravi Shankar ringing in the New Year at the stroke of midnight. Ravi Shankar had a highest regard for Bala (Balasaraswathi) and also MS. He also remembered how Ravi Shankar became the Ambassador of Indian music and conducted tours with George Harrison across many countries the world over. He told us about Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan (introduced again by GNB), Parveen Sultana who taught us many concepts regarding voice-culture. Pandit Ravi Shankar also conducted tours abroad with carnatic musicians like Ramani (flute) TVG and other North Indian musicians like Hariprasad Chaurasia, and Amjad Ali Khan and thus became the cause for globalization of Indian music. Ravishankar also introduced many of the less known ragas to the Chennai audience. The Vishwa Kala Sangam for the promotion of Hindustani music in Chennai, was formed at the millennium and had among members prominent men like Balamuralikrishna and Ravi Shankar. This sangam was instrumental in bringing prominent men to the concert platform of Hindustani music and later also provided platforms to less known among them. Pandit Janardan also told us how he had also taken part in many jugalbandhis with many carnatic musicians and had difficulty in synchronizing when it came to the prathi madhyama as his was more of a plain nature and was closer to the panchama. He also was able to mention many teachers of Hnidustani music like TVG, Pandit Krishnanandji and Khelkar. Pandit Janardan Mitta ended with an appeal: Music should be introduced in schools not only merely as an art form but also for holistic development.

Praveen Sparsh prima facie felt put out at the treatment meted out to especially the sound engineers who ought to be considered as part of the concert itself. The analog digital conversion is in their hands and it has attained a significant level after the advent of sophisticated mic systems. He wonders why if concerts are taken seriously concert halls are never given that much of importance. He feels that the sound that emanates from his instrument (or any other instrument for that matter) when it travels to output points is only a processed sound. How are we going to arrest this trend, reconcile with this dichotomy, or is there no way out? That was his serious question. He was also aghast at the now-common-practice-of-using-the-cell-phone-at-will practice that has come to stay. According to Praveen this is a kind of abnormality in the proceedings, where he wants certain codes, certain house-rules to be adhered to during concerts. He also wanted to ensure a pre-concert sound check. Some musicians feel everything is normal and they need not upset the existing routine. “You know and I know how messed-up the present mic system is in most of the places.” He is also averse to the studio-recording which becomes like playing in a “dead-room”. As he raised these points the other participants also seemed to join in chorus to express their deep concern over these issues.

The rasikas are only reacting and responding to the “speaker” (mic) not to the music and there is complete lack of awareness about this. There is a total disconnect with the music, especially instrumental music. There had been about 250 sabhas in operation during the last music season and hardly 10 of them were concerned about the sound quality. Artistes and Sabhas do not even understand the need for a pre-concert sound check. Praveen did not want a strict black and white resolve on this but thought of some grey area in between and wanted things to be tackled with alacrity and purpose, for the sake of music. “Can there be a chance for the Government (or municipality) to intervene and set things right?” one of the panelists ventured to ask. (The latter part of this discussion elicited responses on the issues raised from members  who had assembled). At this juncture a single mic concept has been re-introduced in one sabha. How far it will be successful for the cause of music remains to be seen!

Some of them pointed to the refrain of old-timers getting nostalgic and recalling those” golden days”, a back-to the-past-wish, where technology was absent or it had to be single-mic system in vogue. But these rasikas forget that the concerts of those days were held in temples (mostly) and the temples had an innate design for concerts to be held and also had its own in-built aesthetics and thus satisfied acoustic requirements. All the panelists therefore resolved that the erasure of existing conditions being ruled out or a total overhaul improbable, the present mic-set up needs to be handled in an intelligent manner in such a way that the technological advantage is not totally lost. A kind of the best of a bad bargain approach has to be worked out.

Other such sessions coupled with carnatic and Hindustani concerts by artistes, interactive dance recitals and a villuppaattu performance was also held. This festival was held at Luz House, at Mylapore, Chennai, was spread over 3 full days between 31st January to 2nd February, 2020.

Apart from this a set of films on the performing arts of South India, curated by film critic C S Venkiteswaran was being run in a loop. Savitha Narasimhan presented rare photographs of T S Balasaraswathi over five decades. A painting exhibition by the artists of Bindu Art School, Bharatapuram, Chingalpet, Tamil Nadu, an art collective of leprosy affected persons was also being held.


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