“Don’t miss the kesari,” said Ramanan, an author and poet in Tamil. He then hitched a ride on nostalgia and travelled four kilometres and as many decades. Steam from the kesari of 45 years ago mists his glasses. And the words that triggered this esoteric experience: Sabha Canteen. For many like Ramanan who grew up in Chennai but had to move away, following vocation, the Margazhi season is an anchor with links to the heart and stomach alike.
Like the sabhas themselves, there is a strong undercurrent of tradition in the canteens. Banana leaves for plates, and leaf ‘donnais’ as cups are immediate indicators of convention. Molaga Bajji, a variety of dosas from crispy thin to fully loaded, and the humble but indispensable idli can be found in every sabha, without exception.
The caterers take pride in serving the “freshest dishes, with the best ingredients”. The phrase is in quotes because you will hear it in every canteen you visit. The ‘Gokulam’ outlet of Krishna Sweets at Krishna Gana Sabha (KGS) even has a neon sign that says ‘Suda Suda Idli’(‘Hot Hot Idli), making the point that merely hot idlis are not fit fare for the rasika.
Chidambaram, a rasika and a regular at the Margazhi festival for over 25 years, belches out a summary, waving a still-sizzling banana bajji for effect – “You see, every sabha is different. Tiffin is good in one place, coffee is great in another.” “And since every year the venues are different, you must see as many sabhas as you can. I am here now, but I enjoyed an excellent lunch at the Parthasarathy sabha,” he concluded.
Since most of the caterers usually cater to marriages, lunch is a typical wedding spread, with koottu, sambar, rasam, aviyal, a selection of poriyal and the occasional payasam among much else.
Keeping septuagenarian sabha veterans interested, while also trying to woo a younger palate demands versatility and unbending quality standards.
The Mount Marriage Catering Services at the Parthasarathy Sabha, for the duration of the festival this year, will serve lunch without onions and garlic, as a tribute to rasikas’ sentiments.
Most sabha canteens look to bring ‘something new’ every year. Chaat and north Indian dishes are relatively new additions to the menu, but have evoked enthusiastic response. Digging more firmly into tradition has helped too, as Meenambiga’s paruppusuli kozhukkattai and keera vadai prove at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club. Meenambiga, and Gnanambiga caterers at the Narada Gana Sabha and Vani Mahal are exclusively traditional outlets.
Some sabhas have chosen to cook on both their burners. The Gokulam at KGS, for instance, serves truly vintage dishes like Morkali, paal kozhukkattai, ammuni kozhukkattai, paal paniyaaram and raagi adai. Making traditional rice-based dishes on such a scale has its difficulties. “The ground rice keeps getting thicker as you stir it. Cook one dish and it will give you bigger biceps,” says Anand Vaithilingam, Chief Chef of Krishna Sweets’ Central Kitchen. The cutlet channa, samosa channa, raj kachori and bhel puri at the sabha have steady patronage.
Other snacks like bread rolls, spring rolls and noodles, have also found a niche in various sabhas.
The sabha identity
Without exception, sabha caterers opine that their association with the festival is not monetarily profitable. Some say they do it for the visibility that a month-long festival with a steady patronage brings and others deem this link to artists and cultural establishments a thrilling reward. For a few, the Margazhi season is an opportunity to make a statement. “Mount Mani and his Marriage Catering Service is very much in business, and the standards of quality and integrity are as high as ever. Those who doubted this can visit anytime,” an impassioned Srinivas said. Mount is back in the sabha scene after nearly seven years.
Whatever the balance sheet of the sabha canteens might claim, it would be hard to overlook the pull of this gastronomical phenomenon. For a few years now, the fact that a growing number of rasikas find fulfilment outside the music halls had begun to erode at the gentle balance between sabha organisers and caterers at the Margazhi festival. Caterers have hopped sabhas repeatedly and some have severed ties with the music festival.
“I’ll tell you why. A lot of misunderstanding cropped up between caterers and organisers,” said Sreedhar, son of Arusuvai Natarajan, founder of the popular Arusuvai Arasu franchise. “Customers who came only to the canteen began to be seen as a disturbance. Restrictions on space and other aspects began to creep in. There was even talk of allowing only rasikas with sabha tokens into the canteen,” Mr. Sreedhar claimed.
Others take a more pragmatic view. “Sabha is the priority, canteen comes next. Yes, there are changes in the space we are given and new procedures are introduced once in a while. But the people’s response is very encouraging, so you do the best with the resources at hand,” Bhaskaran of Meenambiga says. “We are more than satisfied with the catering, and the rasikas are also happy, as we see everyday,” says Hariharan, Secretary of the Parthasarathy Sabha.
However, for the average rasika, the only tangible change is a wider range of cuisine and greater attention to service. In the rasika‘s world, the canteen is an integral part of the sabha. The exclamations of pure pleasure one hears during a katcheri, as the artist dishes out a particularly delectable nuance of a raga, are elicited in equal measure by a heavenly confection.
Even one not inclined towards the fine arts does recognise that the crispiest dosas, the most authentic morkali and the hottest of hot idlis are inexplicably available only beside a katcheri.
Perhaps, the blend of the rasika’s musical and culinary tastes will imprint itself onto the Margazhi festival.