Going Kutcheri Hopping

There is a look of surprise, shock, joy and disbelief on my aunt’s face. Her eyebrows are raised, mouth open, head tilted up (because I’m taller than her) and arms shaking. I have just told her that I had been to four kutcheris the day before. She shrieks (in an aunt-like fashion, not like my sister when Christina Aguilera’s Lotus was brought to our house by the Flipkart man. (The Flipkart Man is awesome because he always has a smile on his face.)) and claps her hands, as if she just remembered it’s her birthday (last year). Note: I think she would have had the same expression if she had walked in on me masturbating. She and my uncle then say that I have intellectually and spiritually matured. Puberty is pretty underrated these days.

South Indian Classical music (Carnatic music) and I have been bitter enemies for the last seven years. It is a gigantic part of my family’s culture and my parents unsuccessfully tried to get me to love it too. Every kutcheri (concert) I went to, I would doze off within the first fifteen minutes, regardless of where I was seated. I found it too slow, uninteresting, and not having anything to say – completely opposite to the Tamil film music and English music (with lyrics) that I preferred. The only highlight of these kutcheris was the excellent food available at the canteens of each of the sabhas (halls). Kutcheris meant sleeping and eating to me at that time.

In South India, December is the month for kutcheris and dances and dramas: if there’s a stage, it probably has an audience during this time. Every day is packed with at least thirty events all over the city, starting from as early as 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM. Most sabhas have canteens and messes attached, and the food during this time is the best, and the most economical, that you will find all year.

And yet I have been to 8 kutcheris in three days. I sway along with the music, roll my head, tap my feet, beat my hands along with the pulse of it and clap at the end of each awe inspiring musical peak. How and why, I do not know. Maybe it was because of the Chennai International Film Festival; watching three movies a day can push you to undertake previously unappreciated things in a frenzy. Maybe I really had grown up in my grasp of that shape shifting beast that is music. Or maybe Anirudh had inadvertently succeeded in his goal to convert me into a Carnatic enthusiast.

Anirudh Venkatesh, right now, as I type this, is reclined on my bed with a yellow face mask of orange peel and turmeric, reading the screenplay for Reservoir Dogs and checking his email. Never has there been a funnier sentence on this blog. But jokes apart, Anirudh is very much part of the family after descending upon us like a Carnatic hurricane and inspiring my father to get on the path towards becoming a concert mrudangist. He’s an up and coming Carnatic vocalist and has won a bunch of awards for his mellifluous voice. Music flows in his veins and he will gladly slit his wrists if it means more people will join him in appreciating Carnatic music. He has hardcore morals and values; I have never seen him angry, selfish, upset, or bad mouthing anyone. And he’s what’s called a ‘chamathu paiyyan‘ (super good boy). I used to resist his enthusiasm and music suggestions because of the narrow-mindedness that emerges from dismissing what you think you don’t like. But suddenly, I surrendered this time, I wanted to give it a fair chance, because this was a part of my culture that I hadn’t immersed myself in like many of my friends. And I am on a clock now; in eight months, I might never get the chance to go kutcheri hopping – hitting concerts, gobbling food at messes, engaging in discussions about musical styles – like it should be done.

Oddly enough, for something that is very personal and emotional, in these three days, I’ve met a ton of new people and enjoyed music with my own friends. Here are the kutcheris I’ve gone to so far:

Anirudh Venkatesh's concert

My Carnatic Guide preparing for another round of awesomeness.

This was Anirudh’s second kutcheri of the season. The violinist is in the 11th grade and so my mother has a fine example to compare my sister’s violin skills with.

He's a disciple of T.M. Krishna.

He’s a disciple of T.M. Krishna who falls behind amidst the pack of Carnatic talent.

