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How Malavika Sarukkai led me first to heaven, then to hospital
- Bruno Kavanagh

December 20, 2011

A plea for lower volumes in Carnatic music and classical dance presentations

Last Sunday morning I found myself deep inside the marvelous Malar Hospital in Adyar, where a doctor was probing my right ear with a long and pointed implement. He was attempting to remove a foreign object that had become lodged far inside my aural canal, dangerously close to the ear drum.

As he calmly and competently went about his work, I asked myself the question: "Am I the first person in history to be hospitalized as a result of attending a Bharatanatyam performance?"

Perhaps I should provide some context to this bizarre turn of events: my injury was sustained during a performance the previous evening by Malavika Sarukkai at the Sri YGP auditorium. It was self-inflicted: as is frequently the case at Carnatic concerts and dance recitals in Chennai, I had found the volume from the speakers stacked beside the stage (and throughout the auditorium) unbearably loud. But rather than complain, or leave (since I very much wanted to see Malavika perform) I decided that the best way forward would be to stuff the well-chewed corners of a paper napkin into each of my ears, to filter out the excess sound.

And it worked! Through the agency of my improvised ear-plugs I was able to listen closely to the subtle interplay between the fabulous musicians, and pick out details of expressive colour and phrasing that would have been entirely lost to my unprotected ears, bludgeoned as they would have been by the surfeit of immoderate noise that has, alas, become the norm even in Chennai's most venerable sabhas. But this time, watching Sarukkai move in relative quiet, and being able to appreciate her teasing dialogues with each of the musicians during extended and exquisitely-paced sequences of sanchari, I felt I had begun to understand at last what it means to experience rasa.

My problems began as the house lights came back up: I found I couldn't remove the pellet of paper wedged deep inside my right ear. However, for even an ephemeral glimpse of what it means to be a rasika, my trip to the Malar hospital the next morning was a small price to pay.

But my question stands: Why on earth should I find it necessary to plug my ears in the first place?

The remarkable Ms. Sarukkai prefers to speak of "experience" rather than "performance" when describing her work. From a lesser artist, this might perhaps seem self-important, even pretentious. But Sarukkai has unapologetically resisted the idea that Bharatanatyam can be presented as entertainment. Her currency is bhakti - and through her art she makes it ours too. And this - the bhakti with which she is able to inspire us - is what I understand to be the true meaning of rasa.

Rasa, then, is perhaps the most precious reward that art can offer us. But it is not a gift - it is a deal. It needs to be negotiated: listening and looking are not passive processes. And yet, how can this delicate two-way transaction between performer and spectator be nurtured in an environment where sound levels are so high? So excessive, in fact, that mobile telephones are frequently answered during performances with insouciance, and impunity. (Not just left on by mistake, mind you - answered!)

My plea to the classical music and dance community is a straightforward one: please re-calibrate the volume at concerts and performances to a more human scale. Put more simply: PLEASE TURN DOWN THE SOUND! I'm not alone in making this request: in a recent article in The Hindu (see 'The aesthetics of Carnatic concert music,' December 16, 2011) Uday Shankar writes of what he calls a"cycle of desensitization" that afflicts classical audiences in Chennai. Excess volume damages - in fact destroys - many if not all of the subtle possibilities of shading, phrasing and musical colour. To put it another way, are true rasikas aware of the riches that await them if the culture evolves - perhaps better to say returns - towards a more gentle, organic sound? A sound that was savoured in the temples and sabhas of the pre-electric past?

I am aware that Chennai is not currently blessed with acoustically refined venues in the same way that many Western cities are. Clearly some form of sound enhancement will be required, especially in the partially outdoor sabhas (the Sri YGP auditorium, with its whirring ceiling fans and the noise leaking in from the road outside is a good example). But there's a yawning abyss between moderate "sound enhancement" and cranking up the volume to rock-concert levels. I've heard it said, even by some leading figures on the music scene, that Chennai doesn't have the equipment, or the expertise, to do better. I beg to differ: the sound balance at Sarukkai's concert was perfectly acceptable, even good (when heard through ear plugs). The quality of amplification wasn't bad either - there was none of the distortion which so often blights concerts here. In cases like this the solution couldn't be easier: just turn the volume down - way down - and you've fixed the problem.

So why don't more rasikas complain? I read frequently that the Chennai audience is lauded by performers (including, recently, Ms. Sarukkai) as "the most knowledgeable in the world." Doubtless true. But inherent within knowledge of this type, perhaps, is the danger of too much comfort - a kind of cosy familiarity that can numb the critical faculties. This is the case within every culture, where classical art forms can come to be appreciated by an 'inside' audience who, consciously or otherwise, carry a rigid expectation that presentations must conform to accepted norms, regardless of their authenticity, or value. And there is no way that excessive amplification can be considered valuable to Carnatic music and dance - let alone authentic. This is a recent cancer that needs to be aggressively attacked.

