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In the month of December, the city of Chennai will be awash with music and dance for the “season.” The most uttered word in Chennai music parlance will be kutcheri, and the most popular word will be coffee.
Mylapore denizens will likely associate kutcheri with Thanjavur filter coffee. How much more can you celebrate Karnatik music while relishing the flavor of filter coffee made from freshly roasted coffee beans?
Interestingly, neither filter coffee nor the word kutcheri have their origins in Tamil Nadu. Kutcheri today denotes a Karnatik music concert.
Is it a Tamil word? No!
Is it a Sanskrit word? No!
It is a word that has appeared in many other regions. It means “office” in Marathi and “court” in Gujarati and Hindi. The Hindi term Kacha hari or kache hari is familiarly used in law circles. Chhote kache hari refers to the lower court while bade kache hari refers to the higher court.
Do you remember the song from the film Gauravam where T.M. Soundararajan belts out the following line: “naan valarta pachai kili naalai varum kutcherikku sellumaa?” (the parrot that I raised with milk and fruit— will it go to court tomorrow?). Sivaji Ganesan in the movie, displays lavish histrionics as he laments his son who is about to argue a case against him the following day. Kutcheri in the context of this song denotes a court where disputes are resolved in accordance with the law of the land.
However today, the word kutcheri clearly refers to the Karnatik music concert. The meaning of the word has expanded beyond Karnatik music parlance to include light music performances, too.
How did this word come to denote a Karnatik music concert?
We need to go back in time to the golden years of art patronage in the mid to late 2nd millennium, particularly to the reign of the Maratha Kings in Thanjavur. The Maratha rulers were great patrons of music and dance; they themselves were composers and connoisseurs of music. Vidwans or skilled artists used to flock to their courts in large numbers seeking their patronage. These artists thus went to the Thanjavur kutcheri to perform. “Going to perform at a kutcheri” over a period of time morphed into “going to perform a kutcheri.” Therefore a music performance in the presence of a committed audience began to be denoted by the word kutcheri.
This is in total contrast to the performance of tevaram music (devotional hymns) in temples. Tevaram music is performed as a spiritual offering. It is not necessarily intended for pleasing an audience although many of the odhuvar renditions of tevaram music do move listeners powerfully. Odhuvars are hereditary musicians who have been singing liturgical music (tevaram) for the last thousand years in Shiva temples—a tradition instituted by the great ruler Raja-Raja-Cholan in the 11th century. But, we don’t use the words “tevara kutcheri” to denote this music.
So, these days we have a kutcheri season, kutcheri news, radio kutcheris, TV kutcheris, light music kutcheris, dance kutcheris, arattai (gossip) kutcheris, seettu (a game of cards) kutcheris, kalyana (marriage) kutcheris and more. And there is of course the kutcheribuzz website that provides up to date information on kutcheris all over the world.
Keep in mind that in today’s parlance, kalyana kutcheri does not denote a court that adjudicates marriage disputes. It only denotes a concert played at a wedding!
Thus the word kutcheri that once meant “court” now has the status of being accepted and celebrated as the descriptor of a music performance. It is another matter that such a music performance uses other non native words such as “main,” “sub-main” and “tukkada” to denote the various levels of performances, like the opening acts to a western concert. In explanation, the word tukkada refers to the miscellaneous short compositions, or lighter fare sung in a karnatik music concert after the main piece is completed. Tukkada is not an original Tamil word.
Now, onto coffee. The canteen halls during the Chennai kutcheri season are filled with the aroma of fresh coffee. Now is coffee a Tamil produce like thinai maavu (millet and honey offerings to God)? No. Coffee beans were discovered in Ethiopia and from there spread to the middle east and preserved as a closely guarded secret. They were first smuggled out of Yemen by a Sufi mystic Baba Budan into Karnataka. A shrine celebrating this sufi saint can be seen in the Shimoga district of Karnataka.
Thus, coffee of middle eastern origin has become a perfect complement to a South Indian kutcheri concert erasing regional and national divisions in just one sip and an earful of music.
I asked Maestro Ravi Shankar when I visited him in 2009, what the word for kutcheri was in the Hindustani world.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the renowned musician replied jalsa, which actually means “celebration” or a “party” or “carnival.” A serious music performance is, however, anything but that. It is thus interesting how the name jalsa corresponds to a three hour performance of classical music, in a different regional language. Satyajit Ray’s film Jalsa Ghar even describes the lifestyle of decadent kings and their musical soirees.
On a parting note, the word jalsa in Chennai slang means “flirtatious fun!”
Kanniks Kannikeswaran is an internationally renowned musician, composer and music educator, whose award winning research on the Indo-colonial music of Dikshitar is beginning to influence Indian music pedagogy. Kanniks is considered to be a pioneer of the Indian American choral movement. He has been teaching Indian classical music at the University of Cincinnati since 1994.www.kanniks.com