Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Carnatic Music at the UN

In a large auditorium in the EcoSoc building, where the East River Breeze can’t find us, we arrange ourselves in rows behind long desks, eager on this Wednesday evening for a concert guaranteed to impress. Dignitaries and civilians mill about me, shaking hands and smiling, knowing they are being observed. The room buzzes gently with polyglots whose passports are as thick as their resumes are long; I’m helplessly impressed.

Promptly at 6:45 p.m., Secretary General Ban Ki Moon greets the audience with folded hands and in Hindi, delighting the mostly Indian crowd. Living in New Delhi for three years “I learned diplomacy,” he tells us, describing the “high ambitions” he had then, that he hopes he has achieved since. “I really enjoyed Indian music when I was tired, afraid,” and used it to “relax, reflect and recharge.” Moon gestures to the empty offices surrounding us: “music can be enjoyed just as it is, that is why we don’t have interpreters here this evening.”

After a brief opening aarti, Dr. L. Subramaniam and his son Ambi are tuning their violins on stage. Father and son sit erect, smiling, relaxed. Senior introduces the pieces with a short explanation, included in the program, before beginning the performance, while Junior accompanies as a second shruti box until invited to join in. They are two violins in harmony without actually harmonizing—another irresistibly Carnatic trait. Senior closes his eyes while his fingers help us see the intricacies of a ragam; I am blinded by his speed. Junior balances his violin on his chest and leg, his arms free to keep talam and transcribe in his mind the melodies he will share.

I have heard varnams sung and performed countless times, but never in 4, 5, 6 speeds. Senior’s bow stutters over the strings with precision and clarity; Junior’s echo is equally sharp. Three notes are jammed into the space of one, but each one resonates distinctly. Senior wields 4 octaves of Kalyani at the touch of a finger, never misses a count; Junior keeps up with a smile, never loses a breath—in the end, it’s us who are breathless. Senior is supported by mridangam and moorsing; Junior jams with a gatam and tavil: being accompanied by 4 percussion instruments creates a thrilling and robust orchestra.

In between the first and last piece, Senior jokes with the audience that “in Indian concerts, a ‘short piece’ can be one to three hours, but it’s the UN so we’ll stick to the time.” Exactly an hour after they started, Senior and Junior are bowing to applause, and along with their percussionists, accept flowers from Mrs. Moon. I leave with an elevated heart rate that’s still trying, in vain, to keep pace with the swift see-saws of the Subramaniams’ bows.

1 comment:

  1. Although I could not be there for this concert, I knew I could get a great account of it from you! I have heard Subramaniam live many years back, and listen regularly to his recordings. I've never heard his son.
    Subramaniam's technical virtuosity is astounding, and his playing is also deeply emotional, and this is a sublime combination.
    One hour must have seemed pitifully inadequate!