Warning: This column may prove to be distasteful for persons with strong olfactory responses and delicate constitutions. Any offence or distress caused is totally unintentional; my purpose is solely to draw attention to one of the many challenges faced by exponents of the Indian performing arts. I have for long resisted the desire to share this complaint but my recent experience at a concert in the art and music loving city of Kolkata leaves me with no option but to go public.
Last month, I was performing at a festival of classical music hosted by the West Bengal State Music Academy. Accompanied by two colleagues, I reached the venue, Rabindra Sadan, and was duly greeted by helpful volunteers. We were given the news that the festival schedule had started at 10am and would conclude with my performance at about 10pm. We were also told that an enthusiastic audience had stayed put for this music marathon of sorts through the day and the evening. So there we were, flush into the New Year, in a city that’s a music Mecca, with a committed audience waiting for us, eager to start tuning up in the green room for the performance that was to follow.
Back-up: Indian green rooms are woeful.
But you know the adage about good things being too good to be true, don’t you? All we needed to be reminded of it was one step into the green room of this large and once popular auditorium. If we hadn’t stepped back out of the room in instantaneous and collective horror and revulsion, we would only have been gagging and retching for a long time to come, assaulted as we were by the stench of what must surely be one of the world’s filthiest and never cleaned urinals. Believe me, this is no exaggeration. This was the unmistakable stench of gallons of piss brewed and fermented to potent and poisonous strength in a tropical climate.
I have no idea if other performers objected to being led within its dangerous and unhygienic proximity, but our protests, though met with some surprise, succeeded in our being led subsequently to what was called the VIP room near the stage. This turned out to be a much smaller room, crowded with a sofa set and coffee table that left no room for anyone to sit on the floor and tune up. But at least there was only a whiff of the pee-brew here. But up on stage, there it was again! My singing, the tabla, harmonium and tanpura that evening had the additional and persistent accompaniment of the fumes from the loo, through the twists and turns, ups and downs of raagdari music.
It isn’t just Rabindra Sadan in Kolkata that subjects artistes to this lack of basic hygiene and sanitation, although I reckon it would win the Filth and Stench Awards 2008, hands down. By and large, most auditoriums and concert venues suffer from the same malaise. They do not, and will not, clean their bathrooms and maintain them properly despite charging enormous amounts as rent. I am told Rabindra Sadan is managed by the state government, and is one of the least expensive performing arts venues in the city, often used free of charge for events hosted by the government. But that still isn’t excuse enough for such criminal indifference to hygiene. As for other concert venues, they often charge exorbitant rates, and are sold out for the best part of the year, which would mean they are minting money. And yet, step into the loo before you step on to stage for a concert, and you could have your Kanjivaram or Banarasi sari or kurta sprayed with muck because the flush doesn’t just flush, it also sprays and works as a water-with-pee-and-other-stuff cannon.
Mobile loos at open-air venues are no better. They remain “art” installations, often without water supply, so step in at your own risk and only if you have a clothes pin to clip on to your nose and are ready to perform a near-acrobatic mid-air crouch to save yourself, your clothes and your shoes from being soiled. Imagine having to make music, and good music, in such circumstances.
Write to Shubha at firstname.lastname@example.org