The Madras Music Academy needs to try much harder

From Mecca to meh

There are those in Chennai who swear by the Academy. I used to be one of them. For such self-appointed discerning listeners, the Madras music season is defined entirely by 18 days from 15 December through January 1, when the Madras Music Academy holds its ‘Annual Conference and Concerts’ every year. No other sabha or venue matters. Neither do the musicians who have not been invited to perform at the Academy during these 18 days, because they are clearly not up to the mark. And for those deemed good enough to get an Academy slot, their futures depend solely on how well they sing at the Academy, no where else.

All that changed for me in the last week of December. The Academy in my mind has gone from the end-all and be-all of Carnatic music to my least favorite Carnatic concert venue. I noticed a few things that I found jarring last season as well, but this year it hit me in the face.

I’m pleb again

Why this dramatic change? There are a couple of reasons. First, with increasingly easy digital access to CM, even full length video recordings of concerts, discovering artistes and making up my own mind on their music has become far easier over the last two to three years. Second, since I like Vijay Siva’s music, and he wasn’t singing at the Academy last year, I was forced to venture to another venue to listen to him (and heard the most creative Kharaharapriya alapana I have ever heard, at the Parthasarathi Swami Sabha). This opened my eyes to other venues. Third, and most crucially, this time both my parents were in town and were using their season passes, so I was just another ‘commoner’ with no guaranteed seat in the house (the last time, I used my mother’s pass).

Some of my earliest memories of Carnatic Music are of tagging along with my parents to Academy concerts, virtually a baby. If I now feel this way about the Academy, I cannot imagine what the experience must be for those not so privileged.

Here are some observations and suggestions. I’ll first talk of access, then the Academy members and then the Academy administration itself.

Access

Sold out and half full

There are five concerts held every day at the Academy during the season. Of these two are ticketed slots — 4.00–6.30pm, and 6.45–9.15pm. The ‘evening slots’ are coveted and seen as a sign of having arrived as a musician. These 32 evening concerts represent the best that Carnatic Music has to offer. If these are the best, performing at Carnatic Music’s premiere institution during the annual ‘season’, it is reasonable to expect that the hall is packed for each of these concerts. It is incumbent on the Academy to make it so.

I went for one 4pm concert which was ‘sold out’. I was there only because I managed to source a member’s pass. Lifetime members all have season passes. This allows them to go to any ticketed concert. These are highly coveted, and the Academy is no longer open to new membership (the word going around is “you’d have to wait for someone to die, and even then…”). I was able to attend through sheer dumb luck — a member who wasn’t attending passed his season ticket to his cousin, who passed it on to her brother for a few days, who passed it on to me for this concert. I think you can see the kind of privilege it takes to be in the right place and the right time to get hold of a season pass even for a single concert.

I did not go for any other prime time concerts at the Academy, because there was no information on their website on how to get tickets. In fact the website does not even tell you which concerts are ticketed and which aren’t — you are just supposed to know these things. Of course, in the newspaper (The Hindu), there was a classified ad everyday which listed the program for the day. It did say “Daily tickets available” or some such, but no further information. They provided two phone numbers. I called twice on two different days and each time, when I pressed the extension for tickets / box office, I heard the person at the other end ‘answer’ the call and immediately disconnect.

At the Academy itself, at the height of the ‘season’, there is no help desk. These are the two weeks when people are coming to seek out Carnatic Music and to know more about the Academy and there is no help desk to welcome the seeker into the fold. It puts you in the awkward position of repeatedly seeking a favour of those whose job does not entail providing information — the watchman, the guard, the usher, the genial man selling season souvenirs, the curt women selling other Academy publications, all the others marketing banks and jewelry in little trade stalls. It is not a welcoming feeling — you immediately feel like you don’t belong, because apparently no one else has a need for an information desk.

