The protagonists of this sustained cultural phenomenon called the Margazhi Season are not the funders, marketers or the media, but the artistes themselves, says Sharada Ramanathan

The Madras Margazhi festival is a phenomenon not merely because it is arguably the biggest music festival in the world, packing in over 3,000 concerts in over 300 sabha-s in less than 30 days.  Even more significant is the fact that it has, at its epicentre, just one manifestation of Indian culture, Carnatic music. And with each passing year, the festival has grown from strength to strength, despite a politico-economic  global agenda that has virtually eliminated the rightful place of arts and culture in its entirety.

Even as the global creative industries are struggling to cope with market mechanisms, the Margazhi festival has evolved predominantly on its own terms. The music takes centre stage, and there is a clear precedence of substance over form.  The atmospherics of the festival are no less significant. Traditional cuisines  obliterate multinational fast foods, traditional weaves make Fashion TV look foolish and the animated café-discussions of the audience explore the possibilities of the human intellect and aesthetics.

And the protagonists of this sustained cultural phenomenon are not the funders, marketers or the media, but the artistes themselves, as they are the cultural continuum, and their music, the affirmation of a culture.  And some of these protagonists are showing promise to stand the test of time.

Take the example of the living legend, Madurai T.N. Seshagopalan. His genius and body of work serve as a bridge between the past and the future. TNS’ classic rags-to-riches life story is the kind of folklore that would make India proud. But what makes him a benchmark of the cultural continuum is his evolution into a holistic embodiment of what the classical traditions represent. As a Carnatic vocalist, he is an undisputed reference point for absolute classicism and its intellectual challenges; as a master of multiple instruments from the traditional veena to the keyboard, he straddles tradition and modernity without a sense of cultural displacement; as an exponent of the Harikatha form of storytelling, he has come to be a key propounder of traditional knowledge and philosophy that is specially relevant in our times of cultural chaos.

Picking up the thread from where TNS leaves off is today’s Carnatic music superstar, Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Sanjay is symbolic of the today’s iconoclastic mid-career youth that is revisiting tradition from its own modern experience. Ironically, it is Sanjay’s fiercely uncompromising approach to his music that has made him equally a youth and intellectual icon. He synergises hard-core classicism with modern charisma. His raw voice — distinctive from today’s synthetic mainstream voice culture — with the finest aesthetics is a lethal combination that makes even the technical aspects of Carnatic music attractive to the uninitiated. Sanjay’s approach to music has its own brand of healthy politics. As a matter of principle, he is known to refrain from performing in lucrative platforms such as weddings and private parties; and Sanjay’s concerts have a deliberate dose of Tamil compositions, almost as if language is as important for his identity as is his music.

Since the freedom movement of India, Carnatic music has never been employed so directly as a socio-political tool as it has been by T.M. Krishna. Krishna’s concerts reflect a mind that pushes boundaries of musical improvisations and questions structures and formats. It is the same mind that has directly questioned several socio-political norms from capital punishment to the media-marketing of social issues. And he has used music as a vehicle to reach out to the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Krishna’s music has come to be symbolic of a raw youth that is defiant of any form of unquestioned socio-cultural indoctrination.

Bombay Jayashri’s musical disposition could well be perceived as a metaphor for the woman’s search for quintessential feminism and femininity. Jayashri’s body of work has had an interesting focus on women bards and their poetry on love, life, nature and womanhood. Although Jayashri’s forays into multi-language, multi-genre music is reminiscent of M.S. Subbulakshmi’s endeavours in her time, so is her increasing focus on the shringara bhakti.

After Chitravina Ravikiran and Mandolin Shrinivas comes the most recent prodigious son of Carnatic music, Abhishek Raghuram. Abhishek represents a force of the future. His musical genius could have easily found its way to the alluring opportunities of the mainstream. But he has made his choice, as have scores of other young aspirants, to defy the mainstream and pursue Carnatic music. Abhishek’s music is reassuring as it is representative of a generation of youth that will work against the tide, if it must, to draw from the best of tradition to give voice to the synergy between mind and soul, between home-grown aesthetics and excellence.

And the Madras Margazhi festival can take credit for being the most influential and inspiring platform for successive generations of artistes and audiences to rejuvenate and celebrate a cultural tradition that they can call their own.

(Sharada Ramanathan is a film director, cultural thinker and writer.)