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Updated: December 20, 2011 00:24 IST

Chennai's sartorial sensibilities

Kalpana Mohan
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The Hindu

I love Chennai in December. I savour lec-dems, early morning concerts in parks around town, heritage walks, dance productions and music concerts and the meanest dosa stalls. I sabha-hop with my family while ducking into Nalli's on the side. The truth, you see, is that while I love Saranga, I love Sarangi, the sari shop, just a smidgen more.

It used to be that when I attended a concert of the last generation, all I noticed was the music. The attire was not so important to me. But times have changed. Concert performers, whether they are mega celebrities, or fledglings on their trajectory to stardom, take extra pains to look stunning in an era when every photograph, every audio and every video launches into immortality on the Internet.

I love Chennai's rising preoccupation with looking good, both on and off stage. When I was growing up in the seventies in T. Nagar, fashions trickled down from Mumbai and Delhi at a glacial pace. Now, however, Chennai pens the fashion page on silk. It blends tradition and modernity with flair. It seeks brand.

And the festival season offers an unending tableau of musicians and dancers, and rasikas as well, who show off their ethnic chic draped in traditional Kanjeevarams and silk-cottons and light-catching jewellery and jasmine.

In the arena of Carnatic music, brand consciousness has become important. Unfortunately, it's not just about excellence anymore. Artistes figure that to be loved, they must go after that elusive something that makes each of them unique individuals in the community. Physical accoutrements certainly help.

‘MS blue' – a colour that became dyed into our collective consciousness because M.S. Subbalakshmi wore a certain shade of a blue silk sari – was a concerted effort at creating an image of one of India's most beloved musicians.

“It's funny how when people express something to me about the music, they express something about the sari as well,” says Sudha Ragunathan. “I always was careful about what I wore and it was part of my grooming because my guru used to say that people not only come to hear you, they also come to watch you.” Sudha was one of the first musicians of her generation to define a certain dress code on stage, establish a brand and raise the sensibilities of a conservative audience by embracing fashion without sacrificing art.

The new sartorial expressions and themed stage decors of Chennai continue to intrigue me from far away throughout the year. At the Aikya 2011 concert by T.M. Krishna and Sudha Raghunathan, Krishna wore the colours and motifs of Tutankhamun. Sudha's sari in beige and gold was in stunning contrast to Krishna's black and gold. It seemed, they were performing in the amber moonlight against the backdrop of the pyramids of Giza.

Indeed, the creativity of all duo performers colours their music as well as their closet repertoires. If Ranjani wears a green blouse with a pink sari, you can assume that Gayathri will sport a pink blouse with a green sari. Whether it's a concert, an outfit or the savouring of life itself, it's all about colour, contrast and balance.

(Kalpana Mohan is a writer in Saratoga, California. She can be reached at

Thanks for all your comments. The point I'd like to make is just this, that Carnatic musicians are caring a lot more about appearance these days. Good or bad? I'm not here to analyze that. People are realizing that "image" is a big deal and that it's all about the package, that's all. There's absolutely no question that I'll any day take divine music over mediocre music with divine packaging.

from:  Kalpana Mohan
Posted on: Dec 21, 2011 at 21:10 IST

The care and effort they give to the external appearance should be given to voice culture, practice, and devotion to rendering the music. Even a layman must be swayed by the music as it happened with MKT, MSV, MS,GNB, PUC and others.

from:  chandrasekar
Posted on: Dec 20, 2011 at 14:36 IST

Equally stunning is the article itself packed with the choicest words.Yes, we see sartorial revolution not just confined to music sabhas alone.Out in shopping centers and other public areas we can see a sea of change in otherwise a conservative Chennai modern.All said it is disappointing to see many male singers not so elegant on the stage, as some of them do not attach importance for shaving,like their brethren in sporting areas.

from:  Partha
Posted on: Dec 20, 2011 at 07:38 IST

Rainbow and music- what else we need to forget the mundane world for a while.

from:  Sampath Chakraverthy Mallur
Posted on: Dec 20, 2011 at 06:45 IST

Oh How I wish it happens here. Hope you were here for T.M Krishna's Lec
Dem (but he didn't wear anything extraordinary!) Hope you are enjoying
your time there now!

from:  Krishnan iyer
Posted on: Dec 20, 2011 at 06:25 IST

Personally knowing the Mohans well, I don't know how to say this. While I do not want to deny this by calling this write-up inaccurate, I certainly mourn what has come to pass if it is indeed so. Yes, I too am very familiar having grown up with 'MS'-blue (hey, if there can be a navy blue, why not this, is what I thought in the early '70s), but branding, from my professional experience, is a two-edged sword. Case in point, Cadillac. The phrase 'it is the Cadillac of its (genre)' has now come to mean exactly the opposite of what it was branded to evoke middle of that century.

Carnatic music is not any of this. It is divine, if nothing else, and certainly intended to turn one's gaze inward, as in upasana. Any elevation, as all music is intended, is by the self. Compositions evoke that bhakti in one, to pause and turn one's attention away from samsara, not be steeped from neck-deep to full-immersion into it.

from:  Kumar
Posted on: Dec 20, 2011 at 03:10 IST
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