There is not even a sign pointing you to the ticket counter / box office, until you virtually stumble upon the box office itself. It is tucked away under a temporary shamiana at the far end of the premises. There are no timings posted on the box office (if memory serves me right). I ask if I can have a ticket for a concert 3 days away. No, no advance bookings. How about for this evening’s concert (6.45pm; it’s 11.00am now)? His eyes say “are you joking?”, his lips say “sold out”. So I ask at what time I need to come 3 days from now for a ‘same day ticket’? Opens at 9 am. What time do tickets tend to be sold out? 10 am, he says with a hint of pride.

So there you have it — to be able to attend a prime concert, you’d need to go to the Academy twice in a day. The first time, to line up before 9 am in the hope of getting a ticket which may not be available. Remember most concert days are week days and therefore working days. No advance booking, no online booking. No information on the website (on free vs. not free, price, or booking process), no information desk and unhelpful phone lines.

So let’s get back to the concert I attended. I was feeling very lucky to have gotten in with a season pass. This, remember was one of 32 prime Carnatic concerts, presumably sold out. And I had a “downstairs” ticket — very lucky indeed. When the concert started, I was shocked to note at least a third of the hall empty. By the end of it, maybe a 20–25% empty.

What an absolute travesty. If this is the best Carnatic Music has to offer, and this is its premiere venue, then it is incumbent upon the Academy to ensure that all seats are occupied. They have zero excuse, especially after making people line up every morning at 9 am.

Presumably this is because seats are reserved for lifetime members / season pass holders and not all of them turn up. But with just a bit of imagination, this can easily be solved. Members need to realize that membership is a privilege. Why not require all season pass holders be seated 10 minutes before the start of the program? Then sell “spot tickets” for the remaining seats? In general Carnatic music, like cricket, has built in breaks. Institutionalise a short 3 minute break after the first or second composition for the “spot ticket” holders to get in.

Better yet, develop a web-based system for members to log-in the previous day to “check-in” to the next day’s concerts. Like flight check-ins, the window is open only on the previous day, when members have a good sense of whether they are actually attending or not. With this information, open up the seats of the members who do not check in to the daily ticket window at 9 am the following day. Two false check-ins bars entry for the rest of the season. Also update your website with a count of the number of daily tickets available the next day, so the public can gauge whether it makes sense to try their luck at 9 in the morning or not.

If they were to get ambitious in this digital age, and don’t want daily check-in, they could even have members mark in advance the concerts they will be attending (members rarely attend all concerts — they have very certain preferences) and pay in a token deposit for each concert they have marked up. Then, once they attend the concert and their ticket is scanned, the deposit is refunded.

If all this is too complicated, how about a few baby steps? Before the season begins, when the season passes are mailed out, give members an option to “sell back” their season ticket for a nominal fee. Encourage them to do it if they know they are going to be out of town, or are not going to be attending more than a few primetime concerts. Use the extra seats to get non-members in the house. Set aside a portion (say half?) of your tickets for advance booking on a ticketing website — market this option as well, so people who want to go to a specific concert may book in advance. If not online booking, at least have advance tickets available at the box office.

Whatever you do, track the number of empty seats (at the beginning of the concert) and try to fill them. Get the data and then work off it.

Concerts past

At the other end of the premises from the ticket counter is a medium-sized stand-alone room with a total of ~10–15 computers against the walls. This is the home to the audio archives of the Academy. I had heard that the Academy had digitized their archives and wanted to find out how to access them. Again, no information on website and no information desk. I found out about this room upon a timid inquiry at the ticket counter.

The experience was pleasant enough — there was someone to help you get set up, nice large around-ear speakers and pretty easily navigable archives. What was shocking though is that the Academy was not shouting out the mountain tops that this room exists. Again, this was the music season, with many first time visitors, but there was no communication encouraging patrons to check out the archives or making it easy to access. There should at the least, been ready information on their website, an ad in their own in-house brochure, a standee in the lobby, let alone an ad in the newspapers. They could have even had communication at the ticket counter — “Didn’t get a ticket for today’s concert? We have plenty in our archives, come and check it out!”.

