With around 50 sabhas organising a mind-boggling 2,000-plus concerts, Chennai’s biggest attraction, the December Music Season, is a veritable treat to the senses.
With music wafting from all corners of the city, the average rasika, who at times takes a break from work, attends close to 40 concerts. Armed with a concert guide, rasikas go from one kutcheri to another, drenching in music and indulging at canteens.
Though it seems that the season has been here for forever, it is just 80 years young, says historian V.Sriram. “It was in 1929 that the first music festival was held during the Christmas weekend. It was the Music Academy that began the concept of the festival. It was only in the 1980s that many sabhas started organising music festivals in December,” he says.
In the 1880s sabhas such as Thondai Mandala Thuluva Vellalar Sabha and Gana Manohari Association (these no longer exist) were concentrated in north Chennai. Slowly localities such as West Mambalam, Mylapore and T.Nagar became hubs, he says. And in the recent years, sabhas have begun mushrooming in the suburbs too.
President of Federation of City Sabhas and Secretary of Narada Gana Sabha R.Krishnaswami says: “We do have members from Madipakkam, Chromepet and Nanganallur. But residents in the suburbs prefer to attend concerts closer home… the reasons being transport and safety.”
On the trend earlier, he says: “We used to have programmes till midnight and the government used to arrange special buses from the sabhas. But those days are over. Now each area has its own organisation and senior artists go to the rasikas.”
Artists deem the experience of singing in the suburbs, often to a new and different audience, very enriching and valuable. Pointing to the contrast between the city’s music festival and performances in the suburbs, Saxaphone exponent Kadri Gopalnath says: “In the city there are so many sabhas and rasikas are sometimes confused as to where to go on a given day.” Emphasising the need for making Carnatic music accessible to all sections, he says it is important that the festival goes to other parts as well.
Some artists note that though the remuneration from sabhas in the suburbs may not match what the big city sabhas give, the experience is definitely worth it.
Mr. Gopalnath, who performed for an audience in Kodungaiyur last year, says the season spreading geographically will only enrich it in many ways. Vocalist Nithyasree Mahadevan feels Carnatic musicians have always been singing both in “posh” city sabhas as well as the smaller organisations in suburbs and villages. However, “it is heartening to see the season spreading to the outskirts,” she says. “Who knows, a child in the suburbs might be inspired and decide to learn the art and emerge as a great artist, later,” she says. There could be differences in the ambience or acoustics sometimes, but that is of little significance. “All that matters is the music itself and the rasikas,” says Ms. Mahadevan.
Organisers in the suburbs say many concerts are held in January to suit the availability of artists who are otherwise busy during the December music season in sabhas in the city. T. S. Thiyagarajan of Sri Sayee Vivekananda Vidyalaya, Kodungaiyur, one of the few places in north Chennai where concerts are held regularly, says that even those who are not really into Carnatic music have begun to take interest in attending concerts.
They say that the availability of venue holds significance for organising such festivals. Many opt to hold them in schools, parks and marriage halls due to lack of auditoriums. S. Bashyam of Tambaram Music Club says: “We have not been able to hold week-long concerts for the past two years due to unavailability of venue. Such concerts are a boon to residents here as not many of them can travel to the city during the season.” Ramesh Raghavan of Papanasam Sivan Karanata Sangeetha Sabha in Madipakkam says their annual music festivals have been on for over 20 years now and not just senior artists, but a lot of up and coming artists are also encouraged.
The December Music Season is also getting bigger with different organisations coming in to promote genres of music.
The season starts as early as November. And in the calendar are Hindustani, Folk and Sufi, to name a few. From the November Fest to Bharat Sangeet Utsav, Poetry with Prakriti, Mamallapuram Dance Festival to Chennai Sangamam, the city has become a melting pot of cultures. Elite clubs such Gymkhana Club have also joined in to offer the same to its members and invitees from other clubs. In the years to come, the club is adding Hindustani music and dance to its December calendar.For the art enthusiasts, there is definitely a lot in store!
(With inputs from Deepa H Ramakrishnan, Meera Srinivasan, K. Lakshmi and Liffy Thomas)