India's largest classical music festival adopts hybrid model this year with livestreaming, restricted seating

In its legacy of about eight decades, Bengaluru's Sree Ramanavami Global Music Festival has hosted around 400 artistes of national and international repute every year and an audience of around 6,000 people.

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya April 13, 2021 15:48:11 IST
India's largest classical music festival adopts hybrid model this year with livestreaming, restricted seating

Photo via Sree Ramaseva Mandali.

The 83rd Sree Ramanavami Global Music Festival is all set to begin on 13 April and will continue for a month until 13 May at the festival's usual venue: the Special Pandal, Old Fort High School Grounds, Chamarajapet, Bengaluru. Often considered the largest Indian classical music festival in the world, this year the Ramanavami festival is adopting a hybrid model — comprising both live and virtual performances — owing to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the state government.

Held under the aegis of Bengaluru's Sree Ramaseva Mandali, the festival has been at the forefront of preserving and promoting Indian classical music. Established in 1939 by Late SV Narayanaswamy Rao, the Ramanavami Festival has grown into a cultural institution that has hosted around 400 artistes of national and international repute every year and an audience of around 6,000 people. Noted Carnatic vocalist and Bharat Ratna awardee MS Subbalakshmi performed 32 concerts at the festival.

However, 2020 brought about a major shift in the festival, at least in the way it has been envisaged and executed all these years. Just a day before the commencement of the 82nd Music Festival, a nationwide lockdown was announced due to the coronavirus outbreak. "We still managed to pull off some concerts during the lockdown itself; we hosted around 10 virtual concerts and completed our 82nd festival," says Abhijith Varadaraj, executive officer, Sree Ramaseva Mandali, Ramanavami Celebrations Trust. This year, however, the trust had planned right from the start to make the festival hybrid in nature: While artistes would be physically performing at the Chamarajapet pandal, the landmark venue, audience members across the globe can access the concerts online on Shaale — an online Indian art and culture streaming platform.

Varadaraj, the grandson of SV Narayanaswamy Rao, says, "With COVID-19 cases decreasing in November-December, we thought we will somehow manage both virtual and physical audiences. But with the second wave now, our focus has again shifted to virtual." He further adds: "Usually in our venue we can accommodate around 6,000 chairs. But this year, keeping in mind everyone's safety and convenience we have reduced the seating to just 500 chairs. So while the venue, infrastructure and even the stage would remain the same as in previous years, the audience (at the venue) will be very limited." The ones purchasing the donor passes and patron passes will be given access to the venue, however, the Mandali is encouraging everyone to attend the festival virtually. Even though they have the provision of accommodating 500 people at the venue, they are expecting an overall turnout of over 6,000-10,000 people every day.

Organising a music festival amid pandemic

An event of this scale and reputation does come with its own set of challenges. Plus the ongoing pandemic and its restrictions only make it all the more difficult. Despite decreasing the headcount of the live audience members, Mandali has ensured all safety protocols as mandated by the government are in place. "The entire venue will be sanitised twice a day, before and after each concert. There are around 100 sanitising points across the venue. There is a gap of 6-7 feet in between each chair. Even though our entrances are huge, as a precautionary measure, we will make sure that people exit row-wise in order to avoid any crowding. Also, this time around, the audience and the artistes will be separated by a barricade so that there is no physical proximity between the two. Even on the stage, where previously artistes would sit close to each other during the performance, this time we have spread it out ensuring social distancing norms," explains Varadaraj.

Technologically too, taking the Ramanavami music festival online for viewers is an arduous task on its own. Skanda Anantha Murthy, founder — Shaale, says online performances and concerts have reached a saturation point currently. "A lot of performances are happening, most of them being free. A lot of content is being created on Facebook, YouTube but not many of them are of a decent quality. In all this mayhem, discovering good content is a challenge now. Plus it is very difficult to market these days," Murthy points out.

While Shaale has been at the forefront in handling online music festivals in the past, including this year's Saptak Annual Festival in Ahmedabad, they have never live-streamed a 30/31 day festival with each concert timed up to three hours. "Technically it's a challenge. We have to keep a check on the bandwidth because across the world we have users accessing it at the same time. Then it has to be live-streamed. It is not like YouTube or Facebook where all the infrastructure comes in for free. In an event like this which is ticketed and is behind a paywall, security is something we need to take care of, unintended access has to be avoided and also whoever has access must have a seamless experience. That's taking it to another level," says Murthy.

With just 500 chairs in the audience, Murthy feels there is enough room for a multi-camera set up without hampering the experience for the live audience. The entire footage will be live-streamed ensuring high-quality sound and video.

Indias largest classical music festival adopts hybrid model this year with livestreaming restricted seating

Still from a previous edition of the Ramanavami Festival. Photo via Sree Ramaseva Mandali

Live or online: What do audiences prefer?

"When you have an event of this calibre you wouldn't want to miss on the live-action," says 62-year-old Suryakala Chandrashekhar who has been attending all the concerts in the festival without fail for over 20 years now. She adds, "For many elderly people, travelling all the way to the venue could be a bit of a hassle. Booking cabs and going there — all of it could be challenging for many of them. Plus given the current situation, I doubt they would want to step out and would rather prefer to watch the concerts online from their homes."