Anirudh and I were running late for this kutcheri (because someone takes his time in the bathroom as if he’s on the catwalk later in the day) and so we weren’t in the most calm state of mind. As we entered the Vani Mahal premises and went to the main entrance, we just happened to destroy half of the glass doors that had been installed recently. I use “we” very loosely because Anirudh pulled the handle of the door. Physics-wise, we still aren’t sure how pulling open one half of a set of doors demolishes the other half. What happened after: the watchman grabbed Anirudh’s arm as if he had stolen an orange in Saudi Arabia and dragged him to the manager’s office. Along the way, Anirudh was called a pair of breasts, a prostitute, a penis and a fucker by the watchman, but he didn’t feel hurt in any way because they were all in Tamil. It was as if the glass doors protected Anirudh from these expletives and so when the door shattered, the words flew out and cascaded over him with the grace of a raging elephant. Anirudh and the manager have known each other for a long time and so the manager greeted us warmly, until we brought up the door incident. His demeanor was unchanged, and he merely said that he would have to talk to the committee members and figure out what had to be done. He and Anirudh also discussed Anirudh’s upcoming kutcheri at Vani Mahal. Note: Anirudh still feels bad about it. In fact, he labels it as “the worst thing he’s ever done”. Clearly, he something of a model citizen of this world.

Aditya Prakash

Aditya Prakash is a worthy vocalist with an international band.

Prasanna Venkatraman at Nardha Gana Sabha’s Mini Hall.

Guhan plays that veena like a guitar.

Sandeep Narayan’s one major flaw is that he’s too much like his guru, Sanjay Subrahmanyam.

This kutcheri was so packed that we ended up sitting on the ground in between the rows of seats.

Abhishek Raghuram

The best kutcheri I’ve been to so far. Period.

Imagine being in the middle of an electric thunderstorm with lightning constantly hitting you. That’s the power of Abhishek Raghuram and I’m glad I got to experience it live. The mridangist on the right is Anand, his cousin and the violinist is Mysore V. Srikanth.

Backstage at Bharat Sundar’s kutcheri.

You can only see a bit of him, but Patri Satishkumar is a beast when it comes to the mridangam. His hands are always a blur when they’re at work.

Note: There’s one picture missing, and it’s Prasanna Venkatraman’s kutcheri at Music Academy.

I’ve noticed certain things about kutcheris in general in my brief introduction to this new world. Each “song” has a structure of it’s own: some have an aalapanai, where the artist explores a raga. Ragas are basically the melody behind each song, and this abstract melody is played with during the aalapanai. After the aalapanai comes the actual song, which has a beat, or taalam, of its own. There are three basic taalams: adi taalam, rupaka taalam and misra chaapu. There are thousands and thousands of ragas, so Carnatic music can technically never be exhausted of new material. One of the most amazing things about Carnatic music is that the artists on stage do not practice the songs that they play together beforehand. It’s all improvisation, on both an intuitive and practical level. It is this spontaneity that makes it so fascinating. No song is ever the same, even when it is performed by the same artist. Variations depend on what the artist sees at that point in time. So far, I’ve singled out a few of my favorite ragas, even though I know so little: abheri, sindhubhairavi, and ritigowla (though I can’t really identify them in a song 100%).

I find Carnatic music a very immersive style of music, like drifting in an ocean and seeing new things all the time. I don’t know whether this is a phase, or a permanent part of my lifestyle. Either way, right now, I just want to keep swimming.

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The 10th CIFF

‘I’m back.’

It’s been a full month since I’ve posted on this blog, but I’m not going to push it any longer. Some of you may be jumping up and down, clapping your hands in utter glee, or you’re just shaking your head that this online travesty will still exist. Either way, I don’t really care. I need to get back to my writing routine, and what better way than to irritate the followers who are still with me.

This last week, I pushed my love for cinema to a whole new extreme. I went to the 10th Chennai International Film Festival, my first proper (debatable) film festival. I had wanted to attend for a number of years, but December was always that time of the year when teachers tighten their exam sticks and whip students harder than usual. Such meaningless clasps and irons did not hold me down this year; I watched an average of three movies a day for the whole week and saw a total of 20 movies. Not bad if you ask me.

The festival was peppered with a variety of films, including this year’s award-winning best like Holy Motors (Leos Carax), Amour (Michael Haneke) and Pieta (Kim-ki Duk), retrospectives on Claude Chabrol and Michael Cacoyannis, a celebration of 100 years of Indian cinema with screenings of classic films like Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray), Karnan (B.R. Panthulu) and Guide (Vijay Anand), an Indian panorama that assembled this year’s independent Indian standouts like OASS: The Dew Drop (Abhinav Shiv Tiwari) and Delhi in a Day (Prashant Nair) as well as a focus on films from Colombia, Israel and Hungary. The films were screened across the city at Woodlands Theatre, Inox, Sathyam Cinemas, Casino Theatre and Rani Seethai Hall. As it is actually impossible to watch all the films that are screened at any film festival, let me highlight the ones that I enjoyed.

