My friend R & I attended a concert of Carnatic Music celebrating the monsoon season. This concert series is happening at various venues across India, featuring different maestros. The concert we attended was in Bangalore’s Chowdiah Memorial Hall — it’s the Lincoln Center of B’lore. The building is in the shape of a violin, with the main entrance under the scroll, and it was built as a tribute to the late violin maestro, T. Chowdiah. Our maestros for the monsoon performance were Abhishek Raghuram (vocalist) and Hariprasad Chaurasia (flutist).
Carnatic music is based on swara (single notes) that are relative to each other, rather than at specific frequencies. The swara are said to be rooted in natural sounds from birds & animals. Throughout a song there is a droning tone in the background, made with a tambura. The tambura’s strings are continuously plucked to maintain a consistent hum — it reminded me of the buzz of locus or cicada in the summertime. This is the backbone of all the songs, vocal or instrumental. The vocal performances start with a series of scale-like swara, then move into narrative lyrics sung in ragas (series of swara in a specific order, like the melody). The tambura and violin play accompaniment throughout vocal & instrumental performances. The drummer joins the performance only after the lead (vocalist/flutist) has warned up the audience.
I was told that the lyrics of one of the songs thanked Lord Krinshna for the rain, which made sense given the monsoon theme. I appreciated the new experience of listening to the vocal performance, but I confess that I enjoyed the performance of flutist more than the vocalist. I couldn’t shake my western sense that most of the vocal notes sounded a little flat. (For a less charitable bit of music criticism, a friend made this quip when I told her about my evening plans: “Enjoy the dying cat sounds!”)
Aside from the music, I noted some differences from performances in the US: artists perform seated on the floor of the stage; violins are played like upside cellos resting on the musician’s lap, not lifted shoulder high; house lights get dimmed slightly but never go dark; audience members come & go freely throughout the performance (not just between pieces or at intermission — which may explain why the house lights stay on throughout); and there is no overpriced bar in the lobby (just a very reasonable tea stand in the garden).
I enjoyed the evening and got two CDs by Hariprasad Chaurasia. (I know, so old school in the age of mp3 !) I liked the Chowdiah Memorial Hall as a venue –the acoustics seemed good and there isn’t really a bad seat in the house. I will look for more performances there. Plus, I had a lot of fun hanging with my friend R.