The beginning of the year heralds the start of college festivals across the city. Here’s looking back at the cultural jamborees down the years

Students across the city every year eagerly wait for the months of January and February, the season of college festivals in Chennai. For a city which is left wanting in the shared university culture it offers, it has done remarkably well in making up for this lack with the dynamic college festival tradition it has nurtured.

But how was this legacy scripted?

The roots lie in IIT-M’s (Indian Institute of Technology-Madras) five-day annual college festival. Saarang as it is now known incidentally turned 40 this year. Apart from the indelible mark it has left on the collective experiences of generations of students, what is particularly interesting is the college festival culture it introduced in the city.

Launched in 1974 the IIT-M festival was called Mardi Gras inspired by the New Orleans carnival. In its initial years it began as a college fête with each hostel putting up stalls and students dressing up in costumes. According to V.G. Idichandy, a student during the late 70s, the festival began as an evening bound affair. Soon after the success of IIT-M’s Mardi Gras, Madras Christian College and Loyola started organising their own student festivals. MCC’s Deep Woods and Loyola’s Down Sterling made a name for themselves in the cultural landscape of student culture. However their journeys paralleled a chequered trajectory.

MCC’s Deep Woods was the only one among the city’s college festivals which could rival Mardi Gras in scale and profile. Held in February, Deep Woods was known for putting its weight behind music. Its rock concert and ‘show down’, a battle of college bands across the country, was one of the most anticipated events in the city’s college festival circuit. Established around the late 70s, MCC called off its annual festival in 1980 after violent incidents involving students threatened to spin out of control. It was only after five years that the festival was revived. Down Sterling too had a troubled run. Named after the college’s famous rock band, the festival went on a hiatus and resumed functioning in 1985, to be finally cancelled in 1992. Interestingly the popular song ‘Mustafa Mustafa’ from the film Kadhal Desam (1996) also makes a striking visual reference to the festival validating the popularity that it commanded.

Instances of violent behaviour in college festivals engendered anxiety and suspicion. More importantly this was articulated in interesting ways. Western Music, in public discourse that followed, emerged a tainted form. In the eyes of college authorities the rock shows granted licentiousness which promoted student misbehaviour, violence, eve teasing and drugs.

College festivals however were slowly reigned in. In 1985 Mardi Gras, at crossroads, decided that it had to change the tone of its festival. The institute also attempted to infuse quality control measures and diversify its itinerary by inviting professional artistes to perform and including sports in its slate of events. By the late 80s and early 90s Mardi Gras acquired a traditional air and a new name Saarang.

In general, the budgets of college festivals were scaled down to make them more manageable. MCC’s Western Music show was only one among a sea of activities. Meanwhile other colleges including women’s colleges conducted their own student festivals. WCC’s Festeve and Ethiraj’s Srishti were striking. Fashion shows and antakshari remained the crowd pullers, while off-stage activities like rangoli making, pot and eggshell painting saw enthusiastic participation.

What these college festivals should be proud of is the legacy of a vibrant culture that they have passed on to the city. It has in many ways contributed to the collective experience of what it means to be young in the city— then as well as now.