The Marghazhi music season in Chennai with its allied performing arts, is today growing into an international one.

The word ‘season,’ over the years has come to represent the period from mid-December to the first week of January when Chennai is transformed into a magical world of music, dance, drama and other allied performing arts and cultural activities. In short, it refers to a wide spectrum of colourful images that make up the Marghazhi mosaic.

It is not just another Music Season. It has today assumed the proportions of a highly renowned global music festival, which ranks alongside the Donauinselfest in Austria, the Moroccan (a different genre though) and the Edinburgh International Music Festivals. It has the spontaneity and joie de vivre of a New Orleans Jazz fortnight! It offers a wider canvas than the much admired Tansen Festival in Gwalior or the Gandharva Festival in Pune. More importantly, for its sheer classicism and comprehensive outlook on Music, it towers over all the music congresses of the world!

It had its modest origins in a 1929 Conference of the Music Academy and soon blossomed into a stupendous annual event, thanks mainly to the quality and background of music that spawned it.

A nostalgic look into the past reveals a different environment, when sheer quality held sway over glamour; when appreciation was limited to a stray “shabaash” or a gentle nod of the head, when a mild round of applause had to be earned through an extraordinary demonstration of excellence, when the vocalist was the pilot and the accompanying artistes had to follow suit, when music took precedence over ‘kanakku’ and when the tall tambura (not the electronic device which the lay musician keeps with tampering with!) kept the voice in sruti!

It was an era when the audience sat respectfully through the ‘Mangalam’ and the Smart Phone had not not surfaced to disrupt the flow of music! Those were the days when the musician remembered his lyrics and did not seek recourse to laptops, I-pads and tablets.

While on the subject of ‘Kanakku,’ one can vividly recall how the imaginative neraval or swara prasthara from the past legends such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer or Madurai Mani Iyer transported the listeners to dizzying heights and similar flights of imagination from Arikyakudi Ramanuja Aiyangar left the audience asking for more!

Unfortunately, today the obsession with swaras - by rote and convoluted mathematics - are churned out with sickening monotony to earn rounds of raucous applause!

In the past, the few Sabhas that held sway over the three-week festival such as the Music Academy, the Tamil Isai Sangham, Mylapore Fine Arts, Indian Fine Arts and R R Sabha saw to it that they had the best peformers and provided them with high-ranking accompanying artists. Every concert promised an inspiring experience, basically comprising the compositions of the Trinity with the last part rounded off by soul-stirring creations of Dasarnama, Papanasam Sivan, Uthukadu Venkatasubbier, Gopalakrishna Bharathi, Bhadrachala Ramadas etc. The viruttams, Siddhar-paattu and slokams at the conclusion invariably left the audience in a trance.

While there has been no appreciable change in the format of the concert as laid down by the venerable Arikyakudi, some warts have crept in to mar the overall performance. The inclusion of the Trinity’s compositions in the initial stages of the concert does provide the much needed ‘kalai’ to the proceedings. Other compositions have their place in the sun. But, the overall quality of the composition needs to take precedence over all other considerations.

A new generation of good musicians is emerging. However, of late the younger artists appear to be in a rush to perform on stage, which, perhaps, is why some of them are led astray in their quest for making it big quickly. Overexposure at an initial stage could lead to burn-out and the loss of a good voice. Voice culture is not given the importance due to it, unlike in Hindustani music where the much needed ‘Sukha Bhavam’ is inculcated as a sine qua non for a good performer!

Carnatic Music is very much on an upward curve as never before! The Sabhas have proliferated, new vistas have opened up and the Music Season today has stretched itself from November to end of January with enlightened Industrialists stepping in and sponsoring the slots. Sabhas, like the Music Academy, are riding the seasonal wave by organising dance festivals that take off when the music series ends.

Despite the feverish pace at which a few of the minor individual festivals progress in January, some of the musicians head for Tiruvayyaru to attend the Aradhana of Saint-composer Tyagaraja at his Samadhi on the banks of the Cauvery in Thanjavur on Bahula Panchami day. Not content with this collective homage, many of the Sabhas, beginning with the Music Academy, stage their own Aradhanas for weeks on end – from Mylapore, T’Nagar and Perambur to Chromepet, Pallavaram and Tambaram! The long drawn programme, ‘Chennaiyil Tiruvayyaru’ by the Lakshman Sruti Troupe is a latter day addition that offers a longer roster of musicians to display their talents.

If this multi-faceted music festival has gone global in recent times, it is largely due to the NRIs who come in hordes from the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world to soak in the divine music. Besides, they also see to it that their children pick up the rudiments of Carnatic Music through the modern conduit of Online Teaching courtesy, Skpe! The Online teachers, on their rounds to attend the many Tyagaraja Aradhana Festivals from Cleveland to California, visit the homes of their students to provide the much-needed personal touch.

Apart from NRIs, musicologists, aficionados of oriental music and the classical arts and jazz musicians, who are into world fusion music, have been coming to Chennai with unfailing regularity to appreciate and sometimes to do an in-depth study of Carnatic Music. They are the torch-bearers who have propagated Carnatic music across leading Universities in the U.S. and Europe.

Are the Sabhas mushrooming at too hectic a pace for comfort? Are musicians recklessly performing every day of the week, thus straining their vocal chords and losing their creativity? Last year, one noticed almost empty Sabha Halls, jaded musicians and bored relatives drawn in to create the semblance of an audience, making a mockery of a hallowed event? It is high time the organisers woke up to the fact that moderation should be exercised.

(vkalidas@gmail.com)