As COVID-19 halts live performances, an opportunity for musicians to engage more deeply with their art

Concerts may be hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, but it also offers musicians a chance to reach for their own light and find their roots without the demands of an audience and organisers.

Lakshmi Sreeram November 02, 2020 13:22:14 IST
As COVID-19 halts live performances, an opportunity for musicians to engage more deeply with their art

Mughal miniature style painting of Akbar and Tansen visiting Swami Haridas in Vrindavan. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Ever noticed how places and things look so much better in photographs? Books, paper, pens, coffee mugs strewn about on the familiar study table set against the window, when captured in a photograph, attain a casual sophistication. Like something out of the movies.

Not people! Especially in ID photos. People tend to look like duds or burglars or like someone who has just gotten high. Either the smile is too smug or too constipated, the eyes too wide open or too droopy, nose flared out, chin twitching, neck too far out, double chin too prominent — it is always too something. I always feel disheartened when the security guard looks at my photo ID and then glances up at me and nods. Do I really look like that! Of course, I am sunk if he thought I did not. But I am prepared for a scene in which I would demonstrate and convince him that I am really the same person.

So, what gives? Why does a table look classy in a photo while humans look like they have just had the worst day? Self consciousness. That is the killer. Since the table is not conscious, it cannot look constipated. But how does it get an added sheen? That I believe is what framing does.

Self consciousness is also what kills a music performance. Anxiety and terror about the voice, or the fluidity of the hands if playing an instrument, possible choking of ideas, forgetting — all these kill the flow. The veteran has overcome these fears but alas where the spirit is now free, the body is aged.

Sheila Dhar, in her captivating book, Raga and Josh, describes a recording for the radio when she is painfully conscious about her looks, not helped by the make-up artist who assures Dhar that she has worked on people worse looking. When Dhar talks to her Guru about her ordeal, he tells her singing is like a prayer — does it matter what people think of you when you are praying? What they think of your looks or your clothes? You are trying to reach out to something far greater and grander.

What of the performer’s anxiety about what and how she is singing? Never mind the looks — the facial contortions of musicians while singing clearly indicate that they don’t care about how they look. But surely the anxiety about the music that they are producing is justified and harder to overcome? But the prayer analogy is useful here too. Your prayer is between you and the maker — judgement of another doesn’t come into the picture. Whether your prayer is petty or profound, whether it is going to be granted or not, none of that matters. The intensity of the prayer matters. So, also, one must sing shutting out all else, others' glances, others’ judgements. Is that possible?

One always seeks something extra musical from the performance. Praise, fame, success. This is like a crane who, having discovered a lotus, sits upon it or like a frog who preens on the lotus — what do they know of the lotus’ worth? So sang Tyagaraja somewhat cryptically in that gem of a composition — 'Swara Raga Sudharasayuta Bhakti' in Sankarabharanam. Perhaps his intent was that only the bee can find the nectar inside the lotus. A crane and a frog too are creatures of water and can find a lotus, but they don’t know or seek its nectar. What the bee knows and finds, the crane and the frog are clueless about. When music can bestow liberation, these cranes and frogs are oblivious to its true riches. Singing for fame or money equals crane finding the lotus according to Tyagaraja. Elsewhere, Tyagaraja says that the vessel that contains milk, does it know its taste? So also the musician hankering after fame — he has in his grasp something that can offer him salvation itself, deliverance. And he seeks money and fame? When a Carnatic musician today sings such compositions in a big auditorium at a big festival where he would have gotten not by paying attention to the nectar, the irony of it is not negligible.

Legends and lore are filled with this contrast — musician seeking transcendental rewards and one seeking ephemeral, earthly ones. The Swami Haridas and Tansen legend is one such when Akbar and Tansen are listening to Swami Haridas’ sadhana without announcing their presence. Akbar demands to know what bestows that quality in Swami Haridas’s music and why Tansen’s music, despite having been his student, was several notches below. And like all pithy and immortal lines Tansen says: “Jahanpannah, I sing for you; he sings for the Maker.” Fortunately, Akbar was a believer unlike Hiranyakashipu — else Tansen would have invited upon himself the furies of an emperor insulted.

Even without such a belief, it is true that the riyaz or practise sessions of many musicians yield sublime music unimaginable in a concert setting. Violinist VV Subrahmanyam recounted that Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was once visiting a small town for a concert in which he was to accompany on the violin. The afternoon coffee had been served and Srinivasa Iyer, sitting on the swing in the verandah of the host, coffee in hand, launched into an impromptu alapana of the ragam Kaapi which flowed non-stop for 45 minutes. He stopped only because he had to get ready for the concert.

Without concerts during these COVID times, musicians are hard hit. But it also offers them an opportunity to engage deeply with their art. To reach for their own light and find their own roots without the demands of an audience and organisers.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at larasriram14@gmail.com

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