My passionate belief is that, at lower volumes, audiences will be induced to come towards the performance: literally, metaphorically and spiritually. All those cellphones would be switched off, and the attention of each spectator would be tightly focused on forming a connection with the performer's bhava, and the subtle interplay of instrumentation. This, I venture to suggest, might lead even experienced rasikas towards immeasurable, perhaps unexpected, delights as they encounter fresh beauty inside the art they love.

Poor Bruno! He didn't know that the audience who attend Carnatic music concerts and Bharatanatyam performances are actually deaf or half-deaf!
- Usha (Dec 22, 2011)

A bit sad to post a comment on my own article perhaps....but needs must. I'd like to know if anyone reading this blog was at TM Krishna's concert at Krishna Gana Sabha yesterday (Tues 27/12). The sound was just awful. Not just too loud (that's a given I guess) but with terrible distortion in the middle frequencies. Unlistenable. Awful. Awful. Awful.

Were you there? Do you agree? And (whether you were there or not) does this issue bother you? (I'd be equally interested if you disagree - I'd be fascinated to hear a coherent, credible explanation for why these terrible sounds are acceptable). In my view, it's a travesty, a perversion of a venerable art form. Don't great artists like TMK and Aruna Sairam give a damn about what it sounds like out there in the auditorium? They should care! So what if (as I've heard said) it's "what people are used to"? People should know better and it's up to premier artists to educate their tastes. To serve up any old audio slop because it's "what people are used to" is pandering, and patronising.

Bottom line: what is being produced here is NOT MUSIC. It pains me to say this about an artist of TM's calibre (let alone Aruna Sairam, whose recordings I adore). But there you go.

(One more observation...contra Usha's point seems that the audience is not, in fact, entirely deaf. In my section of the crowd at KGS I counted at least 15 people with fingers stuffed deep inside their ears!)

So who's with me on this? Anyone? If so, I invite you to get in touch at My brothers and sisters....we can start a campaign for a return to the natural sounds of music. (Catchy acronym suggestions for our movement are welcome. How about P.L.U.G.S - "People for the Lowering of Unbearable Gamakam Sounds"? Or "Demand for the Evolution of Audio Finesse" (D.E.A.F.)?

But seriously: are there any takers for an unplugged Carnatic concert? Any suggestions for artists (or venues) that would be prepared to take this RISK (and heroically rescue Carnatic live performance in the process) are most welcome. Let's make it happen!

Together, we can (quietly) make a difference....
- Bruno Kavanagh (Dec 28, 2011)

I agree with you,entirely. I hear you, LOUD and clear. :)
I have often wondered why the volume is always high and unbearable in Indian programs (not just music concerts, in dance recitals too and just about any program, actually). Many of my friends have agreed that the volume is loud, but have told me that it is not unbearable. There have been many dance programs where I wished I could just bring down the volume to zero (yes, zero!) so that I could watch the dance in peace!

I think we need to look into the general Indian attitude towards things - say food, clothing, decorations, for instance. Everything is almost always "high" - meaning overdone, bright, loud, garish, isn't it? A typical bride - wears the most ornate saree her parents can afford to buy for her, and then wears as much jewelry as she possibly can, puts on heavy make-up, does up her hair with jewelry (again!) and goes on. What about food? Unless a person is sick and has been ordered by a doctor to eat bland food, most dishes are high in all kinds of spices - altogether drowning the taste of the vegetable or grain that was the main ingredient. Tasted baingan bartha? :) And decorations? I think you get my point.

There seems to be an irresistible need to be louder, brighter, faster....etc, with no sense of direction or purpose. As you pointed out, I too wonder - doesn't an artiste of T.M.Krishna's caliber ever wonder how his singing sounds in an auditorium when he has the volume sky high? The music is definitely lost completely. It is just one big noisy mess, just like baingan bartha is one huge spicy mess (IMHO).

Elegance and simplicity in style and presentation are few (Kalakshetra programs come to mind, but here again, I am not that sure about the volume levels in their presentations! Their visual presentation is definitely elegant and pleasing to my eyes, never overdone) and rare.

I think that over the years, people's ability to hear has gone down, thanks to setting the volume high in the television sets in their own homes and consequently, everyone has become partially deaf! Maybe it is time to reverse this process by lowering the volume and forcing everyone to strain their ears and listen carefully and re-learn the listening process.

Until then, those of us who find the volume levels unbearable will have to resort to listening to our favorite musicians in the comfort of our homes.
- Anu Samrat (Dec 29, 2011)

Oh, how I agree with you. I'm just done documenting an eight-day Odissi festival with terrible sound and sometimes, bad music. Go PLUGS!
- Ranjana Dave (Jan 1, 2012)

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