T.N. Krishnan on the timeless aura of the Margazhi festival, the thrill of performing with vidwans and going to kutcheris in a tonga

I was 15 when I made my debut in 1943 in the Madras December Festival. I accompanied the renowned musicologist and musician K.R. Kumaraswami Iyer on the violin at a 3.30 p.m. kutcheri for the Music Academy.

The 10-day festival was conducted by just three sabhas. The Music Academy's music and dance recitals were held at R.R. Sabha, Indian Fine Arts' at the Gokhale Hall in Armenian Street and Tamil Isai Sangam performances at the St. Mary's Hall in Armenian Street. Lecture-demonstration sessions were conducted only by the Music Academy and were held in the morning at the National Girls High School, Mylapore. It was also the only sabha that had music recitals in two slots — 3.30 p.m. and 5.30 p.m. Later, a late evening slot (9.30 p.m. to 11 p.m.) was introduced exclusively for instrumentalists. The likes of Professor Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan were featured in this time slot. In the other two sabhas, kutcheris were held only in the evening. The Music Academy festival — performances and morning conferences — later shifted to P.S. High School.

The lively lecture-demonstrations and discussions at the Music Academy were much looked forward to by musicians, scholars and music-lovers. They boasted a formidable line-up of stalwarts such as C.S. Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Tiger Varadachariar, Professor Sambamoorthi, Muthiah Bhagavathar, T.N. Venkatarama Iyer and more. Each had strong views, and sometimes, there would be a clash of views and heated discussions. Yet, there was no mud-slinging or personal attacks; all the speakers had a deep passion for the arts. Dance would also feature on the agenda and it would be fascinating to listen to ‘Bharatam' Narayanaswamy Iyer and E. Krishna Iyer talk on it.

Season was also the time to tap young talent. Several aspiring musicians would take part in the music competition conducted by the Music Academy and were judged by experts such as Palghat Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.

The rasikas at the kutcheris were mostly from Mylapore, Triplicane and Mambalam. Many of them would walk to and fro from Armenian Street for the kutcheris. There were also tram and bus services to Armenian Street. Whatever the mode of travel, it didn't take much time to reach Armenian Street from Mylapore as there was hardly any traffic.

The tram was a big attraction for me. I enjoyed every ride. But, for my concerts, I preferred to take a tonga, which was a luxury then. I always liked to travel to the sabhas in comfort. Though not many foreigners visited during the Season like now, a few, especially students of universities and music institutions abroad would attend the performances. Some would even stay back to get trained in Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam.

The season also provided the opportunity to listen to the best of Hindustani musicians such as Roshan Ara Begum and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.

I was known as Master Krishnan and was in my teens when I accompanied musical giants such as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Madurai Mani Iyer, G.N. Balasubramanian, Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer. It was a blessing and a great learning experience to perform with them. Though I was much younger, they were extremely encouraging, respected my talent and gave me ample opportunities. The vidwans performed three and four concerts during the Season and when not performing would be seen seated in the front row enjoying the kutcheris of fellow musicians. All had an expertise in certain ragas or compositions and the audience would come looking for these specialties. For instance, Vishwanatha Iyer was known for his rendering of the ragas Mohanam and Arabi and GNB for the kriti ‘Sri Subramanya namaste'.

Even if the concerts stretched beyond the stipulated time, rasikas would patiently savour every note. The tani avartanams were relished as much, and nobody would walk out. Interestingly, we used to perform without microphones. There were no mikes at both Gokhale Hall and R.R. Sabha. Later, the sabhas started providing one mike that would be shared by the main and accompanying artistes.

But the vidwans of yore made up for the frill-free stage with their impeccable attire — silk or khaddar kurtas, spotless white panchakatchams, zari-bordered angavastrams and dazzling kadukkans.

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