Where’s The Kutcheri Tonight?

By Venu Dorairaj

On a wintry Friday evening after a hectic week’s work, Joe, a colleague visiting from the States, enquired enthusiastically, ‘Where’s the party tonight?’; It was a tradition to host any visitor to a party. Short of a good answer, I was left with no option but to invite him to a music concert that I had looked forward to enjoying in private. Joe was thrilled; he was quite eager to shake-aleg and listen to some mind-blowing music, preferably Bollywood, he emphasized.

My attempts to explain that a Kutcheri was not really a party to exercise one’s legs did nothing to temper his enthusiasm, and so we ended up at the auditorium! The gathering outside the auditorium caught Joe’s observant eyes. “Quite a bright party this,” he quipped as he looked at the colourful, traditionally dressed crowd in saris and kurtas, wondering if he was attired adequately for the occasion. As we waited in the chill air outside the auditorium, I brooded if I had made a mistake in choosing the kutcheri for a party. But there was no turning back now, and so we took our seats and I left Joe to his wits as I settled for the party to begin.

After a rather lengthy introduction and felicitation of the artists, punctuated by the discordant notes of the instruments being tuned and the vocal chord being readied, the performance was all set to begin. By now, the auditorium had descended into deep silence and from that dreamy stillness emerged a clear baritone voice that took the centre stage. The purity and richness of the voice spread out and filled the air as the artist opened the evening with an ode to the lord of beginnings, Lord Ganesha. And in a moment the entire quartet - the Violin, the Mridangam, the Ghatam and the Singer - had come together to set the mood for the evening with a graceful and energetic rendition of Vatapi Ganapatim in the Hamsadhwani ragam. The appetizer had been served and the crowd now stared expectantly at the stage.

Joe sat silent. After a brief pause, the singer started the second performance; an elaborate rendition exploring the depths of the raga Kalyani. Along with the violinist, the singer set the stage for the rasikas to dwell on the beauty and the melody of the raga. The Alaap, with the subtle accompaniment of the violin, ebbed and flowed, hitting the high notes, the lower scales and the entire range of swaras in between. The singer deftly modulated the accent, the tempo, the vibrations or gamakams and the weight on the phrases to bring to fore the richness of the music.

A violinist appreciating moment - In frame - Vid RK Sriram Kumar (Violin) and Vid Dr S Karthick (Ghatam)

The violin blended in with the voice and created the perfect harmony of melody and meaning that left the audience transfixed. That sound could bring such joy and happiness needed no other proof. And when the eternal words of Tyagaraja questioned “Nidhichala Sukhama, Ramuni Sannidhi Sukhama (is money more comforting or the feet of lord Rama)”, there was no doubt that Sukham was right there in the auditorium. I wished Joe could grasp the essence of the song. The word Kutcheri is derived from Urdu and in Hindi it means a court of law. Vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar is credited with establishing the modern Kutcheri traditions in Carnatic music. The Kutcheri normally start with a varnam followed by many kritis and ragas. Kritis are elaborated with alaapana. Newer segments, such as Thillana, have been added progressively. From one song to another, the Kutcheri moved quickly, rendering beautiful verses from great composers and crafting mesmerizing music. From the sublime Charukesi to the engaging Reeti Gowla, the quartet entertained the audience with a wide spectrum of Carnatic music. Each raga and song painted a different hue of emotion and expression - from pathos to bhakti to ecstasy - eliciting regular applause and appreciation from the gathering.

A thani avartanam moment between NC Bharadwaj (Mridangam) and Chandrasekhara Sharma (Ghatam) (pics by Hemamalini S)

In between the pauses that came, I tried to explain the meaning of the songs and little trivia about the raga to Joe, hoping that he would not miss the Bollywood beats. He seemed quite engrossed in the music but one was not sure. The percussionists who had played second fiddle thus far in the proceedings took the lead for the Thani Avarthanam - a jugalbandi between the Mridangam and Ghatam. With one artist following the other’s lead, the duo stitched together a rhythmic sequence of strokes that hooked the audience. Slow to begin with, the artists increased the pace and complexity of the strokes while progressively shortening the duration to weave together a crescendo that brought the crowd, and Joe, to the edge of their seats. It culminated with the violin and singer spontaneously joining them and completing the rendition with precision and panache. While the crowd was still soaking this in, the artists had moved on to the next course of the gourmet music spread - a Thillana. The Thillana presented a freshness and peppiness to the evening. With words replaced by syllables that may not individually add any meaning, the Thillana highlighted the power of music to transcend the barriers of language into a higher realm that could, arguably, emote even more powerfully. The last performance of the evening, and in keeping with the traditions of a Kutcheri, was a brisk Mangalam that saw all the artists come together in a final burst of high-tempo music that ended with rapturous applause from the crowd.

The loudest applause was from Joe, who seemed to have enjoyed the evening without even shaking a leg. And so we returned that evening with the music and the magic still ringing out joyously in our minds. The conversations over the dinner table had been fully dominated by the artists, the songs, the ragas, the audience, the ambience, the tradition of sitting down to perform, the meaning and much more. I regaled in the beauty of what we had witnessed and explained how our culture and tradition had nurtured this great gift of music. As we bid goodbye, I saw that the Kutcheri had certainly left Joe on a high - though not the kind he had been used to! The next morning I woke up to a message on my phone. It was Joe, enquiring, "Where’s the Kutcheri tonight."

https://issuu.com/tarangmagazine/docs/edition_2-67