I was at Zaras last night with some friends, sitting at the absolute edge of a table of nine people. I didn't hear a word of the conversation at the table. I was distracted by a little thought-breakthrough, an idea that took over my mind last evening, whose clouds will not leave for a while - not a full-blown cyclone, no, but a refreshing thunderstorm. But this post is not about that thought-breakthrough. I just worked it in to make myself sound posh. It is about another idea that intensified when I couldn't hear the conversation over the DJ-din last night.
Music at Zaras, and most other decent pub/bar/lounge-types in Madras, suffers from three issues. First, it's homogenous. It's the same kind of music everywhere. If you don't like that particular kind of music, you're stuck, you have no option (of course, there's Queens Bar in T.Nagar that plays SS Music, but those are exceptions). Second, it is usually too loud, yet not of danceable variety. So, you cannot talk, and you cannot dance. Which means you end up staring at each other with a rather silly expression on your face for most of the evening. Third, the music simply sucks. Last night, at Zaras, they were playing The Offspring. For Lord Kapaleeshwarar's sake, The Offspring! I count buying that cassette with Pretty Fly (For a white guy) in eighth standard amongst the most embarrassing moments of my life. Sheesh, Offspring!
So, I told my friend, a fellow Carnatic musician sitting next to me, "Dude, we should start a bar that plays Thodi raagam." He demonstrated an exaggerated Thodi, and I said, "Yes. Exactly."
Here are some preliminary thoughts:
1. Music: The music will be hardcore Carnatic - you are likely to hear Punnagavarali or Asaveri over Kurai onrum illai. There will be no songs in Marathi. There will be no Meera Bhajans in badly pronounced Hin-dee. We will play English Note, don't worry.
Of course, lots of Thodi will figure.
The evening will typically begin with some KV Narayanaswamy, and over the course of the night, it will progress through Brindamma's wailing padams, Mali's broken spurts of beauty, and S. Balachander's overwhelming raagamalika taanams. And then, after the waiter asks you for the last order and makes the lights a little brighter, and you're in that phase when you get up and realise you're drunker than you thought you were, we wind-down with MD Ramanathan's baritone that seems to emanate from the centre of the earth. It will give you a sense of balance and purpose.
There will be regular occasions, like November Nadaswaram Nights (ideally live, open-air, late night), February Fusion Week (we have to attract youngsters also), Mridangam Mondays (featuring extended tani avartanams where you will get free drinks for putting correct taalam), Tambura Tuesdays (Where you drink to the drone that somehow signifies the omkara, that primordial sound that contains a universe. Yes, yes. We have philosophical pretensions also.), Flute Fridays (cocktails will be served in a large flute the size of the table - you can put straws in each hole and drink), Violin Wednesdays (where if you tune a dummy violin correctly, you get extra sundal), and the occasional Seshagopalan Saturday or Sanjay Sunday. Cheesy things like playing music by musicians called Krishna or Krishnan or Krishnamurthy on Christmas will be encouraged. Occasionally, like the Music Academy, the bar will feature a Hindustani night (and the mama who comes there every week will identify every raga as Mishra-Maand) or a Ghazal night (which will be popular amongst those mamis who find Hariharan cute and his voice mellifluous, and amongst posh Sowcarpet residents and the Annanagar North Indians.)
For the sake of inclusiveness, themes like "Raga-based songs of Maestro Ilayaraaja" and "Golden Melodies of AR Rahman" will appear once a year.
The sound system will be uniformly bad, the recording quality worse.
2. Decor: The walls will be plastered with portraits of "doyens" of "yesteryears" who rendered "yeoman service" to Carnatic music, with appropriate flower garlands, incense sticks and a solitary, small, red zero-watt bulb. Drinks will be served in steel tumblers with davaras. Plates will look like kanjiras, spoons like morsings, straws like flutes (with fake holes, of course), pitchers like ghatams. Just so that the electronic tambura doesn't feel left out, one will be left on each table for no reason. You can irritate everyone at your table by constantly changing sruti. If they tell you off, tell them you're playing jazz.
3. Decorum: Decorum without rum is mere deco. Therefore, the worse you behave, the better the ambience is. You will be expected to let out an occasional "Mtch-mtch," or a "Tut-tut-tut-tut..." or a "Bhale" or a "Sabhaas". You are expected to noisily put taalam. You are expected to bring along a small raga book for ready reference.
If you wear shoes, you will be asked to remove them at the entrance (take that, Zaras!), if you wear a veshti, you will get extra ribbon pakoda, if your shirt is un-ironed and nondescript, you will get the title of Rasikar Vendhar along with some coconuts, bananas, a dilapidated orange, two suspect apples, a few betel leaves of no use to man or beast, two packets of pak, a shimmering ponnaadai that no human being can publicly wear, a citation and a purse of Rs. 101.
Men and women will be made to sit in separate enclosures (oh wait, they already do this at Bikes and Barrels). Then we won't do this, we don't want to copy. Like Kamal Hassan, we will be different.
4. Food and Beverage: While all the regular items will make an appearance, there will be some raga-based cocktails. The Gandharam Gargle is a tribute to Thodi's ga - its taste will be ambiguous yet heavy, and it will taste differently when drunk from different parts of the glass. A vodka-and-red-bull-based cocktail is planned for Kadanakuthoohalam's jumpiness. Prussian Blue, based on Neelambari's lullaby will lull you into comforting slumber. Piping hot filter coffee with a dash of brandy will be available.
As a tribute to the local, Vorion 6000 beer will be given prime importance.
Keera vadai, samosa, ribbon pakoda etc. will form the side eats. Special sundal during navaratri. Pongal and chakkarapongal during pongal. Adirasam, murukku and mixture from Suswaad, T. Nagar, throughout the year.
5. Karaoke Night: Once a fortnight, there will be a Carnatic karaoke with live mridangam and violin. They will play the raga and song of your choice, which you will choose from an unmemorable yellow and pink printed file, to which you will be required to do elaborate neraval and swaram. Sometimes, there will be a Royal Challenger RTP Challenge where each table nominates one person, and the pallavi goes around the bar in sequence. Tables will be eliminated if they muff up their round. The eduppus and the ragams get tougher as each round progresses.
More ideas are welcome. This is a work-in-progress.
(I wish to acknowledge the occasional inebriated inputs from one Shri. Aditya Prakash (Los Angeles).)