December 21 2008, 4 PM, The Music Academy, Chennai. There was a minute for the curtain to go up and our concert to start.
It was a moment that was filled with mixed emotions, of nostalgic memories that only heightened the sense of anticipation in me( Gayatri). The two bells signaling the time of commencement of concert, the hushed murmur of the filling audience behind the curtain - all this added to the swelling expectation in the air. As I looked around me, I could see my accompanists and co-artistes on stage filled with a similar anticipation - anxious and eager to give their best at what would be one of the most prestigious and important concert of the year for us. It was by no means my first concert; we had been here before several times, as violinists - accompanists as well as playing the duet, and vocalists. Yet it was a strange moment, a moment of quiet introspection on what this stage had meant to me through the years.
For a few seconds I let my mind go back to the first time I ascended the platform to perform here. It was 1991, and I was a slip of a girl, all of 15 years old, accompanying vocalist Balaji Shankar. Since then, every year, both Ranjani and I peformed as accompanists, sometimes twice in the same festival, for different main artistes- but what remained unchanged was the feeling of reverence that every musician had for this hallowed stage. When one sits here, one cannot help but muse on the fact that this is a dais that has been occupied by every single musical giant of carnatic music. This was the stage that shaped the careers of musicians who rose to leave their indelible mark on the carnatic music world. The stage that remained, and remains to this day, the single most prestigious venue, the single most awaited concert, the moment of reckoning for any musician! One thinks of occasions when the most eminent musicologists and musicians argued on topics, the expert committee who would sit through and arbitrate the proceedings of the morning lectures or lec-dems. These morning deliberations have many times, have been the basis for books and dictionaries on carnatic music. This was a stage that would bring butterflies in the stomach to the most seasoned of performers. And to think that we are another link in this wonderful tradition, inheriting the same platform...as I sat there, I was hit by a sensation so powerful - of immense pride, of a profound sense of humility, of a sense of responsibility and elation. That was the moment when the ball of anxiety inside me dissolved to give way to a sense of happy anticipation, a thrill of expectation, I suddenly couldn’t wait for the moment when the curtain would rise and we would start singing and revel in the joyful experience of sharing our music.
As young children, Ranjani and I have heard so many memorable concerts, mostly sitting on the stage, near the dais. As visitors from Bombay, to us, this unique feature of dais tickets, from where we could watch and listen to our favorite musicians from close quarters was a refreshing experience. One of my fond memories is that of Sri Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer whom Ranjani and I spotted sitting a few seats away in the first floor, his head sheathed by a muffler, listening quietly to a junior concert! Another unforgettable vignette is that of the packed hall and huge TV monitors in the parking area which was also packed to capacity during the concert of Sri Maharajapuram Santhanam. So when we performed our first vocal concert in the Music Academy in 2002, the overflowing auditorium and general clamour for seats, awakened a curious sense of deja-vu in me. After our concert here on December 25, 2003, a rasika came up to us and said,” The day is not far when you will sing at the evening slot”. As it happened, we sang our maiden senior slot concert the very next year! No matter how many times one performs to a house-full auditorium here, one can never get used to the exulting thrill and rush of adrenaline that performing here inevitably brings!
Today, the extraordinary fact about the Music Academy is not just its unmatched heritage that it can be justly proud of. Rather, it is the way in which this great sabha has re-invented itself, has become a standard-bearer in every sense of the term, and has defined, by example, what an ideal sabha can be like. This great renaissance, so to speak, has been possible because of the vision and dedication of the President Sri N Murali, and no less, his team of dedicated committee members. The sound system has been totally revamped with a top quality PA system. The schedule of back-to-back concerts does not leave the sound engineer any time for a sound check, which is vital for ironing out problems that crop up with changing dynamics. Yet, in those few minutes between concerts, the audio team ably led by the head sound engineer, flits between the stage and the sound booth, checking out monitors, and making sure that everything is in place. The sincerity and ability that they bring to the job at hand is heartening.
Every single detail has the same commitment to high standards. A notable feature is the valet parking service, which ensures that the musician doesn’t have to hunt around for a parking or go through the hassle of taking care of the car. The volunteers who wait to escort the artiste backstage and hospitably offer snacks and beverages, make sure that the artistes are in a relaxed mood before the concert.
Another notable improvement has been in ensuring that the musician gets a good attendance for the concert. Previously, most of the seats in the hall were reserved for members and season pass holders, substantially restricting the availability of daily tickets for interested rasikas. Often, the season pass holders or members would not turn up, thus putting the organizer and artiste in a situation which ironically combined an half empty auditorium and "tickets not available" board for those interested in buying daily tickets! For the past few years now, member or patron or pass holder, one is ensured of a seat only if he turns up in time for the concert. This has resulted in better turnout for the concerts. Nothing like a filled audience to motivate the performer!
The punctuality observed in the start and end time of the concerts at the Academy is a byword in the carnatic music world. The honorarium offered to the musicians is among the best in Chennai sabhas. Above all, it is the spirit of commitment, of sincere duty, devoid of vanity, a quiet reaffirmation of the best of values which the entire Music Academy team headed by Sri Murali exude, that make the sabha so special. We feel indeed proud of our association with this great institution, and pray that it will go from strength to strength; setting new standards in sabha culture that will be an inspiration to artistes and rasikas alike.