The roots of the music season lie in a gathering which had to be postponed to ensure an audience, finds Nitya Menon

On Sunday, Music Academy inaugurated its 87th annual conference kickstarting the Margazhi season in Chennai. For thousands in the country and the world over, this remains one of the most anticipated events of the year around which their calendars are scheduled. For the city, the month of December offers an opportunity to revel in the urban legacy it has nurtured.

But the birth of this annual cultural phenomenon was not all that seamless. The Madras Music Academy, constituted by the All India Music Conference in 1927, came into being through a rather protracted process. M.S. Ramaswami Aiyer, who gave the inaugural address at the opening ceremony of Music Academy on August 18, 1928, explained that the Academy came into existence only after two unsuccessful attempts. R. Raghunatha Rao and T. V. Seshagiri Aiyer had previously sought to institute a forum for music but did not live long enough to see their plans bear fruit.

Even the first conference faced a hiccup. The annual conference, popularly known as the Madras Music Conference, was to be held during the Christmas week every year. However, the first conference could not start as planned. The session had to be postponed. Musicians, scholars, and patrons were keen to attend competing music conferences in Calcutta and Alwar scheduled at the same time. They had already committed to participate in them.

It was eventually planned for the Easter break between March 29 and April 1 at the lecture hall of the Senate House in the University of Madras in 1929. On Friday, March 29, at 2 p.m., the zamindar of Seithur declared the first Madras Music Conference open. The first to perform in the conference was the esteemed Desamangalam Subramanian Aiyer who played the veena. The following three days were devoted to a series of seminars and concerts.

Admission to the conference was free for members of the Academy and tickets were priced at Rs. 5 and Rs. 3 for the public. Members and first-class ticket holders were provided the privileged option of reserving their seats on paying an advance of Re.1. The proceeds of the conference were to be channelled to institute a college of music – a long-felt desire in the Madras presidency.

For the convenience of travel, arrangements were made after coordinating with the Police Commissioner and bus owners and buses were plied to and from the Senate House from Mylapore, Parrys Corner, Egmore and Purusalawakkam.

The first Madras Music Conference drew to a close on April 1 and was deemed a success. By November that year, the Music Academy published a comprehensive report accessible to the public about the conference. It included the full text of presidential addresses, debates, papers presented, and performances held providing an authoritative account for students and professionals alike.

From the following year, the annual conference resumed in the month of December. The Madras Music Conference, which once was shuffled around to accommodate competing music conferences to gain an audience, now dominates the realm of classical music festivals.

The first conference’s most significant legacy thus was to mark on the world stage the city’s music season in December.

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