Unparalleled worldwide, Chennai's annual Margazhi music festival is one that has stayed rooted to its cultural milieu.

India is currently going though one of its most turbulent phases of transformation. Political corruption is at its worst, crony-capitalism threatens to destroy the very fabric of democracy and religio-political vested interests are coercing the common citizen to polarise. Created by the web of these daunting trends is a deep and growing cultural trauma of an India that is arguably alienating itself from a syncretic, modern and dynamic 5,000-year-old civilisation to becoming an unrecognisable, imitative, regressive society, nay, market.

One of the affirmations of India's civilisational sophistication is its evolving traditions of folk and classical performing arts, literature and crafts. The Chennai annual music and dance season held every December and January, known as the Margazhi festival, is a phenomenon of this affirmation.

It is believed that the Madras Music season, originated as a challenge to the British import of its own Christmas and New Year entertainment during the freedom movement of India. December 2010 will witness in about 30 days, morning, noon and night, about 1,000 concerts of music and dance, by about 300 artists in over 300 organisations known as sabhas. This is unparalleled worldwide. And what's more, no concert venue goes without an audience.

In two phases

The exceptional characteristic of this Margazhi Festival is that it has grown organically over the last 80 years with gradually increasing community funding that has enabled, rather than compromised, the festival's focus on authenticity, creativity and merit. Community patronage has unobtrusively substituted the erstwhile royal patronage with lateral support from organisations, individuals and even corporates committed to the promotion of Indian traditional culture, on its terms. But the reasons for this largely healthy trajectory are significant: The first phase of the Margazhi festival up to the 1970s was built on the strength of community audiences for classical arts and tradition. It was simply not about the money. It was only about the music, and the cultural identity that it represented. Artist payments were mere tokenism, ticket revenues were negligible but the audience vibrancy flourished. The people of Chennai thronged to listen to stalwarts like M.S. Subbulakshmi, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and D.K. Pattamal. Maestros like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar were an integral part of the galaxy. Equally, the stalwarts delighted in the challenge of annual certification by a critical audience whose aural sensibility had gestated and ripened over decades. The Madras Music Academy became the prime platform for intellectual and aesthetic debates on art and tradition where all artists worth their salt were proactive. Classical arts became a window to the understanding of cultural history and aesthetics. And the Margazhi festival was not merely an annual eruption, but the culmination of a city's artistic culture that sustained throughout the year in living rooms, sheds, libraries, amphitheatres, temple canopies and parks.

In the second phase of the trajectory that began in the 1980s, the Madras Music season was attempting to reconcile the manifestations of the new economically liberalised India with its own continuing pursuit of excellence. Even with all its commercial compulsions and imperfections, excellence triumphed. By and large, merit and talent never went unrecognised, and artists' fees and revenues were still not the fulcrum. Experience, aesthetics and excellence continued to be the buzzwords. Ironically, the festival grew to an enormous scale and impact not to match up to the ‘mega' concept of globalisation, but in fact to root itself to community audiences within localities. While the physical growth of the Margazhi Festival was to cater, its content was driven by creativity.

This explains why the Margazhi Festival has been largely unaffected by the now dominant forces of mega-corruption, the fashion industry and contrived marketing. It is not the Prada but the Kancheevaram silks that have their annual outing. The colas and fast foods have not been able to upstage the idli-dosa canteens, where audiences confer with artistic passion as they indulge in their ‘tiffin' and filter coffee. Even the sometimes clumsy acoustics or sponsor advertising is overwhelmed by the pervasive musical exhilaration. And the festival's audiences have grown as organically as has the event, as they come seeking the music, the real thing, rather than being seduced by any artificial exhibitionism of it.

Its ‘brand equity'

By the mid-1980s, at least 200 sabhas had become platforms of artistic processes, debates and discourses, and performances. The Margazhi festival was now setting standards for the arts' intelligentsia, and was subliminally demolishing the effects of a crony-capitalism model that was gaining ground in its wider context. It is on these terms that the Madras Music season has gained its “brand equity” (as the marketer would understand it!) as a festival that stayed rooted to its cultural milieu and yet attracted artists and audiences world-wide. Today, even the ‘brand' value of a practitioner of south Indian classical arts is authenticated by visibility at the Margazhi festival

Even as the Madras Music Season 2010 gets underway, it is so far so good. Chennai city is gearing up for the real deal of entertainment. Commercial muscle power has not yet been able hijack and distort this event. There are visible beginnings of inclusivity beyond caste elitism and artistic genres which will hopefully gain ground with the same organic ease as the festival. And classical music and dance sustain the biggest festival in the world, demonstrating that just one strand of India's civilisational products has infinite possibilities at multiple levels of the aesthetic, the intellectual and sheer entertainment. But most of all, a festival that started as a cultural rebellion against pre-independence colonialism could now have become a player in the resistance against post-independence colonialism.

(The writer is a national award-winning film director and a cultural thinker and writer.)


Art and Dance Festival December 9, 2010