CACOPHONY IN CONCERTS: WHERE’S THE MUSIC IN THE MELEE?

Indian music, in some ways, thrives on a “vocal” audience, one that constantly engages with the artiste. Our musicians welcome audience appreciation in a lull between two sections of a song or composition. Regulars might request a special raga, politely enough, and the singer graciously obliges. There is none of the hushed separation of audience and artist that we associate with Western classical music, where a persistent cough might lead to death by piano wire. However, it helps to add that iconic Hindustani vocalist Kesarbai Kerkar was known to throw people out of her concerts if she was disturbed by their actions (and coughs).
But all nice things come in small quantities, and this includes liberties extended to an audience. Where does one draw the line between collegiality and outright chaos? It is often painful to see and hear uninitiated listeners pick up the “wah-wah” track and express their loud love for the artist at a crucial moment in the composition, perhaps in the last seconds of an electrifying piece that is about to reach fruition.
Carnatic vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan is a hardened concert musician and is tolerant of what he calls “audience idiosyncrasies”. In Chennai, where he lives, audiences are often knowledgeable and participate by keeping time with their hands and vocally expressing their emotions. The people who really irk Gurucharan are those who act out their Indian Parliament fantasies in concert halls, staging mistimed entries and walkouts. “There are no real regulations binding the Carnatic music audience, though one often wishes their behaviour matched international standards. Many of them sit through the raga alapana, but they leave the auditorium the moment the singer launches into the kriti. The people who walk in are still okay. It is most irritating to see people leave the hall! I wish they’d sit through an entire piece and leave in the interval between pieces," he says.
While the bathroom singers of the world unite and torment inanimate buckets and other echo-inducing objects, they know the limits of their tyranny. For some, the concert hall is their bucket and the poor musician on stage is that fleeting choking sound which sends fallen hair and phlegm down the drain. They are eager to sing along, regardless of how their neighbours feel about it. The musician you may have set your heart on hearing involuntarily takes on a voluntary accompanist, who will hum and execute poor imitations of the real thing.
Lastly, that potent device of modern-day concert torture, the mobile phone, uses superior concert-hall acoustics to its advantage, making every ring shriller, every note of the latest chartbuster louder and clearer. A decade's worth of announcements asking people to drug their phones to sleep still leave a few truant ringing phones. What’s more, some people might actually take calls and discuss important things like the dinner menu. Plunging into the melee quite inadvertently are the neighbours of the guilty, who take it upon themselves to whistle and shush phones and their owners into silence.
What would Kesarbai do? Confiscate their phones? We are but one happy family. And yes, we love speaking out of turn.

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