Seldom does a coffee-table book manage, simultaneously, to look gorgeous and deliver the last word on its subject. That is the most remarkable accomplishment of Four Score and More: The History of the Music Academy, Madras, by V. Sriram and Malathi Rangaswami. The book was released last month—appropriately at the Madras Music Academy, and even more appropriately at the outset of the December music season which was started by the academy four score and more years ago.
Only briefly did I mistake Four Score and More for a regulation coffee-table book, and perhaps I couldn’t be blamed. The book is priced, after all, at a steep Rs2,000, the approximate lower bound of the price bracket in the coffee-table genre. Its pages are so glossy that they reflect sunlight quite fiercely, and they are filled with large, rare, archival photographs. Most crucially, it comes in the awkward, slab-like shape and heft that make a book difficult to store in a bookshelf (although easy to keep on a coffee table).
But the book is a deep reflection of the erudition of its authors. A few years ago, I watched Sriram give a lecture on the academy’s history, and I was struck by what a perfect topic this was for him. It allowed him to merge his natural loves—of Chennai’s history and Carnatic music—and provided an enormous fund of telling anecdotes, which he loves and has used to great effect in his earlier books on music. When I read in Four Score and More, for instance, of an early 20th century audience so aggressive that “a faulty percussionist was” yanked from his usual seated position and “made to stand and perform on the mridangam for a full concert”, I could instantly imagine Sriram’s impish delight in narrating that story.
Rare delight: Despite being a coffee-table book,Four Score and More is one of the authoritative works on the academy.
Rangaswami, one of the academy’s secretaries, wrote her PhD thesis on the institution’s history, and Four Score and More relies heavily on her research and on her access to the academy archives. It is here, in fact, that the book could have used a better editor, not only to clean up punctuation and the occasional spelling error, but also to take the difficult decisions of what to leave out. Some sections of Four Score and More read like a recapitulation of the minutes of a conference, and as the book proceeds virtually year by year, it would have been wiser to drop the minutiae and focus on capturing the spirit instead. (Although, doubtless, referring to Four Score and More for a future Raagtime, I will find those very minutiae invaluable and thank Sriram and Rangaswami silently for the meticulousness of their research.)
Even to the inveterate Carnatic music enthusiast or the most regular concert goer, it can be a revelation to find out precisely how central the academy is to Carnatic music—far more so than any other institution is to any other breed of art. Hosting concerts is the least of it. Like a giant engine, the academy has driven the progress of Carnatic music, and it has moulded and shaped its form from within. The story of the academy’s nine-odd decades is a riveting one, and Sriram and Rangaswami do a terrific job of narrating it.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org