They did not even have extended hours — the archives were open only from 10 am to 4pm — why not extend hours for the season? I went on a Sunday — I saw in the register that a grand total of 24 people had visited the archives the previous day — a Saturday bang in the middle of the season. Another absolute travesty.

Club members (‘where are my masala peanuts’?)

There is no delicate way of putting this, but my concert experience — both at the prime time concert and at a morning concert — was awful. This was largely due to the behavior of the members.

Through out the concerts — 15 minutes in, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half…there was a constant inflow and outflow of members. Getting up, sitting down, shuffling across. With absolutely no regard to anyone around them or the sanctity of the art on stage. And from about 45 minutes to the next concert, the traffic gets even heavier — those leaving for a good spot at the canteen, having taken in the “main piece” of the concert, and those arriving for a good spot for the next concert. Constant, unrelenting traffic. It reminded me of a Club lawn on a balmy evening. If they could order snacks, they would. These are your uber-discerning arbiters of taste.

It’s a very odd attitude and it is one of entitlement. I found audiences at other venues far better behaved — coming on time, not fidgeting, staying till the end. There was a sense of feeling privileged to be able to listen to the music. There was by and large a quiet meditation, even in a packed hall. The Academy atmosphere was by far the most disruptive. Not only with their in-and-out, but loud sing-along (which can be heard three rows away) and percussion on armrests. It was the attitude of someone who has paid for an all-you-can-eat buffet (lifetime season pass) and feels entitled to sample a bit of this, a bit of that, leave some on the plate, ask for a fresh plate. For someone who can’t get a reservation, it is galling to watch. Academy members also have an air of benediction — “I will stay for half an hour” they say, like they are doing the singer a favour.

If they don’t have the staying power, members should pick one concert a day, or one for the morning and one for the evening, with a nap in the middle. When they are there, they should be respectful to the artist on stage. This is all fairly basic stuff. If they really want to listen to two particular artistes performing back-to-back, still pick just one. Find another venue to listen to the other, on another day. There is a whole world out there beyond the Academy!

Members are in urgent need of sensitization — of the privilege their season passes embodies, the responsibility that comes with it, and of the basic etiquette of concert going. The Academy has to take the lead on this.

Academy administration

The Academy administration itself is in urgent need of some eye-opening. I do not think I am the best person to be doing this, because my words are likely to bear little weight with them. My views may also not be based on accurate information — but in my defence, the Academy puts little information out. For what it’s worth, here are my observations and a few suggestions. It is very likely that the administrators are all intelligent, competent and decent, but collectively, the Academy can come across as at times conceited and at other times unthinking.

  1. NCC Cadets: Nothing screams conceit louder than using NCC cadets in uniform for ushering services. The NCC website says:

“The NCC aims at developing character, comradeship, discipline, a secular outlook, the spirit of adventure and ideals of selfless service amongst young citizens.”

Two of these cadets are posted at the front entrances with the sole responsibility of ensuring that no one other than a VIP sits in the first row with extra padded-seats. What character is this developing in the cadets? What extraordinary levels of hubris does it take for this arrangement to be seen as normal?

2. House lights: A moment I look forward to in any concert is a point at which it suddenly seems like I am no more than 10 meters away from the stage. My vision goes telescopic and distances contract. It is when I suddenly realize that I am totally and utterly immersed in the experience. The moment is magical. I don’t know if that happens to you.

There was absolutely no chance of that happening at the Academy, because for some unfathomable reason, they leave their very bright house lights on. If you are in the back half of the hall, just below the lights, the glare is supremely annoying.

House lights left on throughout the concert

Why do they leave these house lights on for Carnatic music concerts? They would not do so for a play, or if Zubin Mehta was conducting an orchestra, or if a foreign modern dance troupe was performing. Why this exception for Carnatic music? Is it not a worthy art form? It destroys the concert experience. But why does no one else seem to mind?

