The relative informality of the Carnatic music concert makes possible a rather interesting seating position for the audience member who desires it: on the stage, barely a couple of metres from the performing artist. The “dais tickets”, as they are called, possibly started as the enterprising organizer’s solution to squeezing a little more money out of an already full auditorium but they’ve come to be popular in their own right. I have seen, on at least a couple of occasions last month, people opting to sit on stage even as comfortable cushioned seats in the audience stayed vacant throughout the concert.
A couple of years ago, when I sat on the dais for the first time, I realized that the thrill was partly vicarious and partly voyeuristic. At the bigger auditoriums, such as the Music Academy, during the concerts of particularly fashionable musicians, the faces of the audience are fixed attentively on you. Or rather, not quite on you but close enough to experience the thrill that the star musician must feel as the focus of this earnest, appreciative gaze. For most of us, it is the closest we will get to a prestigious concert stage.
But the voyeuristic glee is a far more lasting sensation. It would be impossible at a sold-out concert of, say, Coldplay or the London Philharmonic Orchestra, to simply take a seat beside them as they perform, so the ringside view of concert mechanics becomes unique as well as insightful. It’s possible, from this vantage point, to see the individual beads of sweat on a singer’s brow, to observe both hands of the percussionists at work on the mridangam or the ghatam, to strain one’s ears and share the tiny in-jokes that fly between the musicians over the course of the evening.
At one concert this past December, I was near enough to watch a singer exclusively engage, almost conversationally, with the mridangam player. During an improvised, explosive torrent of notes, the singer would twist in place and, with suggestive waggles of his eyebrows and rolls of his widened eyes, indicate upcoming changes in the patterns of his notes. The mridangam player would read these signals and then respond with his own eyebrow-waggling and eye-rolling. Their dynamics was terrific, and watching it as close-up action rather than just listening to it burst forth from the loudspeakers, made it doubly enjoyable.
The pleasure of sitting on the stage isn’t always unalloyed, though. Many auditoriums suffer from speaker systems that sound imbalanced even at a more orthodox seat in the audience. On stage, the effect can be even more lopsided; sit behind an aggressive mridang am, player and you may well have to forgo the opportunity to hear the violin at all.
But the “dais ticket” system also provided one of the most heartwarming views of last month’s music season in Chennai. I was sitting in the balcony of the Music Academy for the wonderful concert of the highly classical, resolutely gimmick-free singer Vijay Siva. Apart from his immediate coterie of accompanists, the stage around him was filled with an audience in its teens and 20s, like a sea of youth lapping at the shores of an immovable island.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org