FEATURE: INDIA TODAY/SIMPLY CHENNAI/CHENNAI`S HOME SOIREES


VERY MUCH AT HOME

Chennai’s music lovers are increasingly hosting and attending katcheris at home



                                                  

It’s a parlour in a spaciously appointed Chennai home but the conventional sofas and chairs have given way to gaddas, bolsters and moodas for those unable to lower themselves onto the white-sheeted mattresses. The sea-facing windows are open and the air is full of tangy breeze. There are perhaps 20 persons present, some seated, some chatting at the back of the room. It is a smattering of faces known in the art and corporate world, but nary a P3P.

The moment the performer appears, everyone quiets and seats themselves. There is nothing formal about the atmosphere; the performer, a young Hindustani singer, chats desultorily with those seated nearest him, as he makes himself comfortable. 

Shall I start, he asks, smiling and there is a murmur of assent. The next hour is filled with melodious song, the voice rising and falling, clear, mesmeric. The ambience is electric, everyone seems held in thrall. Here and there, people keep taal, someone sways to the music, someone else moves his head rhythmically. The applause isn’t too loud but the performer seems pleased and smiles his ‘thank you,’ catching the eye of several in the audience.

At the end of two- and -a -half hours, the performance is over and people move to a table where refreshments are placed. The singer holds court with a brace of admirers; the others discuss the performance in hushed happy tones. The baithak, it seems, has been a rousing success.

As trends go, baithaks have to be Chennai’s best kept secret. For some time now, music lovers have discovered that hosting and attending home concerts deliver unmatched pleasure. The intimate setting, eye contact with the performer, the chance to later hold a conversation with the artiste and be part of an enthralled magic circle, all of it just cant be compared, say insiders, with impersonal concerts in a large hall.
Which is why a growing list of instrumentalists and singers- Hindustani as well as Carnatic- are being invited into the elegantly appointed  homes of Chennaiites for private soirees. Mumbai’s music lovers have long held baithaks, as have Delhi’s old corporate families and Kolkata’s bhadralok. Now it’s Chennai’s turn. As of now, the concerts aren’t too many- only under ten a year- but they’re growing.

Listen to Prakash Dharmarajan, president of O&M Chennai, on the subject. “Private concerts are highly interactive; the artist is almost in conversation with the audience. You feel the energy much better, neither the musician nor the audience is restricted by time limits and the mood defines everything. Also, there is a high in listening along with people you know well.”

Dharmarajan says for the artiste, too, the experience is different and a lot less commercial. Music and dance enthusiast, Uma Ganesan of the Cleveland Cultural Association, who has hosted quite a few concerts at home, says, “Sometimes, the artiste picks you. The calm and quiet in the home appeals to them, and their music takes on a serene quality.”

Ashok Gupta, entrepreneur and known patron of the arts, has hosted several such soirees. He says it’s nothing new for him since he was inculcated into this world from his Kolkata days. The tradition goes back to the days when private concerts were held by royalty and aristos; home concerts redux, as it were, he says. Gupta has had the Gundecha brothers, Kumar Gandharva’s wife Vasundara Komkali and daughter Kalabini, along with others, performing at his home. He recounts an occasion when the Gundecha brothers were playing and dancer Nirmala Seshadri got up and started dancing, much to the delight of the late dancer Chandralekha, who was also present there.

Other hosts reminisce about impromptu concerts that went on for four hours. Singer Pushpa Lakshman, who has attended a fair number of such shows says, “Gowri Ramnarayan does not sing in public now that her mentor M.S. Subbalakshmi is no more. But she is a dear friend and on occasion, has sung for me and my friends. It was an uplifting experience and one that I am deeply thankful to have witnessed.”

