One challenge too many !
Please be warned that the contents of this column may prove to be distasteful for persons with strong olfactory responses and delicate constitutions. Any offence or distress caused is totally unintentional because my purpose in writing this piece is solely to draw attention to at least one of the many challenges faced by exponents of Indian performing arts. Believe me, I have for long resisted the desire to share this complaint with readers but my recent experience at a concert in the art and music loving city of Kolkata now leaves me with no option but to go public.
Early in January this year, I was performing in Kolkata at a festival of classical music hosted by the West Bengal Academy of Music. Accompanied by two colleagues, I reached Ravindra Sadan, the venue for the performance and was duly greeted by helpful volunteers sporting large, colorful, cloth badges pinned on to their shirts and kurtas. We were given the news that the festival schedule for that day had started at ten in the morning and would conclude with my performance at about ten at night, thus featuring a string of performances by artistes from Bengal and other parts of the country. We were also told that an enthusiastic audience had stayed put for this music marathon of sorts through the day and the evening.
So there we were, flush into the New Year, in a city that’s a music Mecca of sorts, with a committed audience waiting for us, eager to start tuning up and warming up in the green room for the performance that was to follow. But you do know the adage about good things being too good to be true, don’t you? I can assure you that all we needed to be reminded of it was one step into the green room of this large and once popular auditorium in one of the biggest and busiest cities of the country. If we hadn’t stepped back out of the room in instantaneous and collective horror and revulsion, we would only have been gagging and retching for a long time to come, assaulted as we were by the stench of what must surely be one of the world’s filthiest and never to have been cleaned urinals. Believe me, this is no exaggeration. This was the unmistakable stench of gallons of piss brewed and fermented to potent and poisonous strength in a tropical climate. I have no idea if other performers objected to being led into its dangerous and unhygienic proximity, but our protests though met with some surprise, succeeded in our being led subsequently to what was called the V.I.P room near the stage. This turned out to be a much smaller room crowded with a sofa set and coffee table that left no room for anyone to sit on the floor and tune up. But at least there was only a whiff of the pee-brew here so we decided not to protest any further. But up on stage, there it was again! My singing, the tabla, harmonium and tanpura that evening had the additional and persistent accompaniment of the fumes from the loo, through the twists and turns, ups and downs of raagdari music.
Let me just remind everyone at this point that it isn’t just Ravindra Sadan in Kolkata that subjects artistes to this lack of basic hygiene and sanitation, although I reckon it would win the Filth and Stench Awards for the year 2008 hands down. By and large most auditoriums and concert venues in the country suffer from the same malaise. They do not and will not clean their bathrooms and maintain them properly despite charging enormous amounts as rental. I am told that Ravindra Sadan is managed by the West Bengal State Government, and is one of the least expensive performing arts venues in the city, often used free of charge for events hosted by the Government of Bengal. But that still isn’t excuse enough for such criminal indifference to hygiene.
As for other concert venues, they often charge exorbitant rates, are sold out for the best part of the year which would mean they are minting money. And yet, step into the loo before you step on stage for a concert, and you could have your Kanjeevaram or Banarasi sari or kurta sprayed with muck because the flush doesn’t just flush, it also sprays and works as a water-with-pee-and-other-stuff cannon. Mobile loos at open air venues too are no better. They remain art installations often without water supply, so step in at your own risk and only if you have a clothes pin to clip on to your nose, and are ready to perform a near-acrobatic mid-air crouch to save yourself, your clothes and your shoes from being soiled.
Imagine having to make music and good music in such circumstances. Tough call, eh? I write from personal first-hand experience and I’m sure other artistes too have their fair share of pre-concert green room loo-stories, but perhaps they do not wish to go public as I have done. Iron Maiden, welcome to India, but along with the gear and lights and crew, make sure you carry a loo-design expert in your entourage!
This is an unedited version of a piece I wrote for Mint. For those of you who would prefer the edited Mint version, here’s the link: http://www.livemint.com/2008/02/09001324/Before-the-show.html