Carnatic vocalists Ranjani and Gayatri on kutcheris and the city’s cultural ambience

My [Gayatri’s] first visit to Chennai was in 1985, when I attended a wedding with my father. Musicians such as M.S. Subbulakshmi and Vani Jairam sang for the oonjal ceremony. Although I was a mere eight-year-old then, the memories of a city soaked in culture are frozen in my mind.

We used to visit the city rather frequently for performances. We would spend all of December here, forgetting about our school, exams and assignments back home in Mumbai. The morning veedi bhajanai (the unforgettable memory of Sethalapathy Balasubramanian singing his heart out as we circumambulated the Mylapore Kapali Temple Tank) would give way to a frenzied concert-going spree through the day. We would lap them up hungrily, greedily taking in as many as we could. Evenings found us on the stage at The Music Academy (on-stage seating was a novel experience), taking in the concluding concerts of the day.

In 1993, our passion to pursue Carnatic music saw us embracing Chennai as our home. It was a dream come true. Fortunately, our talent was recognised by organisers and music lovers and we were blessed with gurus of the calibre and stature of T.S. Krishnaswami and P.S. Narayanaswamy.

In Chennai, music forms an integral part of life. Activities from the important to the mundane take place against its beautiful backdrop. Sacred hymns or prayers sung either by the lady of the house or the ubiquitous tape recorder and radio, as she goes about her early morning duties; a leisurely walk to the neighbourhood hall for an evening kutcheri; to putting children to sleep with Neelambari – music is almost synonymous with a south Indian home.

The city is unique in that classical music has pride of place right from school through college, hand-in-hand with the expected stress on academic excellence. It is also true that Chennai is the ultimate performing ground for an up-and-coming musician - if you 'make it' here, the rest of the Carnatic world follows you. The city's most precious gift to us is the joy of being Carnatic musicians.

However, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and a surfeit of concerts during the Season is a classic example. Apart from the Margazhi music festival, the attendance at concerts, barring a few exceptions, is average, and at times, sparse. It is almost as if the Chennaivasi marks December as the month for listening to kutcheris!

There are two things that we are still not used to - the poor quality of ground water and the irascible ways of auto drivers!

We identify with the leisurely way of life, the sobriety and an understated assurance that we consider the invaluable ingredients of south Indian culture. Chennai has become so much a part of the fabric of our lives, so tightly woven into the aspects we cherish and value, that we cannot remember clearly a time when it was not our home.

For a video by R. Ragu, go to thne.ws/madras-ranjanigayatri

As told to Lata Ganapathy

(Madras 373 is a series that celebrates the city coinciding with Madras Week celebrations)