Could it be that the club lawns need to be lit well for easy entrance and egress at any point in time? Could it be so dim lighting doesn’t get in the way of members casually perusing the Academy brochure or checking Whatsapp on their phones? Could it be so the artistes can see which VIPs are in the front row? Leaving the house lights on enables casually disruptive behaviour, and makes such behaviour all the more hard to ignore. Turning the house lights off is a first basic step to ensuring the right ambience for a concert and gently prompting better etiquette.

3. Power play: The Academy produces a souvenir which I think is available to members free and to the public for a fee of Rs. 50. Of the 226 pages, 85 of them are dedicated to concert programs. Here’s a sample:

Concert program, decided months in advance

Now the Academy is the only organisation that requires artistes to provide a detailed concert program, months in advance. I honestly don’t know what motivates this, I can only guess. It smacks of arrogance and goes against all first principles. An artiste should not be constrained to sing one or another raga simply because they’ve committed to it months in advance — that’s not how the creative process works. And one of the pleasures of listening to Carnatic music is in raga recognition. There are several possible justifications for printing these pages, but none hold water.

Prior planning encourages artistes to stick to the time schedule: Maybe, but it doesn’t have to be done months in advance, nor does it have to be done publicly. Offer help in planning to the artistes who ask for it. Have an orientation conference call for first-time performers in which you lay out the Academy’s expectations on time management and provide pro-tips on how to stick to it. Besides, there are many other venues with tight schedules, and all these artistes have no trouble keeping to their allotted time when singing elsewhere. Treat them with dignity and enable, not enforce.

Announcing the ragas a priori attracts members to the concerts: Again, is this art or is this entertainment? Do you really want to encourage members to pick and choose who they will listen to based on whether Kamboji or Sahana is on offer, whether Dikshitar or Thyagaraja? Doesn’t an artiste deserve better?

Printing the program is educational: I find it hard to believe that in this aspect alone, the Academy is suddenly proactive in educating the public. It is a worthwhile aim though. They could encourage artistes to announce the pieces / ragas from the stage, before or after the piece. They could have a nice cheerful chalkboard in the lobby which is updated with what has been rendered, toward the end of the program (this has the added benefit of providing an incentive to stay till the end). Or they could simply report what has been rendered, in a standard program format, on their website, at the end of the day.

Real estate for ads: 85 extra pages of print real estate for footer ads is the only legitimate reason I can think of for these program sheets. How about doubling this to 170? Have two pages per artiste. Provide basic information about them (especially the newer ones) — where they are from, who they learnt from. Ask them interesting questions about their musical journey, what inspires them, how they hope to grow, what they are looking forward to learning, how they go about their art. Get your audience engaged in the career of the artiste — get your audience tracking and rooting for them. Get them to give a new artiste a shot because they find the way they engage their art and the way their minds work interesting. There are so many possibilities beyond a program sheet.

Power play: My best guess is that this is a pure and simple power play. This is the Academy saying “I can get artistes to do this because we are the Academy — no one else can get them to do this.” Why is this my best guess? Look at the page below.

Another program sheet

It’s blank. Many senior artists do not provide the Academy with their programs in advance. Why not? Because they don’t want to and can get away with it. The Academy does not have that kind of power over them. But does no one in the administration stop to think: “If the Malladi Brothers, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam and Pantula Rama prefer not to provide their programs in advance, perhaps many other artistes also have the same preference? Maybe we are forcing them to do something that they prefer not to do? Maybe they are not speaking up because we are the Music Academy and have such power over their careers? Maybe we should not insist on this? These are professionals after all, and adults.”

5. Backward-looking self-congratulation: The souvenir contains a 11-page treatise titled “The Music Academy Madras”. It is a strange piece of work going from the origin of the Academy in the 1920s right up to the present day. What is instructive is the tone (quite self-congratulatory) and what they consider new or recent. For instance, they discuss at length the infrastructure upgrades since 2006, listing all 17 donors to the project till date. Do they all really need to be thanked again, in 2018? They still refer to the “new Bose Acoustics System”, installed in 2007.

