I still remember the exact date.
Work-wise, the afternoon of 13 December 2005 was a slow one, and by mid-evening I was strangely restless, in the mood for something new. My office at the time was just behind Narada Gana Sabha, one of Chennai’s leading concert halls. It was that tempting, traffic-free proximity, more than anything else, that put the idea in my head. In 10 years of living in Chennai, and in 24 years of growing up in a family that listened to nothing but Carnatic music, I had never attended one of the famed December season concerts. It would be, by any reckoning, something new.
So, after convincing a friend to join me, we walked over to the 7pm concert of the acclaimed, energetic singer T.M. Krishna. At what must have been 9.30pm, the concert ended. In two-and-a-half hours, my musical tastes had turned upside down.
At the time, I’d had only the barest brush with Carnatic music. When I was 14, my parents had optimistically enrolled me in violin classes; I dropped out when I was 15, citing the terrific pressures of board exams (I lied. I was bored). The only concert I’d ever attended before 2005 was during that brief period when my violin teacher performed—although I’m unsure how much it counts as “attendance” if you sneak out after the first number, eat a few dosas and sneak back in just as the concert is ending.
The right note: Vocalist T.M. Krishna in concert.
My own childhood experiences, and those of others I’ve spoken to, seem to confirm a pet theory of mine. To aspire to any sort of professional achievement in music, one must start early, ideally before the age of 10. But paradoxically, with a system as nuanced and complicated as Carnatic music, you really only begin to appreciate it in your 20s, and sometimes not even then. This isn’t true of everybody, of course, but I imagine it must be true of many.
In all honesty, it wasn’t the nuance that gripped me at first, that came later. In that first concert, and through subsequent concerts that season, I was intrigued by just the basic premise: how seven notes, their variations, their arrangement, their omissions and commissions could give birth to over a hundred ragas, each audibly distinct from the other. It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle that I worried at until the pieces began to fall naturally into place.
And along the way, the sheer depth and aesthetic of Carnatic music began to seep into my bones. I stopped being thrilled at just identifying a raga from its first phrase and started thrilling to the raga itself. I came to appreciate its fine balance between the unstructured and the structured, between improvisation and the rigours of technique. I marvelled at its vast imaginative vistas, and at its nuance—how one lone note quivered this way instead of that, or one sequence of notes tweaked only marginally can still make for an entirely new raga, an entirely new sound and mood.
The hallmark of any classical art—literature, music, art, dance or theatre—is how the universal can be contained within its smallest individual unit. The essence of the 14-line prologue of Romeo and Juliet presages the whole play and indeed all Shakespearean tragedy. Raphael’s School of Athens captures the entire ethos of the Italian Renaissance.
And in the unique “Ga” note of the Raga Todi is all the unmistakable character and majesty of the raga itself. I still find myself passionately in love with that richness of detail, so much so that my foremost regret in life is not having fallen in love sooner.
(Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org)