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Carnatic Music Festival Blooms in India


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.

This week, thousands of artists and creative types are gathered at an event that could make their careers. And no, we are not talking about the Sundance Film Festival. We're talking about the music season in Chennai, India. Every year in January, Indian classical musicians flock there to play and sing traditional tunes known as carnatic music.


Also in attendance this year, reporter Scott Carney.

(Soundbite of music)

SCOTT CARNEY: Carnatic music starts out with one note cast off by a drum machine. At its heart it's simple. But like jazz it takes a trained ear to appreciate. This is Niko Higgins, a Ph.D. candidate in Ethnomusicology from Columbia University. He's writing his dissertation on carnatic music.

Mr. NIKO HIGGINS (Ethnomusicologist): There's a theory of improvised ideas that are in exchange. And musicians will just - they'll have to end at the right place at the right time on the right note. And they both have to do it. But how they get there is going to be completely different every time.

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CARNEY: Mandolin Shrinivas is one of this year's major draws. He shared the stage with a legendary drummer named Trichy Sankaran.

(Soundbite of music)

CARNEY: Only a fraction of what was played was scripted. The canon is small and only contains a few hundred songs. But each song is essentially a palimpsest for musicians to construct their own interpretations.

After the performance, I spoke with Sankaran, who compared this concert season to the Olympics.

Mr. TRICHY SANKARAN (Drummer): Even though, you know, there are concerts, you know, year through, this is like, you know, almost like Olympics. Big musicians, carnatic musicians, try to give of their best, you know, during the season.

CARNEY: Ethnomusicologist Niko Higgins says that royal families used to sponsored carnatic music. But now musicians have to compete with each other for audiences.

Mr. HIGGINS: There is a famous musician named G. N. Balasubramaniam, who was known for his brighas or really fast passages. And he would sing faster and more precisely than many musicians at the time, and as a result attracted huge crowds.

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CARNEY: His popularity inspired the music that we hear today.

Mr. HIGGINS: In the sense that the musician is responsible for pulling in the crowd, rather than his patron being a prince or a king, and everyone coming to the concert because they have to because he's the king.

CARNEY: Today, concerts are full of foreigners who fly in just for the season. And it's also a way for second generation Indians from America to reconnect with their roots.

Roopa Mahadevan, an American Fulbright scholar and vocalist, made her debut in Chennai last year. And now she's a rising star.

Ms. ROOPA MAHADEVAN (Musician): Carnatic music today is definitely not constrained to the limits of the Chennai City. There are people around the world doing carnatic music. And there are a lot of active organizers, music organizers, in different cities in the world who are promoting local carnatic talent as well as bringing in artists from India.

CARNEY: Here she is in a recent concert.

Ms. MAHADEVAN: (Singing in foreign language)

CARNEY: Audience member Adjay Subrimanim(ph) says that even though the nuances of music can be difficult to grasp, anyone can enjoy listening.

Mr. ADJAY SUBRIMANIM: It's actually almost a spiritual experience. I think the best thing to do is to just simply close your eyes and let - just let the music soak in. You can really just stand(ph) - you can actually meditate just listening to this music, and I think that's the best way to appreciate it.

(Soundbite of music)

CARNEY: For NPR News, I'm Scott Carney in Chennai, India. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.