Similarly, the section on the Academy’s publications lists publications from 1998, 2009, 2014, 2015 and 2018. There is no information on where these publications are available. There is not one sentence in these 10 pages about what comes next, or any sort of forward-looking vision.

For that, I looked hopefully to the President’s address. But did not find anything forward-looking there either. It too was self-congratulatory, in reference to the #MeToo movement —

“…this time there has been a virtual storm blowing across the Carnatic music world. It has come in the form of the #MeToo Movement with allegations of sexual harassment against some artistes coming out into the open. As the pre-eminent institution in the field of classical performing arts, the Academy could not and should not turn a blind eye and remain a passive spectator.”…

“…However, in keeping with its responsibility of protecting its fair name and reputation and living up to its high standards of probity in the field of music, it took firm and decisive action…”

Apparently a lot of folks were quite happy with this statement and this leadership. But is this really leadership? Is ducking for cover in a storm leadership? If the allegations were made on two musicians rather than seven, would the two have survived? Even in this seminal moment, is the Academy motivated by anything other than keeping its ‘fair name and reputation’ intact in the most expeditious manner? Is there any further thought or reflection on what this means for Carnatic music, where the relationship between guru and student is personal and intimate, and which students are often minors or whether any systemic changes are required?

The President is virtually confessing that the Academy was forced to act for fear of being embarrassed and nothing else. This is not leadership, this is dodging a bullet.

[Even the language he uses, consciously or subconsciously, is instructive. He says “…with allegations of sexual harassment against some artistes coming out into the open. not “…with allegations of sexual harassment being made against some artistes”. Does this imply that the behavior of some of these artistes were an open secret among Committee members, but are only now known widely? Hypothetically, if these allegations were known to the committee, but not in the open, would action have been taken?]

6. Archives: The brochure says that their audio archives now consist of ~11,000 hours of music comprising 5,775 concerts featuring 700 artistes. Great! But what are they doing with it? They don’t even mention visiting hours on their website. They should have published some of their finest concerts a long, long time ago, much like the NCPA has. CDs are not in vogue, but streaming services are. Qualitatively, the collection is not very different from what is easily accessible on sangeethapriya.org. How does the Academy add value?

The long term goal should be to have the archives available on line. In the meantime, why not choose one concert a month and stream it on their website? Perhaps even curate a few concerts around certain themes. Use all the expertise available to you. Have a musicologist and / or a current practitioner introduce or talk about the concert, maybe even providing “running commentary” after every piece. What makes the music special? What made the concert special in the context of its time? What does a current artiste learn from the music? What were the special characteristics of this person’s music? Something, anything? How wonderful that would be.

Similarly, how about a monthly series using the lec-dems in the archive?

7. Conference:The Music Academy is the only organisation that bills its annual December event as the “Annual Conference and Concerts”. The conference part consists of two lecture-demonstrations held each morning, from 8.30–9.25 am and from 9.30–10.25, including time for Q&A. These are held in the “mini-hall”. This is the program for the current year:

Conference agenda

A few suggestions. First, perhaps there could be a theme or a few inter-related themes for the Conference, so that some sort of coherence to proceedings, driving toward some sort of overall understanding. Or, if an overall theme is not possible, at least a categorization of lec-dems (e.g. practice, compositions, evolution, personalities). Right now, the Conference seems haphazard and random.

Second, it would be useful to have a little more information on each topic, a paragraph — like an abstract, to set the context. Otherwise, it is difficult to judge what level of audience each session is calibrated toward — some seem overly generic, and some seem overly specific.

Third, I am not sure what the scientific basis for the very specific “55 minute” timeline is, but it could be useful to experiment with a few different time frames. Also having them for 55 minutes rather than 60 minutes seems unnecessarily patronizing, a power play — much like asking artistes to pre-publish their programs. Whose five minutes, specifically, are so precious? If this timeline is paramount, then a little more thought could go into programming. Can the “Gharanas of Hindustani music” really be done justice in 55 minutes? Don’t we want that rare Hindustani musician conducting a lec-dem in Madras to be given a little more time for a topic so vast?

