Opera vs kutcheri – who wins the battle?

This is a candid account of a hardcore Carnatic- music aficionado, making a grand (?) entry to watch an opera – ‘the BBC Symphony’ in the Dubai Opera House.

My ticket said ‘box-seat’; so I was already feeling like royalty. In my mind I cranked up my own self image – pictured myself to be a Kate Winslet, stepping into a typical ‘english’ environment, in my white-lace gown and gloves holding opera glasses.

This is just one of those ‘Meme’ moments with a ‘perception vs reality’ alert 😈

I did my research on Opera dress codes. Phew! saree was my safest bet.  I am not that enthu-cutlet-case that jumps with joy at an opportunity to buy a dress for a function- call it generation gap! 

I made my “grand” entry sheepishly with my ‘suit’ed husband. The saree draw a few looks and smirks; but tonight I was going to hold my head high saying – this is my culture; besides, I liked how I looked that night; I had a sexy backless blouse after all!

The auditorium was a loving reminder of the Music Academy, Chennai. All the names of our currently famous musicians ran a race in my mind. I took my seat thinking this was going to be very interesting . And yes. It was!

We had the most expensive seats. You see, it is all about impressions – like my husband says! But truth was that the British themselves didn’t value the show too much to buy those seats! 

As I sat, the seat was slowly erased all baggage that I was carrying – the last minute rush of me returning from kids’ sanskrit class after getting delayed for precious half-an-hour in traffic, leaping upstairs having the less than ten minutes to dress up, running down spitting out last minute instructions to kids to make sure the house remained standing while I returned…. The uber ride with a superman for a driver who got us there in less than seven minutes, running up the escalator to reach the hall with the tension that doors close five minutes before commencement and if we don’t get there on time we will have to watch the show from outside (my middle class upbringing will never let me live with loosing money like that!)…. all of it felt like a distant dream. We made it! Now, I am just going to enjoy myself for the next two hours and feel rich enough to pay 350 bucks for a ticket to this concert – I convinced myself.

The stage quickly filled up with people dressed in tail coats, tuxedos and pretty black dresses, with their instruments. They all looked like tiny people from my view point. There were instruments of all sizes and some were completely out of sight! Ah! I missed my opera glasses!

The hall was almost full. Nearest to the stage was a huge area for those who got the least expensive tickets. They got to watch it standing the whole time! Satyam cinema’s ten-buck-tickets are what came to my mind. Well, these people where going to burn some calarioes for the next two hours and there wasn’t going to be any pop corn to compensate.

The master of ceremony walked up, well-built, prim-and -proper, with his English accent and condescending humour! He introduced the conductor – another well groomed man with a stick.

They started a few minutes late. The first piece ended before I even took a breath to  wrapped my head around it. Varnams are usually small pieces too but they most definitely set the pace and mood of the singer/player and the audiences. I could definitely see the conductor getting into his groove.

The second piece started after some instruments got pulled out of the stage.  I felt like an ignoramus – mridangams, violins, veenas and flutes were not the end of the world. Ah! So much more to learn in life. In a way, it was similar to the feeling of sitting in music academy wondering what the ragam is being sung even after ten minutes of alapanam – completely clueless – written all over my face, eagerly waiting to overhear someone whisper the ragam in their partners ears. I couldn’t be asking my friend names of those instruments for the same reason – dirt looks from the regulars.  

The harp that stood majestically at the left hand side corner has a special pedestal. The lady who played it also sat on the same. To my utter disbelief that piece of pedastal was soft as a cushion. Someone please explain that logic to me! I mean, I get the fact that ghatam and mridangam players use small cushions to keep their legs comfy while seated on the floor for more than a couple of hours. This lady played barely a handful of notes on the harp and for one piece only. Am sure it costed more to transport that seat all the way from London, than the harp and lady put together!

Let us get one thing clear here – we, serious concert goers, look for one thing alone at the end of the day – dopamine rush – that building up of notes, ragas and rythm effortlessly flowing through our veins. The main piece with its alapnai, RTP, neraval,  Kalpana Swaram, Thani avarthanam and all of it – the vibrations flow through the audiences from the musicians very obviously and reaches a point of blissful elation as the physical body is almost nonexistent. Then the small tukdas warm down all the excitement bringing us all back to our realities. The experience is akin to a meditation class.

I kept looking for this feeling very keenly. Sadly, it was non- existant for me. The conductor was the only one who kept brusquely dancing, waving his wand vigorously. The audiences at times gave them a standing ovation, but clapping is the only physical act being performed by them which felt too doctored. 

Then I wondered what was the difference between a kutcheri and a symphony opera – for me? Was it the familiarity of notes? Was it the rythm? Was it the manodharma aspect? All three probably separately existed in the symphony too. Maybe if I heard Mozart and Beethoven often enough to imbibe them like I do varnams or the thodi or bhairavi, I would be able to feel the rush in an opera too! 

Maybe sometime! Until then, it is farewell opera!

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