Here are the best films that I walked into without knowing anything, and which haven’t won many awards:

Nadine Labaki's Where Do We Go Now?

Why should boys have all the fun?

Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? was clearly the most fun film of the fest, even though it was set within the backdrop of a Muslim-Christian communal conflict in a Lebanese village. Maybe I was just bogged down with too much drama, but this film has a lot of heart in depicting women trying to save their community through peace, not guns.

Michel Franco's After Lucia

Ouch.

Michel Franco’s After Lucia is a very clinical film that explores social interactions between teenagers brilliantly. It’s a slow burn that walks a fine line between drama and horror. I found a certain scene involving a cake the most disturbing thing I have ever seen on film, and I’m usually unfazed by extreme graphic violence in other movies.

Radu Jude's Everybody In Our Family

I’ve got 3 days left with her for this year…

Radu Jude’s Everybody in Our Family blew me off my feet. It’s a movie that shifts fluidly between dark comedy, drama, socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior. I don’t want to reveal anything about this movie, but I will say that duct tape rules all.

And here are the obvious awesome films in the fest that everyone around the world loves:

  • Rust and Bone: Jacques Audiard’s fist pumping movie about pain and disability slices through melodrama and convention with standout performances from Marion Cotillard and Mathias Schoenaerts.
  • We Need To Talk About Kevin: I was a little late to get to see this one, but it is even more relevant against the background of the Newtown tragedy and the world’s problems with gun control. With superb editing and visual metaphors, Lynne Ramsay accurately depicts the life of the mother of a serial killer.
  • Melancholia: This is the second Lars Von Trier I’ve seen, and it is both simply magnificent and utterly disappointing. The character study that it tries to be amidst the apocalyptic scenario fails to be as compelling as it could have been, while the spectacle of both the beginning and the end still lingers in my head.

The festival was organized by the Indo-Cine Appreciation Foundation (ICAF), and I went to their headquarters in Chennai to register myself for the festival. I was quite surprised by the state of disarray it was in as well as its secluded location that might as well double for an Mi6 dead drop. Imagine a dark room filled with books, newspapers, magazines and general bric-a-brac, within which two people are nestled. That’s the ICAF I saw, and it wasn’t pretty.

I had some problems with the festival in terms of its organization. Now you might think I’m throwing rocks at it just because I have nothing better to do, but hear me out:

  • The volunteers were a bunch of college kids from a college no one had heard of (at least my friends and I hadn’t) and they never actually volunteered to help us through the festival. They kept moping around as if they were forced to do it.
  • Some of the screenings I went to were either canceled or postponed, thanks to the unreliability of digital projection. Now, that problem is unavoidable, but what was irritating was that these cancellations were announced minutes before I got to the theatre. They were announced in the daily newsletter that was given to festival delegates, but this newsletter was also provided seconds before the first screening. Ridiculous.
  • At Woodlands theatre, there was a sign stuck on the door that said ‘People will not be admitted 15 min after the screening has started’, but this statement was meaningless because people kept walking in and out of each screening. I thought that the film going public for international films would be a little more cultured by keeping their cell phones switched off or on silent mode, but I was disappointed. Every screening had its share of inconsiderate idiots.

But hey, what can you do, right? This festival also gave me the opportunity to watch two Claude Chabrol films, a filmmaker who I had only heard about before, and on the big screen too! The actual films themselves weren’t great, but now I can claim to have seen Claude Chabrol in a theatre. I wish I could say the same about Pather Panchali, which I started watching (and it was amazing. It’s quite astonishing how awesome Sony Pictures Classics restored the 35mm print after all these years) when my phone rang and I realized that I had forgotten about my Model United Nations class in my excitement to watch the movie. I was out of there faster than a bullet, and sped half way across the city. It’s the one film I regret not seeing in the fest.

This was also the first time I watched films at Woodlands, which is normally the place to go if you want shitty seats, decaying walls, and a bad audience to watch crappy films with. Now, those qualities had an air of vintage and antiquity along with the novelty of watching exclusive films that will never be released in our country.

The 10th Chennai International Film Festival was certainly a great experience. I don’t think I’ll be watching any more films until the New Year…maybe.