Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

When speeches trump music

By Priya Purushothaman

Do we go to concerts to hear the self-congratulatory speeches of organisers and their cronies, or the much-anticipated music of the invited artists?

This scenario has become the reality for the vast majority of concerts being presented in Bangalore in the last few years. It’s time for organisers to take a step back and look at the decisions they make and whom they serve. 

At a recent concert of a very prestigious musician organised by another well-established musician, concertgoers would have witnessed the following: 40 minutes of speeches, including a special felicitation of the artist, a general speech by another respected musician who is not related to the function in any way, a speech by the President of the venue, overall commentary by a flowery yet verbose MC, another MC for artist introduction, and garlanding and shawl presentation to all four VIPS sitting on stage. Meanwhile, the artist is sitting on stage, blatantly looking at his watch and wondering how much music he should play, should his chance ever come. 

What was the content of these speeches, you may wonder. There are some speakers who can really shed meaningful insight on the artist or art, setting a wonderful atmosphere for the concert. But when a speech is just a platform to speak about yourself, or share old, irrelevant anecdotes, or even extensively praise the organisers for their effort, what purpose does that serve other than self-promotion and patting backs? 

The focus has completely shifted away from the artist and his art.

At the end, the artist has lost whatever inspiration he may have received from his felicitation because of the litany of speeches that followed. The time allotted to him has been severely eaten into by so many formalities that he presents a very abbreviated rendition. The modern artist is also in a position of tremendous dependence on these organisers for opportunities, as concerts and funds are few and the market is fiercely competitive. Thus, he remains silent. 

Audiences who have chosen to spend their fairly limited free time to hear quality music, have presumably travelled through traffic and other obstacles of modern day living, only get to hear 45 minutes or so of a raga. 

How have we reached this place and why do we continue to stay there?

We have assimilated so many Western elements into the modern concert scenario. Our music, which was always in a mehfil or baithak setting (chamber music), moved into big concert halls and therefore used amplification. Clapping in between pieces, let alone within the same piece, was a completely foreign habit that overtook the custom of verbal appreciation that fit the chamber context. Whether these were for better or worse is another debate, but we have accepted these as consequences of musical evolution. 

Why then, do we not try to incorporate some aspects of Western concert presentation that could enhance our experience without taking away from the music or the tradition? Why not remove the obligatory speeches and begin directly with music exactly at the publicised time? Most concerts present souvenirs or brochures with artist and organisation info – why read the same text out loud and waste the artist’s precious concert time? Why honour VIPs in many cases who are totally unconnected to music except through money or influence – and put the audience through the ordeal of witnessing empty gestures? Acknowledgments can be made in print, even if not in a brochure, in the event flier, or in the banners that hang on many stages. Most times, they are in all these places and mentioned repeatedly in speeches.

In Indian culture, according respect to guests of any sort is taken very seriously. Let us apply this value to our artists too in the relevant way. Other than the show of garlands, shawls, and lamp lighting, treat them well by paying attention to every detail related to their concert engagement. First and foremost, compensate them well for their service. Arrange high quality accommodation, transport wherever required, see that they are comfortable and happy in their short stay. Personalise interactions with them so they do not feel abandoned in an unfamiliar place. Be selective about choosing a venue that fits the ambience of the music, that is clean and has green rooms and toilets that are clean, and a sound system that will not jeopardise the whole concert. 

Ultimately, a happy artist translates to an inspired performance. Isn’t this what we all want?

(The author is a Hindustani vocalist)

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