Know thy audience

The Guest Post Series onMy Favourite Thingshas contributions by those sharing my interests in travel, books, photography, music, and on issues that I am passionate about. Though the guest posts are not always by fellow bloggers, the guest authors are always those who have interesting experiences to share.

Today’s guest post is by Srinayan, the infrequent blogger of The Random Walkaround. Srinayan, however, prefers to be known as a lethargic blogger who is long on intent, but somehow falls short on delivery. An engineer by profession, he writes on many topics, but always with sensitive insight and understated humour. Today’s guest post is on something that readers attending classical music performances would be familiar with.

Performing artistes of today — especially classical dancers and musicians — often speak about the necessity to connect with their audiences. The ability to do so decides the difference between recognition (and a healthy bank balance) and obscurity. Audience tastes and receptiveness is no longer taken for granted.

A generation-and more-ago this approach would have been dismissed as pandering to the audience. Concert-goers were generally knowledgeable and came to the performances fully aware of what to expect. A well-known artiste knew that he (or she) had to live up to expectations. A less well-known performer knew that this concert could be another step forward in his (or her) quest for wider recognition. Fulsome praise or damming criticism — the artiste had to be prepared for both.

There would the occasional misstep or the wrong note which made the performance more memorable.

Photo: Joe Mabel, Wikipedia
Photo: Joe Mabel, Wikipedia

In late 1981 or early 1982, Chitra Viswesaran was performing in a smallish auditorium in Bangalore. She had just matured as one of the outstanding dancers of her generation and her dance performances drew large, appreciative audiences.

Chitra appeared on stage at the scheduled time and proceeded to explain Bharatanatyam  to the audience, its origins and development, the  various movements, and so on. In a South Indian city like Bangalore, this was akin to selling ice to the Eskimos for the audience was largely knowledgable and did not need to be told the basics of Bharatanatyam.

Soon, the audience became restless and fidgety. An elderly man sitting in front of me could not take it any longer and muttered in Tamil, “Aadi Tholai”.  Politely translated, it meant, “Dance, and go to hell!” .

The gentleman probably did not intend his words to carry, for he looked very embarrassed. But carry they did and Chitra’s composure slipped. For a few moments she appeared at a loss for words. Then, she quickly gathered herself and began her performance. When it ended nearly three hours later she was given a prolonged standing ovation. All was forgiven. 🙂



A few weeks later, the boot was on the other foot. The renowned violinist, Lalgudi Jayaraman was performing at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. The concert was held in the Institute’s gymnasium which filled up quickly. The concept of VIP seats had not gained ground and one was free to sit anywhere one liked. Not surprisingly, there was a scramble for the front row. After all, it is necessary to sit as close as possible to the artiste  so that you are noticed,  and the artiste appreciates your appreciation.

As it happened, a group of middle-aged ladies garnered the best seats. They were quite conspicuous in their Kanjivarams, diamond nose studs, flowers in their hair and, above all, by their animated chatter. They fell silent when the concert began and soon their palms rose high above shoulder level and fell on their laps in unison as they tried to keep beat. This was accompanied by a vigorous  nodding of heads. It was impossible for the maestro to not have noticed it; it most  certainly made for an amusing spectacle for the audience sitting in the rows behind them.

During a particularly lengthy alaap there was a considerable amount of whispered  discussion among these women, puzzled frowns and shaking of heads. It was obvious that they were unable to reach a consensus over the name of the raaga. The alaap  ended and, during the short pause before the varnam, and with the slightest of smiles, Lalgudi glanced up at the women and said, ”Poorvikalyani”  (a fairly common raaga in Carnatic music).

There were several pairs of beet red ears in the front row that evening.


23 thoughts on “Know thy audience

  1. I think I can do a post on this one , as an audience who doesnt understand too much about classical music :):) and its true, earlier most audiences knew what to expect and they were knowledgable enough themselves..however I think in our generation, we really appreciate the fact that the artist gives us a background of what they are doing 🙂

    Both the incidents were so cute 🙂

    especially the second one when a great artist like Lalgudi Jayaraman told the ladies about what ragam it was…really really sweet 🙂

    Thanks Sudha for puting up such a sweet post 🙂


    1. Thank you, R’s Mom. Being a regular concert-goer for over thirty years, I could not but help notice how the audience has changed over the years. comparing the audience of today with the audience of a generation (and more) is not fair to either, but inevitable. Without meaning to be judgmental, today ” he who pays the piper calls the tune”. Literally. The paying audience- tickets are horribly expensive these days- demands its “paisa vasool” and the performer has no option but to deliver to expectations.


