Some years back, I wrote an article titled “What makes for an interesting concert?” Although it was part of a concert review, I was doing some introspection while trying to find a solution to that question. I should have waited. Prince Rama Varma’s concert at the Krishna Temple, Muscat, on 25th February, under the auspices of Nadopasana, provided the answer unambiguously. I came away immensely satisfied, and can now understand not only what makes a concert interesting, but also what gives a sense of fulfillment to the discerning rasika. And this, despite the concert not having an RTP. A remarkable feat indeed.
The success of a concert, I realized, lies in the ability of the main artist to communicate with the audience, and not just by a show of his repertoire or virtuosity. Rama Varma and his team were sitting on the stage. But for the audience, they may as well have been sitting in their midst, talking, making eye contact, and wholesomely reaching out, to almost everyone in the audience of over 400 people.
The proof was there for all to see. No one, not a single child, moved during the entire concert, no phones rang, and extra chairs were pulled to accommodate curious entrants to the temple hall who were drawn into Varma’s enchanting web of music mixed with conversation. He introduced every kriti with an anecdote that took you an immense step closer to the creative instinct of the composer. He has a sense of spontaneous, inoffensive humor which he uses liberally in all his concerts. He can play on words like few others in his field. (for example, he urged people to Google the meaning of various keertanas, gently reminding those present that they were not missing out by skipping a Tamil play (based on Google) that was going on at a nearby venue). I think that by the time he was done, he had aroused the interest of many students and rasikas into exploring the world of composers, sahithyas and meanings of the thousands of wonderful kritis now extant.
Not for nothing is he well known for bringing rare kritis to the concert platform, in keeping with similar work done by his esteemed guru, Sri Balamurali Krishna. How many would have heard Mali’s immortal “magudi” piece in oral form? We were the lucky few last Saturday.
Rama Varma had accepted a request from the local organizers and came to the city nearly four days prior to the concert. He gave of his fullest during this time: three elaborate classes for aspiring musicians of the city (age range 7 to 71!). He indulged a mixed audience to a lecture demonstration on Indian classical music and its position viz. other forms of world music. The lec-dem was at the Indian Embassy, Muscat, and the brain child of the ambassador of India.
The students he taught had been forewarned that they may be asked to sing along at the end of the main concert, but he still managed to make it all exciting: He announced to the audience that he had “discovered” a few people knew some of the songs he liked to sing, so would they please join him from wherever they were sitting? It was a kind of a musical Flash-Mob, if you like, and one that endeared him to every single person in the hall – his students and their parents (or children!) beaming with pride, the unknowing amongst the audience pleasantly surprised, and the whole hall reverberating to an orchestra of classical Carnatic music in its purest form!
When it was all over, as all concerts must, there was a deep sense of longing in the hearts of all rasikas, lay and connoisseur alike. It was reflected by the most asked question when people queued up to meet him and his team – when do we see you again?
I will break from the standard pattern of listing and elaborating on the nuances of each kriti he sang, for two good reasons: I have dwelled long enough on other aspects of this memorable concert. More importantly, Varma generously allows all of his concerts to be uploaded to YouTube, and it would be presumptuous of me to explain what was good and what was excellent – everyone is welcome to their own opinion. I notice that already some noble soul has uploaded the flash-mob bits at youtube.com. I must hasten to add though that the success of this master craftsman’s concert was to a large extent because of his longtime associates – Sri SR Vinu on the violin and Dr G Babu on the mridangam, both “musicians who are magicians” in their own right.