Fourth, given the Academy purports to be an academy, why not try and elevate the status of these lec-dems? Move some of them to the main hall. So what if the hall doesn’t fill up — take it as a challenge to make it happen. Instead of 5 concerts in a day, dedicate one slot for lec-dems. Extend the season from 18 days to 22 days to accommodate the remaining concerts. Alternatively, insert a few days dedicated only to lec-dems.

8. Academics:The highest profile academic output from the Academy is the Advanced School of Carnatic Music (ASCM). It is spoken about in the souvenir multiple times. Four batches have graduated with the title “Sangeeta Vidvat Bhushanam”. Currently there are 16 students across three batches — averaging about five students a batch. The latest graduating class too had five students. This number seems startlingly low to me. But let’s ignore that for a second.

Neither the three extensive passages in the Souvenir that mention the ASCM, nor the website care to name who these five “Sangeeta Vidvat Bhushanam”s for 2018 are. If this is an Academy, and this is their flagship course, and these are their best students, should they not be naming, let alone championing them? Shouldn’t at least one of them have been provided a concert slot during the season? Or are they not advanced enough? Is the Academy proud of them or not? The details we get instead, repeatedly, is that two ‘best’ outgoing students got a prize and another got a ‘special’ prize, from ‘generous endowments’. The details of all the endowments are provided, including the donors and in whose memory the endowments have been made. There is no doubt that these donors have been generous and should be acknowledged, but should they be given centre-stage over the students they are supporting? What is the meaning of Academy, if it doesn’t occur to them to name its students?

9. Awards and Prizes: The Music Academy has become synonymous with the Sangita Kalanidhi award. For better or worse, it is by and large considered the epitome of achievement — the Carnatic Nobel, if you will. I will give the Academy the benefit of the doubt and assume that they give this award in the spirit of gratitude, to acknowledge the greatness and uniqueness of the art of the artiste. It is presumably, given with humility.

Over the years, the Academy has instituted many more awards — Natya Kala Acharya / Nritya Kalanidhi for dancers, Vaggeyakkara Award for composers, Sangita Kala Acharya Award for musicians who have contributed immensely through their teaching and so on. Let’s assume that these too are given with all humility.

They also bestow prizes at the end of season. These are prizes given those who have performed at the Academy during the season. Take a look at the categories and prizes for the last season.

Prizes for performances in the previous season

These are clearly not awarded with any sense of humility. It takes an immense amount of conceit, first of all, to classify artistes into “senior”, “sub-senior” and “junior” depending on which time of the day you have deigned to allow them to sing. In any normal organisation, organisers feel a sense of privilege and good fortune that an artiste has agreed to come and perform on their stage. If anyone is doing anyone a favour, it is the artiste. You see this everywhere — at any Hindustani concert in Mumbai, at any SPIC-MACAY event, at the Lincoln Centre for the Arts in New York, however obscure the artiste. It is only within Carnatic Music, in Madras, that the construct of handing out prizes to artistes based on how they’ve performed at an event to which you yourself have extended the invitation is even imagined.

Set aside the conceit of categorizing your guests, or even giving them prizes. Do the prizes themselves make any sense? What is ‘best’, what is ‘outstanding’? How was K. Gayatri’s performance (‘Senior Best Vocalist’) better than Amrutha Venkatesh’s (‘Senior Outstanding Vocalist’)? Were both more ‘outstanding’ than Sanjay Subrahmanyam? Or does ‘outstanding’ actually mean ‘surprisingly good’? What is good pallavi singing? This is gibberish.

Instead of such meaningless prizes, take all the money set aside for prizes in a given ‘category’ and increase the fee you pay each artiste in the category, dividing it up equally. If the excuse is that these are very specific endowments, and therefore the Academy cannot change it, well that’s a weak excuse. Show some leadership and advocate to the donors — find ways to have their names printed, printed multiple times, printed prominently, but put the money to more sensible use.