    2. Hey RM, glad you enjoyed this piece. I started attending concerts around the age of 5 with my mother, a trained musician. She would explain the intricacies and discuss the songs with me. And by the time I was around 12 or so, could attend a concert and appreciate it fully without any background information.

      But even then, I do like it when musicians explain and share their perspectives. I attended a Bharatanatyam recital by Alrmel Valli about 2 years back, where she danced to Tamil poetry from the Sangam era. If she hadn’t explained the context, I wouldn’t have been able to really appreciate her performance, even though I know Tamil. 🙂


      1. I already have Srinayan – It was a series of 4 posts entitled the ‘Chennai Musical Extravaganza’. The fourth of the lot “Rasikas – The Chennai Musical Extravaganza” is sort of on the same mode as this post of yours.


        1. Just read your posts. Unfortunately, my visits to the South are few and far between and whatever I know about the famous Sabhas are from those who have attended the concerts. December-Jan is also the period where Pune( the city I live in) plays host to several outstanding performances. Why don’t you contemplate a change and attend the Sawai Gandharva festival in late December?


    1. Aha ! Thought you would say this, Suresh. 🙂 This post was ready for some time, but I timed its publication for the start of my recent holiday so that someone else could deal with the comments. 😉


  2. I am so glad someone did this post. When I was a youngster, my parents would drag me to concerts and they were knowledgeable about the raga being played/sung, the thaalam etc. Intermittently they’d question me as to what raga was being played just to see if I was paying attention. I was never very interested in classical music, so the whole exercise felt like torture. I drag my child to concerts these days with complete understanding that I won’t know most of the ragas being played. I am terribly appreciative of whatever information the artist can provide. I ask my daughter to listen to the same too. Hopefully this way she will learn to enjoy music for music’s sake and not be one of those intimidating audience members that knows every song, thaalam, melakartha etc.


    1. Tell you what: my daughter dislikes classical music, too 🙂 and we have to let her be. In spite of having parents with enviable knowledge and capabilities , I, too, did not show interest as a youngster. I began to appreciate classical music and dance only during early adulthood. My parents just helped me along. Thankfully, I was never put to test by them. As I commented earlier, I did not meant to be judgemental; it was just how different audiences of today are from the audiences of, say, a generation or more earlier. Thanks, Meera for your comments.


      1. I didn’t think you were being judgmental Srinayan. I’m sure you have seen this too. Walk into a concert hall and every 2-3 rows there will be one person nodding their head, following the thaalam in the air and God forbid you ask them what raagam is being played, they will look at you like you have no business being in the concert hall. When I was younger, I have made the mistake of asking such people, because in those days, they wouldn’t even announce what raagam, thaalam and song were to be played next. They just assumed the audience knew. I tell you my dislike for Karnatak classical music is in large part inspired by such people. Now maybe because I am in the US, where most people are unaware of the nuances of classical music, I am happily able to go to concerts and don’t feel like I am failing a very important exam 🙂


    2. I have learnt music and was surrounded by music growing up, so the classical music culture is not unfamiliar to me. Yet, I always enjoy and welcome every little bit of information that the artist provides as enhances my appreciation and increases my knowledge.


  3. This was a very interesting piece. I am, like your maamaa in the Chitra Vishweswaran story, wary of long explanations. I think the best thing about classical dance and music is that it requires effort from the audience for its comprehension. And when comprehension does arrive, the feeling of discovery is that much more heightened.

    Having said that, I do understand that to endear oneself towards audiences, one must go that extra mile, at least initially, to explain. But the temptation to go overboard is so strong that I find too many people fall into that trap. One has to strike the right balance and that is difficult.


    1. The concert structure is no longer what it was, say even 10 years back. Newer poetry and music is being introduced regularly; unheard of/”Lost” ragas are being discovered and presented… And in such a scenario I appreciate every bit of information shared by the performing artist. But like you have pointed out, it is important to strike that right balance. For what is right for one may be too much for another and too little for someone else. 🙂


    1. Thank you so much. The concert-going audience has a distinct sub-culture which must be experienced personally. 🙂

      Thanks to Sudha, too, for prodding me into share my experiences.


  4. I was never knowledgable about classical music but I was taken to so many concerts that finally I did start appreciating them. But may be in north India, most people do not have that kind of knowledge like the people of your post! 🙂


    1. Dear Sunil, Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.Traditions and culture are always evolving and it takes a lot of humility and open mindedness to accept that. Comparisons between then and now are often unfair. What is important that the performer remains true to the spirit of his or her art and the audience appreciates it.


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