The phrase “Woodstock generation” captures the social and cultural phenomenon that the famous Woodstock Art & Music Fair triggered, inspiring a sense of liberation and hope in an entire generation. The December Music & Dance Festival which is the toast of Chennai every year has not found an equivalent, except maybe for the “December Season”, with the festival having become a symbol of the month and the city of Chennai. But it has grown quietly into a significant movement, taking within its fold younger and newer audiences.
When I returned to Chennai as a 23-year-old, the season did not interest me. I thought it was an extension of the forced music lessons I underwent as a kid. The experience of studying in a university that encourages free thinking had sown the seeds of rebellion against the established order. Five years later now , the year does not feel complete without the December season.
What is it about the December season that shows the potential of classicism to attract even relatively uninitiated audiences? To begin with, at the core of the festival is good music which is capable of transcending its complex grammar to appeal universally. The sangati -s and brika-s can make the music seem inaccessible but a gradual acquaintance with it leads us to the core which evokes the mind and the senses. It is a brilliant opportunity to watch great minds at work day after day.
The performance venues transform into vibrant community spaces. The canteens invite us to steaming cups of filter coffee and hot vada -s, but also to a space where you can soak in fiery debates and pleasant interactions. They provide the perfect platform for free association — it’s a part of the order to go sit at a table with people we’ve never met before and strike up a conversation, something we would not normally do at a restaurant. In fact, the atmosphere releases us from all that inhibits us socially. If we have become increasingly guarded in our human interactions, making judgment calls and restricting ourselves essentially to those we believe are “like us”, the Season comes as a refreshing change. It liberates us from this mindset and is the ultimate community experience.
The vigour with which the young have taken to the festival perhaps holds out a few important insights. It tells us that contrary to popular perception, we 20- and 30-year-olds are actually seeking out alternatives to the pace of a modern, urban life. Even as this life has been built around ideas of efficiency and instant gratification, we are looking for something quite different. The world of the classical arts which rests on processes of evolution and nourishment, and a life centred on growth with no assurance of immediate returns, is one of the places where this search finds meaning.
It also tells us that the process by which young people recognise the value of heritage and classical traditions is somewhat complex. It is not necessarily the direct outcome of having been raised in homes where the strains of classical music played in the background, though this might be true for a lot of us. The rest of us have travelled the world, interacted with other cultures, been stimulated by metallic rock, and embraced the classical traditions voluntarily, each of us in our own unique way.
Usha Ramesh, cultural connoisseur and Executive Director of Brahaddhvani — a research and training centre for holistic music education, offers an interesting perspective. She says of the December season, “It’s unique in that there isn’t a single organising body. There are concerts running simultaneously in several sabha -s, giving music lovers a sense of spontaneity and festivity.”
On the festival drawing in younger audiences, she says: “I’d think the proliferation of musical talent shows might be a reason, as there is this belief that classically trained voices have a unique advantage. Sustaining the interest of the youth is an organic process. Efforts at dispelling the notion of classical music as not being for everybody will go a long way. So will structuring musical curriculum in an engaging manner. Classical music can also become the contextual window to world music. I already see this happening with a number of bands which are inspiring the imagination of the young.”
Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan, leading violinist and December season regular, says, “I play through the year in different parts of the world, but the December season is special. There’s a palpable sense of euphoria and joy that pervades the city — there is literally music in the air! It’s almost like the cricket fever that grips the nation. I find young people who have not necessarily been introduced to the classical arts increasingly drawn to the festival out of a sense of curiosity. We must capitalise on this interest and find ways of sustaining it. I think chamber concerts are a wonderful way of connecting with a younger audience. They make the artiste more accessible, and create an environment of pure, undiluted music.”
With its undiluted classicism and wonderful aesthetic appeal, the December season endures and grows richer every year. More importantly, with its interesting paraphernalia and sense of vibrancy, it has added a new dimension to the concept of “an evening out”.
(Preeti Mohan is a practising advocate in the Madras High Court and a classical music enthusiast.)