It's December. It's The Season in Chennai. The regulars know what to do, what to expect. And for the music-loving tourist who doesn't, a crash course is inevitable, beginning with the gentle instruction that sa-ri isn't just six yards of local attire.

The emails have begun to trickle in. A friend from Seattle, who is visiting Madras for what she terms “The Season,” drops the names of two concert halls and asks, “I have never been to these two venues so far for kutcheris [concerts] and would like to have your feedback in terms of acoustics, overall experience, seating, AC, etc.” What she's really asking about is the “etc.”, tacked on to the end of the line like a frivolous afterthought but hardly as dismissive as it sounds. Like a deft cowhand with a lasso, it hems in a herd of implicit questions about the incidental pleasures of The Season. Whether the front rows of these venues will seat gawp-worthy personalities. Whether the flamboyant singer who has so carefully been circled on the timetable, like a special class that shouldn't be missed if you are serious about the IITs, will repeat his main-piece stunt that is still discussed, years later, with awe (by modernists) and anger (everyone else). And whether the coffee in the canteen, which is where we head as soon as the percussionists begin to ply us with their prowess, is any good.

The city gears up

The Season, as it has come to be called, is more than just a clutch of concerts squeezed into the only month of the year visitors to Madras — a city famous for its twin patterns of weather, hot and hotter — will not be felled by heatstroke. To locals, it offers the semblance of a well-rounded climate. Within the month, we experience it all, from the blossoming of talent to the swelter of canteens to the fall of a few thousand feet in sabhas to the chill of the critic's appraisal. The Season, to the resident rasika, is an invitation to slap on earmuffs and step out for evening performances, braving curious looks of tourists from cooler climes wondering if an entire city has been afflicted by an unsightly ear infection. He marches on, regardless. This is, after all, his time to catch up with the latest in the insular world of Carnatic music — even if he's not really into Carnatic music. It's the experience. And it's at hand. Just as a film festival draws those who'd rather gouge out their eyeballs than glide through three glacial hours of Tarkovsky, the Season attracts the local listener unseen at concerts the rest of the year. He hotfoots it to the nearest sabha, if only because the wife has shut down the kitchen and begun to dream about dosas at the canteen.

To the artist, The Season is the beefy bouncer at the exclusive club who lets him past the velvet rope: if he's not seen here, he's a nobody. Unlike rock stars, who amass mountains of money through live shows, the Carnatic artist knows that performing during The Season isn't going to put his son through Yale. He's here because he's part of a tradition that dates back over 80 years. He's here because it's a privilege to be asked to perform. He's here because he's a junior artist and he knows that he will not get the opportunity, elsewhere, to advertise his talent in such large halls, even if they are occupied only by indulgent friends and family, all in the first two rows. He's here because he wants to be picked out by the floodlights trained on Carnatic music this time of the year, even by television channels that would otherwise be hosting grave panel discussions about the appropriate name for Aishwarya Rai's baby. He's here because he has a reputation to make and he needs to play the game. Just as a talent scout slips into a high school cricket match to evaluate prospects, organisers of Carnatic music festivals abroad conceal themselves in the audience and, if he catches their eye, lucrative foreign tours are assured. That will put his son through Yale.

Something for everyone

To the sabha secretary, The Season is a time to offset the operating costs of the other 11 months of the year, when musicians fly overseas, making hay under shining suns, and the halls crawl into hibernation. To the homesick NRI, The Season is an excuse to flee the bitter winters of Europe and America. It is an opportunity to polish the diamonds, air out the silks, catch up with gossip, and turn to familiar faces during a concert — ignoring furious shushing from rapt listeners — to ask if they know of eligible girls for their son who, though raised in the U.S., doesn't smoke or drink, and spends his evenings at the local temple, immersed in modern translations of Vedic texts, taking a break only to answer office calls on his phone, whose ring tone, of course, is the Gayatri mantra. And to the canteen manager, The Season is a visiting card. One sizzling batch of spinach-flecked vadas, and he will find himself the toast of the wedding season in January, catering to the increasingly eccentric demands of plutocratic fathers of the bride, last responsible for inflicting the world with tiramisu-flavoured basundi.

