Classical Music at IIT M: Interview with Professor T.T. Narendran

The Classical Music club  has been one of earliest and longest standing club at IIT Madras. One of the pillars and a mainstay in this club that has churned out some great musicians and attracts the top performers, is Professor T.T. Narendran. In a candid interview with the Professor who’ll never turn down an opportunity to interact with a student, Prasanna Venkatesh, an editor of Chennai36, attempts to trace the history of the illustrious club.

How active was the classical music scene in your times as a student?

Classical music despite having its own charm, definitely had to be packaged well to entertain and be appreciated by a large majority on campus. Let me tell you about my own personal experience when I used to perform concerts on the Veena. I would open the concert with a few film songs that were in vogue and catchy. This would automatically lighten the mood and I believed it made people more tolerant towards my performances! There used to be regular performances by students at OAT and used to attract a reasonable crowd of passersby if not diehard fans. There were always crowds for professional shows and some really good artists did come to perform.

Was classical music mostly Carnatic or were Hindustani performances also entertained?

Professional performances depended on availability of artists.  A lot of logistics were involved in organizing a concert. These became simpler when the artist came from places close to Chennai, so yes a majority of concerts were Carnatic but we did have some very eminent Hindustani performers as well. The frequency was lower though.

What were the possible challenges in organizing a concert and ensuring that a crowd turned up? Who were the main patrons?

The main patrons were a large section of the faculty and their families and a decent section of the students. I personally think the greatest challenge always is to create interest in an art. It had to mostly happen by word of mouth. I did my part of so called publicity when I was asst warden of Tapti. I would ensure 35 to 40 people from Tapti would show up.

The fortunes of the club would also take sudden hits and we would be very short on funds. It took some effort to lift it up again in the early late 80’s and early 90’s. I still remember the relief we felt when we had a full house to a Mandolin Srinivas concert in 89.

How much has the scenario changed today? Is the complaint that Carnatic music is niche valid?

I think structurally there have been some changes. For instance the Classfest is a new idea that has consolidated most of the corporate sponsored concerts during the 90’s spread over the year. The rise in popularity of classical music in Chennai has definitely come as a blessing, ensuring that the young crop of musicians perform here and attract crowds.

In IIT Carnatic music or any classical form of music has always been appreciated. For those who come and listen it is always a welcome break. The environment just happens to override any complaints.

On influence of classical music on film music leading to wider appeal for it classical music.

More than film music, it is the charm of reality singing shows that seems to have swept this nation. In this craze, classical training has suddenly received a boost and seems to be the in thing to do. Definitely film music having classical influences busts the myth that classical is for the elite and not for the masses. A music director has the freedom to experiment with ragas and churn out popular hits.