It was inevitable that the first proper Katcheri I’d attend would leave me confused. This had the proper ambiance for a musical evening as among the 300-400 people in the audience, I must have been around 20 years younger than the average age in the hall. I was in the last row, as always, as everywhere, and the hall sloping down looked all grey as in old hair, and brown, as in bald pate. On stage was Kadri Gopalnath, the brilliant saxophonist, accompanied by a lady violinist, a mridangam player, a man with mouth organ and a young chap who played the Kanjeera.
As the concert started, the front-benchers (the most civil front-benchers you’ll ever find), began their taalam. My knowledge of this was limited to the fact that you tap your right thigh with your right hand: a few times with your palm facing down, and suddenly once, with your palm facing up. I tried to see if the taalams of various people ever matched. More or less it didn’t. Even though this left me suspicious as to their credibility, I thought I’ll keep this issue for later Katcheris. There were more pressing matters to sort.
To my delight, I realised very soon that people walk in anywhere if there is a free entry to it. Quite a few of my neighbours were as informed as I was about Carnatic music, and they were as prone to momentary joy at identifying a popular connotation as I was. So, with the second song being Vathapi Ganapathim, the taalam count increased dramatically; and as dramatically, none of them would match the other. It was here that I first began hearing the sounds that would throw me into confusion.
Even my untrained ear, at certain points could recognise high points in the concert. Quite a bit of it had to do with the interplay between the musicians. They would lead you to the edge of the seat with your neck craning involuntarily, and at one appropriate moment, the penny dropped. I showed no reaction at these points, as I had decided before-hand. But some went tch.. tch… or mch.. pch… This increased at the evening wore on.
Its a very irritating sound in a music concert. It becomes even more excruciating if 200 people do that simultaneously in exalted incoherence. Add the ahaas, ohos and sabhaashes to it and it becomes a jam-session on its own.
I have heard this sound from so far back in time that I know there never has been a simple literary meaning attached to it. When I would accidentally step on my aunt’s feet, she’d go tch. When an Indian batsman got out, my grand-dad thinks it is pch. Rising gold rates would be greeted with a rap version, tch tch tch tch tch. More or less, always, this has been a sound intended to convey disappointment or annoyance. Produced by a subtle movement of the tongue and an intake of air, its a polite replacement for the more in-your-face thoo, which as you might imagine, suggests an outpouring of disgust.
It wasn’t just me who had a problem in this concert. Even Kadri himself was tearing his hair apart because of a faulty mike. He was interrupted at every twenty minutes, regularly, as the mike went with its own brand of raagam. So much so that he shut his ears once and looking at his accomplices, went, pch pch pch pch pch. So there were now two forms of this sound in the auditorium, one from the audience where it meant something really good, while on the stage it signified disappointment.
I have moved on from there and haven’t been to another Katcheri for a long time now. I bought Moser Baer’s Kadri DVD which has a very good collection, of which I could instantly recognise two or three numbers. Moreover, the DVD has no pch, tch and mch-es to distract.