One other annual award that the Academy bestows is the “Musicologist Award”. I think this in poor taste. It is one thing to award practitioners, with a sense of humility and gratitude. After all, as listeners, the Committee collectively in entitled to its opinion on this. They have experience listening. Sitting in judgement on academicians, however, seems odd, as does the implication that one is more worthy than another. To be fair, I am not able to articulate why exactly I feel so uncomfortable with this. The citation for the musicologist is also weak and disrespectful in its lack of care. It simply states her biographical details, with little on her research contributions or body of work. It reads more like “she’s there and we haven’t awarded her” rather than “she’s a treasure”. With a bit of creativity, I am sure the Academy can find a better way of acknowledging and supporting musicology. To begin with call it something other than “Musicologist Award” (like they’re some strange species), and tell us more about their work, perhaps curate some of it on your website, so that we can all learn from them. Or invite them to deliver a lecture and compensate them for the lecture, rather than ‘conferring’ an award for a life time’s work that you are not quite well placed to judge. Let the lecture be a big event, in a “prime slot” during the season, one that make us all think about new aspects of the music.

[By and large all the citations for all the awards are lazy. They also bizarrely refer to the awardee on a first name basis. Imagine that — an award from a “the pre-eminent” institution in your field, meant to embody your lifetime’s contribution, and they think it’s okay to call you by your first name. Either conceited or unthinking — take your pick.]

Think different. Everything else will follow.

Here’s the lowdown. The Academy no longer has anything unique to offer the Carnatic Music community. It used to have some of the best infrastructure in town, but there are many other modern facilities now. Besides, their “new Bose Acoustics System” is over a decade old. With the advent of social media, listeners can discover new artists and considered opinions about them on their own. The Academy’s role as a sorter of talent is therefore diminished. Artistes themselves have many other platforms and ways in which to signal their arrival and build up a following. Many are even organizing concerts stand-alone concerts even within the ‘season’.

Compounding the effect of these trends is the Academy’s own attitude toward the carnatic music community and beyond. It considers its main stakeholders to be lifetime Academy members and donors. Its attitude toward artistes is patronizing, viewed through the petty lens of power (or so it seems to an outside observer). It unthinkingly alienates the wider Carnatic Music community and the lay public, by making access difficult and reveling in the opaqueness of the grapevine and being stingy with information. Many other organisations are far more accessible and welcoming.

Most worryingly, it does not seem to think it needs to change. It is backward looking and self-congratulatory. It thinks itself distinguished and preeminent. It is risk-averse and face-saving. It does not make a single forward looking statement, perhaps because that implies the twin possibilities of failure and being accountable to anyone but itself. It deigns to give awards but does not dare to set an agenda.

If it continues this way, it will lose all relevance. The cold fact is that most of its members will be gone in ~20–25 years, and there will be no one left rooting for it because they haven’t given anyone else a reason to care. Perhaps they will find new members, but those members will be there for reasons wholly unrelated to art, and entirely related to signalling their ability to gerrymander a scarce commodity.

What is required is a shift in mindset.

Look to engage a community beyond the current membership. Realize that it is as important a stakeholder as members and donors.

Reframe your relationship with artistes from being a superior benefactor to being an equal enabler.

Look to be transparent and accountable. Set an agenda, validate your assumptions. Why not for instance share the thinking behind which artistes are invited to perform? Everyone knows that this a subjective process not linear algebra with a ‘right answer’. Why not share the thinking and be open to new possibilities? Why not speak of what you hope the alumni from ASCM to be able to achieve?

Look to become accessible. Share basic information on the website. Have an information desk and a suggesting box during the season. Rather than a list of names and a group photograph, tell us what areas of administration Committee members are in charge of and what they are looking forward to achieving in three years. Tell us how we can help, what you are struggling with. Ask for volunteers if money is an issue. Make it a two-way street.

Above all, know that you can do better, and look for ways to improve.

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Vishnu Vasudev

I write mainly about my experience as a listener of Carnatic music.