At Hotel New Woodlands, Mylapore, a perpetual queue forms at the front door, often swelling or receding in tune with the concert schedule at the Music Academy nearby. The tables are crammed with every kind of music lover – from veteran sabha-hoppers armed with non-negotiable timetables to first-timers trading tales about canteens that make the experience so much more delectable. An Indian woman circles something on a piece of paper as her nephew responds in a distinctly American accent. Elsewhere, a British backpacker reads a review as his untouched dinner gets cold.
Come December, music tourists from around the globe put their lives on hold to be here during kutcheri season. For Bangalore-based Lakshmi Kesavan, this meant undergoing surgery. “I had my knee replacement done two months in advance so I could recover in time for this,” she says. Every year, Lakshmi and her husband (who retired in 1992) book their guesthouse months in advance and once the festivities begin, they attend every event including early morning lecture demonstrations and afternoon concerts by upcoming artistes.
Meena Elankumaran, a Sri Lankan dance teacher began her Margazhi planning even earlier. Meena’s two sons play the mridangam and her daughter learns Bharatanatyam. The family flies in every year for three to four weeks to watch both the music and dance performances. “We stay in the same apartment each year, so we made the arrangements six months in advance,” says Meena, who observes that long, annual visits do involve sacrifices but that they’re worthwhile. “By the time the last performance ends, we’re already waiting for the next year,” she laughs.
Delhi-based Jaya Dayal and her children travelled to Chennai with a very specific agenda — to watch as many saxophone, dance and violin concerts as possible. Jaya’s son is a budding saxophone player and her daughter learns dance and the violin. “It’s a vacation that also offers immense learning,” says Jaya, who like many Margazhi enthusiasts, does find the experience exhausting. “Anything that’s cerebral requires some effort. But I’m glad I watched these performances here — Kanyakumari and Embar S. Kannan performed a splendid concert and we watched another show at Kalakshetra where the ambience is so beautiful.” Jaya who is writing a book on temple architecture says it wasn’t too hard to zero in on Chennai, even though there are multiple vacation alternatives including foreign travel. “There’s so much to do in India itself,” she says. “It’s just been eight days and we’re going back with a lot.”
For local music buffs, it’s tempting to take this annual festival for granted but Margazhi tourists on a whirlwind trip are faced with mind-boggling levels of planning and a considerable expenditure of time and energy, none of which deters them from their mission to be here when the curtains go up. Lakshmi’s family members expressed their anxiety about whether she was ready for strenuous travel so soon after her operation, but she says she knew what her decision would be. “I went ahead and booked tickets. I just had to come, because next season, I will be one year older.”