The insider, thus, knows what to do, what to expect — the protocol is indoctrinated in him. Unless the curtain rises to reveal a concert stage where the percussionist wields a bongo set, December, to the local, holds no surprises. As if to atone for this apathy, The Season welcomes the music-inclined outsider — an outsider to the city, an outsider to Carnatic music. He is the musical equivalent of a gastronome who enjoys wine, but knows only that it comes in two colours, and is now descending in Bordeaux for a month of wine tasting, from the freshest crop to the finest vintage. But before boarding his flight, he has to study the terrain. He needs to learn about Margazhi — how to pronounce it, for instance, in a manner that suggests the word fighting its way out through a mouthful of marbles. And he will need to know that sabha-hopping is not a colourful local sport, with one-legged contestants breasting the tape at the premises of the Music Academy. It is a formidable undertaking, requiring the kind of planning that characterises a military invasion.

He will begin by breaching the borders of the Kapaleeswarar Temple under the cover of night — oh-six-hundred hours is when the bhajan groups begin their strolls through Mylapore (like carolling, really, except that it's no longer a silent night). Then, at 7:30 a.m., he will return to base camp, a centrally situated canteen, for a bracing cup of coffee. This is where his basic training will come in handy, as he infiltrates the discussions around. Why current-day singers are not as good as the songsters of yore. Why they are actually better. Why laptops and electronic tamburas on the concert stage are simply a sign of progress. Why artists employing these aids should be launched into the Bay of Bengal. What can be done about singers who forget words and need prompting from accompanists. Whether the concerts organised by television channels are better, as they allow musicians to interact with inquiring audiences. Whether the shawl draped on this singer by this sabha came about because of an envelope stuffed with distinctly non-musical notes. How Carnatic music has suddenly become a cool lifestyle statement for a new generation, with kriti-laden iPods tucked into its jeans.

Armed with stories and sustenance, he will head to lecture demonstrations (this is why he needs that coffee) and the early-slot performances, filled with moonfaced youngsters showing off freshly acquired skills to, essentially, extended family, along with a critic, possibly, scanning the horizon with the yearning of an astronomer awaiting an undiscovered star. Then it's lunch, where he may run into a musician or two, beset by fans or perhaps an irate senior, insisting that Udhayaravichandrika is not the same as Suddha Dhanyasi and that a different nishadam should have coloured last evening's concert. That's his cue to head home and change into something more formal, like that sandstone-hued kurta he's bought for the occasion. You don't waltz into the opera in bleached shorts, and you don't step into the evening concerts in anything less than your finest, even though the stage itself is attired in a musty jamakkalam, a weatherworn blanket whose colours have faded, over the decades, from the twitching behinds of a few thousand musicians.

An intimate setting

Once the concert begins, he must be prepared for the periodic rustling of sheaves of paper, like distant treetops in a light wind. These people with these books are simply looking to identify the raga, staunch in the belief that a course in a meal cannot be enjoyed unless the host announces its name. Then there are those who stage a walkout during the percussion solos, to catch their favourite television serials. He will find that these are not breaches of etiquette, frowned upon, and that these are not concerts where he will hear the proverbial pin drop, at least not with sound systems that belch out feedback, as if striving to add new layers of percussion. He will also find this the friendliest music festival he's attended, for, performers on stage, without missing a beat, will routinely acknowledge audience members they recognise. This informality, perhaps, will offer him a clue to the ever-increasing popularity of a music festival that, unlike Glastonbury or Bayreuth, doesn't advertise itself, and is driven largely by word of mouth and an undying love for the art. He doesn't need to have heard of the performers. He doesn't even have to know the music. And if he doesn't get tickets to a concert, there's always another one playing down the street. Every year, he will eventually realise, Carnatic music makes its grandest statement with a festival that feels as intimate as a gathering of family.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012