Carnatic music is all about team play, it’s about give and take between the players on stage, it’s about sharing etc. These are the expressions that are regularly heard from all of us carnatic musicians and it is true to a large extent. At the same time, there are a lot of inequalities, power games and irresponsible behaviour that takes place both on and off stage that go unnoticed and are today even accepted by all of us.
Yes, a concert is team play and the main singer or main performer is like the captain of a ship but does the captain exploit his position? Yes, he does. Right through the years, the main artist (this is an expression many accompanists don’t like) have used their position as the central figure in a concert to undermine the accompanists.
We, as the main performers, can easily prepare what we want to sing and throw it as a surprise to the violinist just to make him/her look incompetent. I am not saying here that surprises or challenges are not good; in fact they are important in bringing new ideas on stage, they add to the creativity on stage. It’s only when such things are planned just to bring down another person on stage that we find it difficult to accept. It’s the intention behind these actions that are a problem. This has happened before and is happening even today. We sing a complicated pallavi, a rare raga or extensive mathematical calculations (which can be easily prepared in advance) and sometimes the accompanist does find it difficult to cope, not because they are incapable, but the thought process in the mind takes a while for the transfer to the hand. Some of us make sure a mistake is committed, keep on singing complicated ideas until the point that the accompanist makes the mistake and then, of course, a smile of victory. Most accompanists actually need to be much more equipped than the singers. They must have such a strong grounding that they can respond to various styles, attitudes and requirements, yet we play mind games with them. Sometimes we make mistakes and give the accompanist an angry look as if to infer that the mistake came from them. This is disgraceful. So is this really team play? Are we really partners? I don’t know, but when we display such attitudes I find this whole team play concept a little utopian.
What about external attitudes? Many of us main artists do not pay our accompanists well. We expect the organisers to pay us handsomely but care very little about our accompanists. Why? Is it the arrogance that we are the main attraction in the concert? That people buy tickets to hear us, not the accompanists? May be. How right is this? There must be some balance between what we make and what we give the accompanists. We cannot accept Rs. 50,000 and pay our accompanist Rs. 500! This is nothing but exploitation. Even among organisers, there is a very lackadaisical attitude towards accompanists. Even today some organisations pay Rs. 400 to accompanists who accompany a star performer. This is honestly terrible. Sometimes we even make sure we ask a very junior accompanist to accompany us not necessarily because we see the greatness of his/her talent but more because we need not pay them much.
I wonder what the situation was in the past. From what we hear from many senior musicians, this was not the case before. The accompanists of yesteryears were paid in reasonable parity to the main performers. So why has it changed today? I think it has because carnatic music today is “main performer centric”. Very few people, both in the audience and among organisers, really understand the contribution of the accompanists to the concert. In the past organisers used to demand that they will have a certain singer only with a certain accompanist. Therefore they were aware. Today this hardly happens — probably in a few places but too few. Many times the hotels that are provided for the main performer are of a higher class than that of the accompanists. Cars of a better class are given to the main performer. This is as discriminatory as it can get and we don’t complain. We are as much party to this as anyone else. Therefore, the main performer is all who matters . This has to change. We cannot produce music alone, it is enhanced and embellished tremendously by our accompanists and we need the humility to accept it. There is also an urgent need for the audience and organisers to educate themselves so that they can understand the dynamics better.
I have discussed this with many accompanying artists but their attitude has been “very few main performers or organisers care, nobody will do anything”. This is a completely defeatist attitude. If all the artists come together and say that they will not perform unless a certain basic level of remuneration or travel and stay comforts are provided, it will find takers. In the long run, we all want great musicians on stage, so it will happen. People will care. I am sure everyone will rally around such a move in time.
Not devoid of blame
Sometimes accompanying artists also act in a manner that hurts sabha aficionados and singers. I have been told some artists have claimed charges for a higher class ticket on the train but actually travel by a lower class. Even better, accompanying musicians have told the singers that they are returning to Chennai the very night after the concert in a certain city but actually stayed back for another concert. These actions may be primarily because there is a feeling that they do not get what is due to them but at the same time, such things only make artists and organisers feel cheated.
Violin artists too have many such attitudes that affect the harmony. It’s an accepted norm that the length of the violin alapana is about sixty per cent in length of the singer’s but we do find that some people don’t really care much about this and in turn affect the concert. Some, while following the singer during an alapana, seem totally disinterested or play in an intrusive manner. Of course, all accompanists who accompany an artist don’t necessarily have to like the main performer’s music but there must be respect for music . If this is lacking then it gets very difficult. Many a time, they are just waiting for their solo turn. A concert is not a competition please, let’s not reduce it to that.
Some mrudangam artists sometimes play a different game. Many times the upapakkavadyam i.e. kanjira, ghatam or moharsing artist will be practically sitting for about one and half hours in a concert as he or she has been instructed by the mrudangam artist to play only when told. That is fine but if they are never told to play? Then? Why have them at all, might as well not have an upapakkavadyam.
The upapakkavadyam artists too are no angels. There are many cases where they accept two concerts on the same evening with hardly a gap of 10 minutes between them, knowing very well that they cannot reach the second venue in time. This means either they join the concert later on stage (this has happened to me) or they request the other artists to delay the start. This attitude is just not acceptable. Again, the reason for accepting so many concerts may be financial but this is not the way to solve that problem. There is also the issue of many ghatam artists not bringing a ghatam in the appropriate sruti. It is difficult to get ghatams for exact srutis but if they try and enquire in advance then they can make sure the ghatam is in tune. There are some artists who do this. A new menace nowadays is the cell phone. There are artists who send smses from the stage while the artists are singing an alapana. This is absolutely obnoxious, to use a mild term. So, obviously they don’t think they are an integral requirement in a concert which is a sad attitude to have. “Anyway there is a mrudangam to take care of things, I am only an addition”. If they themselves have such a casual attitude towards their role, how can they ever expect better stature etc. In my opinion any artist found doing this must be asked to leave the stage immediately by the other musicians.
You may wonder and say these things exist everywhere… Why make a big issue? Yes, it’s true they do exist everywhere but that does not make it right. Also I have found that they don’t seem to go away, and many artists of the coming generations are practising similar attitudes which only affects carnatic music. All of us make mistakes and ignore them thinking, so what? but don’t realise that many times these are carried on from generation to generation, ultimately settling in as accepted practice.
All these inequalities are probably only aberrations but I find it hard to believe that they will go away unless we all come together and feel the necessity. We, the main performers, must realise that we are all in it together to produce quality music, we should ensure that all the wonderful artists we play with are with us on and off stage, which means we take responsibility for them, if needed. Similarly I think accompanists also need to have a much more responsible attitude towards a concert. If we can all work towards this we will ensure that ultimately, the best music is produced with the most harmonious attitude. I am not asking for utopia but I am hoping for responsibility from all concerned.
Ultimately music is greater than all of us.