Last summer I spent some time in Paris with friends I had met in Chennai (Madras) who are also fans of Indian classical dance and music. I asked them if they had seen any performances in Paris where a lot of Indian artists perform regularly. “Ah non,” was their reply. “After experiencing the music and dance festival in Madras, we can’t bear to watch a performance in Paris. It’s just not the same!”
It’s true. Chennai has a special atmosphere during the music season. But if I could choose between watching an artist perform in an Indian auditorium or a Parisian one, I would definitely choose the latter.
While in the West there are many unwritten rules governing concert etiquette including when you can enter the auditorium (lateness is not tolerated), where you can sit and even when to applaud, these do not apply in India. Here rules are to be broken and seat numbers to be ignored.
A good thing is that you don’t have to worry about being on time. Being late is very fashionable. You can walk in and out of the auditorium at any time during the performance, so there is no need to rush to reach the venue on time.
If you spot a free seat in the front row, don’t assume this is your good luck. The first row is reserved for VIPs like politicians, chief guests, sponsors or senior artists. VIPs are always late and will always be ushered into a front row seat. I have witnessed many oblivious foreigners happily plopping down in a front row seat only to be unceremoniously ejected when the minister finally arrived.
The front row’s VIP status often commands more attention than what’s going on onstage. Hushed voices exclaim: “Look! It’s so-and-so!” Indeed, concerts are great opportunities for people watching, and people come not only to see but to be seen.
Once the musicians are seated on the stage, they tune their instruments. This can take some time. An instrument like the sitar has 21 strings to tune. Also, musicians are rarely happy with the sound, especially percussionists. Each will demand that the volume be turned up for his instrument. This becomes a game: who can get the most volume? The lead musician has to ultimately act as referee to avoid a sound explosion (and make sure he is the one who is best heard!). As a result, the volume at concerts is quite high. Earplugs come in handy!
It’s also a good idea to take a shawl or sweater. This is one contradiction about India that I still have not understood. Though locals complain of ‘freezing temperatures’ as soon as the mercury falls under 25°C outside, they have no complaints about sitting in an air-conditioned auditorium which feels more like the inside of a freezer.
During the performance, your powers of concentration will be tested. Even though there is always a request to the audience to switch off mobile phones, a phone (or two, or three) will inevitably ring during the performance. You will then have the chance to listen in to your neighbour’s telephone conversation.
If you’re not sure which raga is being played onstage, don’t worry: your neighbour will fill you in on what’s happening, even if you don’t ask. Once while watching a dance drama the elderly man next to me was giving me a play-by-play report of everything happening on stage. “Moon,” he announced when a dancer appeared on stage carrying a large round cut-out overhead. “Next sun will come!” he informed me. Sure enough, the next dancer appeared with… a sun!
Concerts can be very long. Just an alap can easily go on for an hour. All-night concerts are popular. Applause tends to be minimal and curtain calls or standing ovations rare. But Indian audiences have other ways to express their appreciation. If you see someone vigorously shaking his head from side to side and making a clicking noise with his tongue it may look like he is unhappy about something (the volume level maybe – or the mobile phone ringing behind him?). Actually it’s exactly the opposite: this means he’s enjoying the music! You may hear someone yell “waa waa” or “shabas!”. Music lovers also like to keep time with the rhythm by loudly tapping the tala on their knees.
My powers of concentration have improved after attending many concerts and performances. I no longer get distracted by ringing cell phones, loud conversations and kids running up and down the aisles. I also like to share observations with the friend sitting beside me and get up for a break when the chief guest makes his (always too long) speech. Would this be allowed in Paris?