The homemaker from Indiranagar says that since most of the people her age have already taken the vaccine, some crowd can be expected at the venue. As for her, she would make it a point to attend at least 2-3 concerts live — "the really good ones" — while the others she might catch online. "When it comes to those few excellent performers, as an audience member, I would definitely make it a point to watch them live."

For N Venkatesh, 50-year-old violinist from Rajajinagar, there is no other way of experiencing the Ramanavami Festival than to attend it live. He along with his entire family will be present at the venue for the concerts. "We haven't watched anything live in the last one-and-a-half year and listening to Indian classical music live is an experience that can't be replaced with anything else," he says. Further explaining the difference between live and online experience, Venkatesh adds, "Online concerts are very distracting. One might receive a call or a message anytime and thus it is rather very difficult to concentrate. Even for musicians, getting applause from the live audience after presenting an aalapana is a huge boost. Indian classical music is all about creating music on the spot, and that feedback from the audience plays an important role in that process."

Venkatesh's wife and 89-year-old father had both contracted the coronavirus last year and have come out of it successfully. "I don't feel scared anymore. We are anyway going to busy marketplaces, restaurants; using public transport where no social distancing norms are followed. When we can do that, why fear going to a place like the Ramaseva Mandali?" he remarks. He believes given the reputation of the organisation over the years, with meticulous execution of concerts in an open auditorium, distribution of tickets, organising parking spaces, it is certain that COVID-19 restrictions at the venue will also be on-point.

A 77-year-old CN Gururaj from Jayanagar gives a thumbs up to the hybrid model, especially in the wake of the pandemic. "I have been visiting the Ramanavami Festival since 1978 and I love listening to music. In my younger days, I would see most of these music programmes only had senior people of around 50-80 years of age, but now there are a lot of young audience members. The Ramaseva Mandali has been doing great work with encouraging and promoting young artistes also. Till last year they would allot 1-hour concerts for young artistes of 12-18 years," he mentions.

Taking the festival online would only mean that more people get to attend it and listen to music. "I am sure a lot of people would like to listen to concerts online. I have friends abroad who are very keen on attending it online," says the retired pharmaceutical marketing professional. He adds, "I have taken my two shots of the vaccine and I intend to attend it live. I have been told that all the necessary protocols have been taken care of and I trust the management. It's their moral responsibility and I am sure they are also interested in the health and welfare of the public."

Performing in a hybrid audience environment

"We prefer live audience, we are used to audience interaction. We all grew up performing at live concerts, not online audience," says noted violinist Mysore Nagaraj, of the Mysore Brothers duo. He believes performing live is the best option. In fact, according to him, the sanctity of Ramanavami Festival is based on the sheer quality of live performances.

"I prefer performing for a single person live, rather than performing for 10,000 people online," he says. "I am really glad that they have a hybrid structure. If I were in the decision-making body, I would have suggested not to have an online medium at all; they could record the whole thing and broadcast it later."

For Bangalore V Praveen, the celebrated mrudangam artiste, given the pandemic crises, we have to find a fine balance between online and live audiences. "Whether there are 5, 500, or 50,000 members in the audience, it is not a matter for the artiste. We shouldn't differentiate between live or online audience; we must remember that we have to perform and give our 100 percent," says Praveen. According to him while live reactions do boost and inspire the artiste on stage, one must also be open to and satisfied with feedback that comes online through social media.

He adds: "Live performances ensures nice interaction with the artistes and the audience. Yes, that's true. But now the situation is different. We have to adjust to government orders and comply with all safety protocols. We are absolutely helpless. At the same time, a hybrid model would prevent organisers from incurring losses at this moment. So we have to think about everyone."

Going forward

Of course, there is no denying that live performances and concerts will be there forever, but does the current crisis also open avenues for a newer format? Abhijith Varadaraj says the future will be hybrid. "Of course now once the pandemic gets over we will definitely focus on physical performances more, but going forward we will always have a provision for virtual medium, especially for people who cannot attend the festival every day because either they are senior citizens, or have tight work schedules, or face severe traffic problems on the way etc. So virtual is a big advantage," points Varadaraj.

In the long history of the Ramanavami Festival, the performances have never been archived. While there are 1,00,000 hours of a few selected performances recorded over the 80 years of the festival, it has never been a tradition to archive it. Varadaraj says the current repository only has clippings from the pre-2000 era and since then there has been an absolute prohibition on recording performances at the festival. "We respect the artistes' choice; some of them have personal reservations. Some have their own production shows, channels etc, so they don't want to jeopardise their personal platforms. And we respect that. This is the first time we are live-streaming. We won't archive it and so after the festival ends one cannot watch the shows," mentions Varadaraj.

Skanda Anantha Murthy of Shaale also believes that while there is no replacement for live performances, hybrid models are the new future. "Digital is just a fallback option. So if one attends a live performance, one can revisit and watch it again."

Explaining the registration process for the 83rd Sree Ramanavami Global Music Festival, Murthy explains: "Go to https://shaale.com/watch/ramanavami; sign up and create an account, buy access to the festival using multiple payment options and then login with that credentials and enjoy the performances. As of now, video on demand is for 48 hours, but we will most likely extend it to seven days. So beyond that one can't see anything. We will record everything, but it is up to the Mandali to decide whether they want to archive it or not."

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