Arundhati Menon, the name behind the Shilpi stores, hosted a soiree for the Gundecha brothers at Chandralekha’s home at Besant Nagar recently. Menon hosts several such dos on a personal level, as well as co-organiser of Raaga, which promotes Hindustani music in Chennai. Coming from a family of musicians, Menon has grown up with music and now hosts concerts in memory of her late father. “My gatherings are small and exclusive and composed of like-minded music lovers as it is vital for the mood to be just right. The performer responds better then. The musicians are a varied lot, some very famous, some unknown but brilliant. The great thing is, you get to share great music and chat with musicians after the performance. That’s a high you float on for days.”

Menon debunks the theory that there’s a dearth of Hindustani music fans in the city. “There’s a dearth of concerts, not music lovers. We have as many as 250 people at times, many of them listening to Hindustani music for the first time but they end up captivated and wanting more.” Lakshman, too, revels in the experience of home concerts. “It is not that I would denigrate a performance in an auditorium. It’s like a private lunch or dinner. We get what we want to eat, but that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy a buffet once in a while! Singers have a direct rapport with the audience in smaller soirees and nothing can match that face-to-face experience,” she says.

Entrepreneur Sudhir Rao and wife Sadhana, who have had several musicians (both Hindustani and Carnatic) as well as teachers performing in their home, agree with Lakshman. “While a baithak may lack the aura and magic of the big stage, it has the endearing and intimate atmosphere of a small group. In the home concerts that we have held over the last seven years, we’ve been trying to re-create the concept of the chamber music that we enjoy so much in Europe. No amplifications, no microphones, only sounds and voices in original form, `` says Sadhana.

Ganesan and her husband host only two concerts or so a year, perhaps three. “We like to keep the evening and choice of artists spontaneous,” she says, “Both artiste and audience are there for one purpose and one purpose only. The former makes sublime music, the latter listens with rapt attention, nothing intrudes, not even applause. The audience is extremely sensitive and connected to the artist, and indeed, after a most haunting piece comes to an end, the silence speaks volumes.”

A month ago, the Hayagriva Study Circle concluded a workshop on Bhakti and Sufi poetry and philosophy titled ‘Thirsty Fish’ with an evening of soulful singing under the Banyan tree at Kalakshetra. The place came alive with soulful renditions of the songs of Andal, Jayadeva, Kabir and Meera by Dr. SAK Durga, S. Hema, and Bonnie Chakraborty.

Vocalist Shantanu Bhattacharya, who recently performed at a concert organised by Dharmarajan, says he finds much joy in performing at home concerts. “In private gatherings, the atmosphere is more concentrated, focused and therefore easier and more enjoyable to perform in,” he says. Theatre artist Karthik Srinivasan, brother of Western classical pianist Anil Srinivasan, disagrees. Having attended quite a few home concerts, some at his own home, Karthik says, “There is no comparison. It is far more satisfying to perform before a large crowd; plus the acoustics are far superior in larger halls. Home concerts are like having Tendulkar play in your backyard… too much accessibility, you know? I feel such soirees denigrate both the performer and performance.”

While hosts and performers alike demur when it comes to disclosing the cost of such soirees, Bhattacharya says he charges more for auditorium shows than private ones because the first are usually sponsored and ticketed, and more professional accompanists and instruments are required.

So is there a disadvantage in performing at a private soiree? “House concerts cannot be as publicized as auditorium shows; therefore, although a great effort goes into the performance, it is not rewarded with media coverage or huge attendance of music lovers,” says Bhattacharya. Ganesan says concerts at auditoriums are okay  but rues undisciplined audience members who talk loudly to each other and on mobiles during the performance, and move in and out of the hall at will.

Which is why baithak organisers take pains to ensure that only genuine music lovers attend their sessions, so as to eliminate the shuffles and chatter that plague larger gatherings. Another factor common to all home concerts is that the performer is usually known to the host, or recommended by people whose word they trust. Increasingly, in a very healthy trend, lesser known musicians are invited, so as to provide a platform for them. Menon has the last word. She says, “All music is elevating, electrifying. But in an intimate gathering, it is simply wonderful.”

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