An idol among TV shows
The second season of the reality show Carnatic Idol that concluded on Jaya TV was a resounding success going by contestant participation, musicians’ endorsements and public attendance. The brain behind the show, SUBHASREE THANIKACHALAM is euphoric. GAYATHRI SUNDARESAN interviewed her. Some excerpts.
A reality show on TV for a classical art! What made you think of this?
I would say Carnatic Music Idol was triggered by vidwan Sanjay Subrahmanyan. While discussing ways of enhancing the proportion of classical arts in the media with him, I got the idea of doing a reality show for Carnatic music. Film music reality shows are actually very unreal. Children are misled into seeing themselves as stars, and then get lost within a year. Music cannot be a quick fix. Seeing children cry because they can’t sing a “kuthupaatu”, I said why not make them cry trying to sing a Bhairavi or a Todi!
What is special about the programme?
We focused on the different types of compositions in Carnatic music like varnam and kriti, and also the various aspects of the idiom, like raga alapana,kalpanaswara and niraval. Many aspects of a formal concert were not being addressed in earlier shows. I am well aware that a heavy duty piece like ragamtanam-pallavi may not go down well with the masses.I may even lose a section of the audience that has been painstakingly built in the past few years.
In Idol I took a bold step to introduce even ragamtanam-pallavi, making it one of the important rounds in the finals. It is heartening that the general audience is learning to appreciate a pallavi, understand a trikalam.Through the demands of the judges people came to know about eduppu, keezhkalam, melkalam and other details. The panel of judges contributed immensely by spoonfeeding the public with a lot of information in small doses. There is an opinion that the judges were too critical and passed harsh comments. In fact, vidwanM. Balamuralikrishna said he was happy he was not one of the contestants!
Why is it necessary to cosset the participants?
SubhasreeThanikachalam - Traditionally it has been our culture to bring up children with a strict hand, imparting a sense of values that builds humility and strength of character. We are misguiding children in the name of undue encouragement.
How did you come into the media?
Watching programmes during the early years of satellite TV, I used to crib about the shoddy presentation and how it needed improvement. My husband prodded me to enter the arena and prove myself, rather than sit at home and pass comments. Armed with my experience in such shows in college and film music troupes, I joined Sun TV in 1993.
The medium was fresh and new ideas were welcomed. I was lucky to enter the field at that stage. My first venture was SaptaSwarangal, the mother of all the reality shows we watch today. Classical music took the stage on TV with this programme. For the first time classical musicians were invited as judges for a film music show.
What made you focus on the classical arts?
Classical music was hardly my cup of tea during my childhood. I graduated in Dietetics and Nutrition, subjects related to the medical profession. My father, an ardent lover of Carnatic music, persuaded me to attend concerts. Though familiar with the genre through learning Bharatanatyam, I was more inclined on the sets of a show toward film music, a devotee of Ilayaraja’s music. I had a good voice for light music and participated in school and college programmes, winning many competitions.I was also part of a troupe performing film music. In that journey, I found greater adherence to classical music in earlier music directors like G. Ramanathan. The beauty and melody of these songs made me gravitate towards classical music.
I learnt Carnatic music from my neighbour RajamMami who adapted her teaching to suit my inclination. Mami, while peeling potatoes for crisp, mouth-watering curry, would make me playfully apply my mind to the music wafting from the radio in the background,to identify a Kambhoji against a Sankarabharanam. Instead of boring me with rounds of repetitive varisai-s, she taught me hundred raga-s through the sloka-s of SaundaryaLahari, likening them to familiar film tunes, to boot! My father aroused interest in me for classical music,andRajamMami cultivated it. I owe it all to these two people in my life.
How and when did you start your own company?
SaptaSwarangal had a successful run for seven years. It was now time to move on. With V.K. Manimaranas partner, I floated the company Maximum Media in 2000. Our first venture was a classical music programme, of course. The Navaratri concerts for Vijay TV presented top Carnatic musicians every day from MahalayaAmavasya to VijayaDasami. Songs on Durga-Lakshmi-Saraswati were recorded in the studio,and two songs by each singer were presented every day.This was a super hit, as the audience was craving for quality programmes of classical music.
How have you kept pace with changing audience interests, to sustain the response to classical music?
The success of the Navaratri series encouraged me to try something on a larger scale – a 15-day festival of Carnatic music, with all top rung artists performing.The recording of the live performance would be telecast over 15 days, for an hour every day. Held during the peak music season, it would be called MargazhiMahotsavam. Vijay TV gave me complete support for the project in the first year.
The doomsayers around me all but wrote it off, told me to forget the whole project. But I was so convinced about the viability of my idea that I offered to meet the expenses as my investment in the business, if the channel would only pay the artists.
And that is how MargazhiMahotsavam took off in 2000. The company had to suffer losses for four years as the show took a beating commercially, thoughthe crowds and the show’s popularity were steadily increasing. We stabilised by the fifth year. And now, there are umpteen agencies wanting to do shows on the same lines. This is what I had dreamt of – that serious music should come to the limelight.
MargazhiMahotsavam does seem to have become a popular series during the season. What is the USP of the show?
MargazhiMahotsavam features thematic concerts with an added dimension that is appealing. Artists too are very cooperative and do a lot of homework on their presentation. In fact, they decide upon a theme of their choice a year ahead! While these performances add to their popularity, it is also true that they cannot afford to be casual about it. This is a documented record and the reach of the show is not limited to Chennai or Tamil Nadu, but goes out to the whole world.
The question-answer session is another attraction. We collect questions from the audience about an hour before the concert ends. We have a panel to select meaningful questions to be posed to the artist. The best questions are awarded prizes too. People are eager to see themselves on TV, and this is another reason for their attending our concerts. They are also excited about sharing their happiness and throng the audience mike to express themselves.
Is this the only major Carnatic music show your company produces?
Our telecast of the ClevelandTyagarajaAradhana is another Carnatic programme we are proud of. I learnt in 2003 that V.V. Sundaram had been organising the Aradhana for more than two decades, unmindful of personal expenditure. Completely bowled over by his commitment, Manimaran and I honoured him during the MargazhiUtsavam that year. I approached him suggesting that exposure on TV might bring more visibility to the programme. That same year the entire Aradhanawas telecast on Jaya TV. 2011 was the eighth consecutive year it was telecast.
Has your programme had an impact on youth?
In an age when the film and pop music culture rules the roost, these shows have been successful in creating awareness about classical music among a large section of the audience, and expanded the viewership of such a programme – live and on TV. We wanted youngsters to take to learning music in a serious way. In SaptaSwarangal, for instance, we stipulated that participants should have a minimum of five years’ learning experience. When a disqualified candidate returned to participate after two or three more years of learning, my team felt satisfied that we had succeeded in creating this awareness.
Just as our endeavour to draw youngsters towards ‘learning’ music paid off through our first venture SaptaSwarangal, now Carnatic Idol has motivated many youngsters to take to it seriously.
Do you have any fresh ideas on the anvil?
Right now the three major annual series are enjoying a good run. But they still need the team’s complete efforts. I remember mymentor Suresh Chakravarti who used the metaphor of a train and engine – if the engine is delinked, the train will continue to move a short distance on its own momentum. To make the connect and get it going again will take more effort, so the engine should never be turned off. The same amount of commitment and dedication is imperative to keep the TRPs high. HariyudanNaan is another successful show of Maximum Media. Peoplewho scoffed at the idea of teaching music on a TV show, now gape in wonder at the phenomenon. Manimaran and I dream, but not wildly impossible things. We focus on doable projects that will bring Carnatic music to the centrestage, with its dignity intact.