Music as theatre

The sacred month of Margazhi, coinciding with December - January in the Gregorian calendar, has been bringing forth a music explosion in Chennai, the metropolitan city of Tamil Nadu, for the last several decades and more. Hundreds of sabha-s mushrooming in and around the southern part of the city offer thousands of concerts performed by musicians, a few of them, past their prime and some, approaching that stage and many in their full-throated bloom.

In Tamil Nadu, sacredness is synonymous with entertainment and no wonder, therefore, music, dance and religion integrate so well to provide us all entertainment of what we believe to be of aesthetic value. When there is metaphorical ‘food’ for the ears and eyes, the stomach, which literally deserves it, cannot be left far behind. The entertainment package includes eateries run by renowned chefs, no less famous than the artists themselves! Richard Schechner, the most celebrated American theatre theorist of the contemporary era, after attending a Carnatic music concert (most probably at the Music Academy) said, “in essence, it is a ritual and theater”. The hierarchical order in which the seats were arranged such as VVIPs, VIPs, patrons, committee members and season ticket holders, women shuffling around, decorated in Kanchipuram splendour (artists and the audience alike) with glittering jewellery to match, people trafficking in the auditorium even while the performance was on, festivities all over, with more chattering and less music audible, all these could have given him the impression that the concert was a ‘ritual’, which, in his opinion, also defined theatre. He wrote, “in Madras the audience attend music and dance concerts more to ‘participate’ than to ‘listen’ and ‘watch’..., an intrinsic aspect of a vibrant, living theatre.”

Of course, there is no generative link between ritual and theatre because they are different reflections of the same kind of human activity, i.e., ‘performance’. The activity is characterised by the combination of two elements, which, Schechner named as ‘entertainment’ and ‘efficacy’, which in varying proportions create the continuum of all kinds of performances. The combination cannot be separated and even in the extremes of the continuum no single element exists in its purity. There is no absolute entertainment or absolute efficacy.

All the sahitya composed by the masters of the yester eras, sung in a classical Carnatic music concert by the contemporary musicians are not merely for entertainment but for efficacy as the foremost objective.

When the element of entertainment outbalances efficacy, the result is ‘theatre’, which is, perhaps, what is happening in all our music concerts, if we stretch the theory of performance by Schechner.

What is ‘efficacy’ and what is ‘entertainment’? Schechnersuggests the following elements:

‘entertainment is fun, only for those there, emphasis on ‘now’, performer knows what she/he is doing, audience watches, audience appreciates, criticism flourishes, and individual creativity. For ‘efficacy’, results, link to an abstract other (divinity as in all the compositions of the Trinity), symbolic time, audience participates, collective creativity (performer and audience togetherness, as in a typical Carnatic music concert) which is in fact, pure theatre. Schechner, while writing about ‘selective listening’ and ‘selective watching’ in the context of an all-night folk theatre in Tamil Nadu (perhaps, Terukoothu) said that the music concert he attended also featured these aspects and as such justified his claim that it was a ‘ritual’ and as such a ‘theatrical event’. What does he mean by ‘selective listening’ and ‘selective watching?’

In Terukoothu shows, which are invariably all-night happenings from dusk to dawn in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu, the villagers who come to see them, selectively watch, choosing the time only when their favourite actors are on the stage, the reason being, as they already know the story (tales from Mahabharata or Ramayana) they only want to appreciate their favourite actors’ performance on that particular night. The rest of the time they dine or sleep in the vast open ground, where these plays are staged, during the lean periods of agricultural production, that is, summer. One can believe that Schechner had the same experience, when he attended the music concert in Chennai. Some of those, who came for the concert, constrained, as they were, by occupying a limited space in an auditorium (unlike the rural folks, watching a Terukoothu performance, who were blessed with the luxury of an open field to stretch and sleep) yet, managed to catch a few winks, when the artist was singing. That, perhaps, is what led Schechner to conclude that they were not their favourite raga-s, thereby, equating them with the villagers, who kept awake only when their favourite actors were on the stage. And Schechner also might have seen the ‘exodus’ during the tani avartanam session. This was, in essence, ‘selective listening’ for him, as they were not inclined to listen to ‘the beats of the drums’.

As was the practice in a ritual, he might have thought that the sacred ‘prasad’ was being distributed, when he watched people making a beeline for the place where eats were aplenty.

A few years ago, the Sangeet Natak Akademi attempted a sort of reservation policy by funding such of those regions, where there is no serious theatre worth mentioning and they chose, hold your breath, Tamil Nadu! I am not sure whether this scheme has revolutionised the theatre scene in Tamil Nadu, but my question is, if in the considered opinion of Richard Schechner, a Carnatic music concert is theatre in essence, how can one say we lack serious theatre?