Be Instrumental

Veena Venkatramani

Our rasika-s love Carnatic music. Throughout the year, they track concerts at their favourite venues and encourage various artistes, offering words of feedback, posting reviews and photos on social media, and so on. In December, they even travel from other parts of India or even overseas to Chennai and generally partake of the Carnatic music fervour that overtakes Chennai during December.

Our rasika-s love Carnatic music. But, I very often feel that what most of them actually love is vocal music. Don’t get me wrong; I myself am a frequent rasika at vocal concerts, and I completely understand the goosebumps, lyrical content and thrill that comes with listening to a vocal concert. But, as a performer and an equally frequent rasika at instrumental concerts, I find that the scene is very different. Largely empty halls and a dearth of opportunities are well-known occupational hazards for an instrumentalist-in-the-making.

Of course, as a performer, once one has crossed key milestones and made a name for oneself, it becomes easier to narrow the difference between a vocalist and an instrumentalist, but lower down the food chain, the difference is discernible. As instrumentalists like to point out themselves, the situation is improving every year, but we are still far from where we would like to see ourselves.

What are some of the external factors that contribute to this?

1. Many organisers do not give instrumentalists a chance in the younger artiste concert slots (typically the afternoon and early evening slots). The reason cited is that instrumental concerts do not draw a lot of crowd. However, this begs the question, do all vocal concerts draw a lot of crowd? In fact, maybe only 10 - 15% of all concerts draw a sizable crowd. Assume there are 15 concerts across 15 days in the December music season for the junior / sub-junior slot at a particular venue. Out of 15, it is more likely than not that 13-14 will be vocal concerts. The remaining 1-2 concerts would likely be distributed as one veena and one flute concert. And for this one concert, there would be 10-12 artistes competing. We compete like carrion crows for the one concert that is offered to us – most often on a rotation basis. If I were to play this year, next year I can assume I wouldn’t play, as the chance would go to someone else, and rightly so.


2. While practice plays a big role in improving an artiste’s music and stage presence, performing frequently itself plays a major role in improving their concert performances. The more an artiste performs, the more they are able to withstand crowd/stage pressure, learn how to improvise on stage, how to manage mistakes on stage, etc. But if opportunities to perform are so few and far between, wherefrom are the artistes supposed to gather this experience?


3. There is so much talk about inclusive pronouns – extend that to music as well. When one refers to a musician, one very often only uses the verb “sing”. Maybe it’s time we also started realizing that the musician could be an instrumentalist as well.


4. At vocal concerts, one can spot several fellow artistes / peers in the crowd, enjoying and cheering their friend. But, for an instrumental concert, the fellow-artiste cheer-on is also limited. 


I’d like to leave you with a few thoughts, and maybe request you, reader, to encourage instrumentalists:

1. Please attend instrumental concerts as frequently as you attend other concerts. Instrumental music has a different way of making you express emotion, and you may find that you enjoy it equally. You may find that you may enjoy the musicality of the songs more, since you cannot enjoy the lyrical content as obviously as you would in a vocal concert.


2. Do encourage the artiste on stage to play more than already-popular kritis/music. Instrumentalists also put in years and years of effort, in some ways maybe more physical effort than a vocalist (courtesy bleeding fingers, fainting spells after exhaling too much air, etc.), and yet, we have to perform kuṟai oṉṟum illai and śrī cakra rāja over and over again, because on most stages, those elicit the strongest reaction from the audience. Where then do we get the experience of playing Pallavi-s and exploring more complex tāla-s, if the audience is not going to be able to understand and appreciate the effort that has gone into it?


3. As performers, please attend concerts of your instrumentalist peers and motivate them – when a peer attends a concert, it encourages the artiste on stage to perform a tad bit better than they may otherwise do.


I would like to point out here that there are many organisations, sabhas and individuals who really value instrumental music and take pains to organize instrumental concert series, bring instruments to the forefront, try different instrument pairings, etc. to generally make the concert circuit for artistes more exciting. But without the interest of the rasika-s, it’s left to the passion of these organizers alone to keep up their efforts. 


Without rasika-s, a musician has not much to feed off of. Passion can take you so far, until you start to question the viability of your passions; before other more practical and commercial needs take more importance. Very soon, you find yourself performing oft-played songs at a large wedding concert, so that you have enough to tide you over to the next month.


I hope I have left you with some food for thought, and hopefully, inspire at least a few of the loyal Kural readers to attend instrumental concerts.