By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Monday, December 31, 2012

Powerful Pipe And Pulverizing Percussion

Underlining the fundamental fact that the natural setting for naagaswaram music is the open air, I had told an interesting story (Dec. 29) about a concert I had heard in a New Delhi hill temple in 1986.  Now let me take you back another 15 years, to a concert organized in a Madras wedding hall in 1971, which I had reviewed in one of my earliest exercises in music criticism:

The Indian Express, Madras
24 July 1971

Outside the limits of loudness

Attending a concert at 6-30 p.m. on a weekday is not exactly a picnic for a white-collar worker .  He must rush to the concert hall after a taxing day in the office, and his condition generally is worn-out, if not quite jaded.  If the music happens to be overloud,  or overloaded with percussive effects,  his nerves do run the risk of being shattered.  Naamagiripettai Krishnan's naagaswaram recital at the Sahrudaya last Thursday evening was no tonic to my tired nerves.

The naagaswaram and the thavil are open-air instruments, which must have been devised by our ancestors of the pre-mike era specially to achieve a very high degree of volume and reach.  They sound at their natural best when performed in the streets to herald a ritualistic procession, or in the open courtyard of a temple or wedding venue.  If these instruments are to be concertized, a lawn would be a far better place than a hall;  and if the venue does have to be a hall, the least one would expect is that there are no microphones and loudspeakers.
The low-roofed Hema-Malini Kalyana-Mandapam on Lloyds Road, where Krishnan's recital was held, has a certain compactness about it which preserves the sound well in spite of the hall's wide-open sides.  The naagaswaram and thavil would have sounded too loud for comfort in this hall even without loudspeakers.  I was therefore surprised to find that Sahrudaya had arranged for amplification.

However, so loud was the direct sound transmission itself from the dais that I couldn't be quite sure whether the loudspeakers were actually functioning or not. . . .  The recital was not only overloud, but was also unduly weighted in favour of the percussive element. 

Accompanying Krishnan was star thavilist Valayappatti Subramaniam, who was extensively assisted by Tenchittoor Sundaram.  For the best part of the concert the accent was on rhythm rather than on melody. . . .  The marathon tani-aavartanam [solo session] of the percussionists, which lasted a full hour, was a serious distraction.

The tani, I must say, wasn't wanting in artistic touches.  But . . . .  hearing the bulldozer beats of the thavil exclusively for an hour can be as oppressive as standing close to a Boeing's engines in full blast!

In fairness to the artists, I must admit that there were many persons (including some prominent musicians) who seemed to relish the tani from beginning to end, enthusiastically keeping time and earnestly responding to every scholastic variation.

My point is not that the tani was  bad, but only that it was irrelevantly and discordantly expansive from the ordinary music-lover's point of view.  It was an excellent rhythmic exercise  --  comparable to a Pancha-vaadyam session  --  and would have been a fitting enterprise in the Music Academy's annual conference or in the Trichur Pooram.  But it was just far too heavy material for a mid-week city concert, that's all . . .

The wind instrument never came into its own after the pulverizing solo of the percussionists.  All told, the naagaswaram did not unfortunately emerge as the dominant factor in this concert, in spite of Krishnan's obvious competence and authority.  The cause was a costly strategic error on the part of the performers, which was no doubt occasioned by Valayappatti's towering reputation as a thavilmaster.

In the course of the concert I saw a conspicuous music critic pick up his chair and carry it to the breezy open space adjoining the hall, and sit down for a more subdued impact.  Many are this critic's opinions which I would like to dispute, but for once I couldn't help appreciating his thought and wishing that it had occurred to me first.  I soon followed his excellent example, and thereafter managed to stay within the limits of loudness.

Postscript, 2012
Over the 40 years which have passed after I registered that strong protest, the naagaswaram and thavil have  progressively acquired a status and niche as indoor instruments, usually with full amplification.  I do understand the compulsion of very highly accomplished artists to adopt the concert mode and gain great distinction as virtuosi. and I have nothing against concertizing naagaswaram music.  But I do insist that the organizers must adopt a single basic criterion which isn't negotiable, which is just that there should be no amplification of any kind.  Whether they are able to organize the performance on a lawn  or other suitable open-air space (which would be ideal), or must resort to some indoor venue or semi-outdoor space,  microphones and loudspeakers should be absolutely forbidden.   And that's what seems to be getting overlooked usually, with the inevitable result that the pipes and percussion merrily continue to pound and pulverize!

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