October 20th saw the Asian College of Journalism inaugurate its state-of-the-art auditorium. Named after arguably the best-known name in Indian music – M.S. Subbulakshmi, it can seat 342 people. Located in the sylvan recesses of Taramani, the auditorium is also blessed with ample space for parking cars. But its most defining feature is that it is entirely without microphones. The question is, are our artistes and audiences capable of rising to such an environment?
There was a time when Madras audiences listened to music and theatrical performances in environments that depended entirely on natural amplification. That did place challenges on artistes, especially the men, who sang and spoke at artificially high pitches and in loud volume, often at enormous cost to health. The ambient noise levels were low and that helped. Such locales demanded audience discipline too – complete silence, if dialogues and music had to be heard.
All that changed in the 1930s. Artificial amplification came about and microphones were seen for the first time in the public space in 1932, when they were used at entertainment programmes during the Mahamakam festival at Kumbhakonam. Since then, the ‘mic’ has come to stay. It resulted in an instantaneous reduction in the pitches of male voices in particular. An added benefit was that even those with weak voices could make it big. What started off as a single mic before the main artiste soon proliferated into separate mics for each performer on stage, resulting in considerable distortion. A bigger issue ever since has been the demand for higher and higher volumes, both from artistes and audiences.
Go to the average Carnatic music performance today and the first thing that will strike you on curtains going up is each artiste on stage gesticulating to the person at the controls to raise the volume of the mic that is closest to him/her. What is not said is that this can be at the cost of the volumes of the mics of the co-artistes. Much of the nuances in classical music is consequently lost. As for non-classical performances and plays, the standard setting is to keep the volume at the maximum. All of this has also resulted in audiences becoming indisciplined. Safe in the knowledge that the volume of the performance will drown out everything else, they choose to indulge in loud conversations with neighbours, answer phone calls, and walk in and out at will. There are many who consume entire meals with all the accompanying sounds mid-concert.
All of this was not in evidence when the inaugural concerts were held at the ACJ’s auditorium. Complete silence prevailed and the audience sat through the performances. The more difficult adjustments had to be done by the artistes and it must be said that they did not appear at their best. With almost eight decades of depending on the mic, our singers have lost the technique of projecting their voices. The mridangam overshadowed the main performers in both the concerts, though it must be said that the second performance saw a more sensitive drummer muffling his strokes, to excellent effect. The violinists in both concerts had difficulty in coping with just natural sound from their instruments. This is of course just a beginning and it is to be hoped that, with time, our artistes will become familiar with performing without mics so that audiences too get to hear music in all its purity. Certainly, the ACJ auditorium marks a good beginning.
Designed by Dr. Ramani Ramakrishnan of the Ryerson University, Toronto, the auditorium depends on sound reflections from panels to the rear of the stage, on the ceiling and sidewalls to achieve its amplification. It also has provisions for mics if they are required. Tara Murali and Kalpana Balaji are the architects.
In an otherwise excellently designed facility, two defects demand attention – too few toilets and a non-linear seating arrangement in some rows that may make it difficult for a smooth evacuation in the event of fire.