Sunday, June 6, 2010

Royal Quandary

A week ago, I attended a concert by a scion of the Travancore royal family at our local temple. To me, it was a double anticipation, not only of letting the music wash over me, but of maybe hearing echoes of my guru, who had also taught the vocalist during the same years that I was learning from him.
With my usual penchant for rushing around with near-misses, I almost crashed into the gentleman and his accompanists as I made a bee-line for the auditorium, angling for a good seat before the crowds came in.
He had just taken off his sandals to enter the temple.  I slowed down, trying not to trip on the piles of footwear in my path.Would we start on time, or was it to be Indian Standard Time (aka 1/2 -1 hour late)?
I entered a dark auditorium, along with another couple. No one else was there, just a lit stage and dimmed lights. We sat there, patiently waiting for more audience to materialize. It was, after all, a long weekend, with a heavy out-of-town crowd and overflowing parking lots to match.
Slowly a few more people started creeping in. One lady sat near me. "This isn't enough crowd. Let me go and ask my husband to make an announcement." After multiple announcements, about  fifteen minutes later, the crowd reached a respectable level.  It was almost time for the 6 pm concert to start.
The accompanists (violin and percussion) entered, quite regal in their stride and attitude. A little further behind, very unassuming in dress and demeanour, came the star of the show. As he walked down the aisle towards the stage, the cultural events committee chair (or whatever his official title is) came rushing up and conferred with him in whispers. The chairman took to the mike for an announcement.
"We are sorry to be unable to start on time. The temple event is getting delayed and we can't start till it is completed. The concert will likely be able to start around 7 pm."
Everyone in the audience looked a bit blue in the face. Asking an audience to sit for an extra hour waiting for a concert that they had taken pains to be on time for isn't the happiest of situations.
"Of course, we have to wait for the Lord's events to be complete. What is a concert delay in the face of that?", the chairman attempted some philosophizing levity, which fell flat.
The vocalist and accompanists were fussed over and pampered, in exchange for the delay. "Coffee, tea...". A few new arrivals elicited a buzz of excitement. Some of them had driven very far for the concert and photo ops and happily posed away for the photographer clicking away studiously.
"All clear, the event at the temple is over, you can start the concert now." This was after 45 minutes of watching the schmoozing. Big sigh of relief all around, as the artistes took to the stage.
The concert started off briskly, with a composition by his illustrious ancestor from a couple of hundred years ago, until it started going awry. What should have been a short succinct exposition went on and on and on, endlessly, as he descended into technical dissections of the notes delineating the raga. It was an extraordinary mimicking of the technique of his most recent guru. This guru wasn't the same as our common teache; he is a musician and composer of immense fame and equally immense ego, whose instruction seems to have completely taken over the style in which his pupil sings. Unfortunately, it is not a style that is easy on the listeners, demanding that they accept the contortions and twistings of the basic notes of the raga, technical excellence in exchange for the soul of the raga. Many years ago,I have once walked out on a concert of this last guru, uncomfortable with the turn taken by the music, which was hard on my relatively-inexperienced ears. I suppose it is to the credit of the disciple that I could survive staying through his whole concert.
Echoes of my own guru came faintly in the ever-popular 'Endaro mahanubhavulu', but it is too well-known a song for clear identifications of the style of singing as proceeding from one teacher. That was perhaps the only composition sung that adhered to classical norms. Almost all the rest took on strange forms, familiar yet unfamiliar, as the comfort zone of those of us in the audience who were steeped in multiple renditions of the old favorites was totally washed away.
The only respite we had were the interludes of stricter classicism practiced by the violinist and mridangam player. The singer had us as a semi-captive audience, not daring to walk out (except, I did sneak out briefly to eat in the cafeteria, something which I don't normally do, but deemed wise in this case, not wanting to risk a headache on the long drive back home).
The front-seaters sat nodding and tapping with every appearance of enjoyment, while I closed my eyes and wondered when the gimmickry would end. It did, around 9 pm, when the 'cultural committee chair' once again took to the stage briefly as a burly gentleman in utility clothes showed up with a slip of paper.
It was  a warning that 'license plate XYZ from Michigan was being towed and if the owner was in the audience, would they please come out'. Nobody rushed out. The concert would continue, as the singer took special requests from the audience, who were apparently very well-versed in some more obscure songs that I had never heard before.
The vocalist wondered aloud: "Shall I end it now, I thought that the other person was a bouncer that was sent to clear me off the stage", as the audience laughed. And so it was time to end, even over the raucous protests of a few who wanted to hear their (and the singer's ) favorite raga.
"Another time", promised the prince."The next time may be 15 years from now, considering that the last time I sang here was 15 years ago."
CCChair (during the Vote of Thanks) :" We have been regaled by a prince, where in an earlier time, it would have been roles reversed."
On looking back, that was very true of this concert. The singer was less of a professional who had an audience to please and more of a connoisseur of his own and the accompanist's performance on stage. He had fun, the audience perhaps less so.  The upshot, I think, is that he conveyed an inimitable sense of enjoying what he did, without the airs of more practiced musicians.


Lekhni said...

I've heard too, that Rama Varma is utterly unassuming. He is a good friend of my aunt & uncle, and I've heard that from the way he dresses to his behavior, it's easy to forget he's a Prince. There are some youtube videos of him which also show him expounding a bit.

Sujatha said...

I did find him utterly unassuming and quite friendly and charming. But onstage, his persona is that of the gifted amateur and connoisseur, rather than the professional. I've heard that he had to struggle to get permission from his family to perform to the general public, and maybe the lack of extensive exposure has something to do with that, as well as the toned-down critiques that invariably ensue when critics don't wish to offend.
As for his current guru, the redoubtable BMK, there's music royalty onstage, with all the accompanying airs on and off it ;)