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The Margazhi makeover

Chitra Swaminathan looks at the December Season then and now

December 12, 2014 07:11 pm | Updated 07:11 pm IST

In tune with the times: Carnatic vocalist K. Gayatri with her tech accompaniments Photo: R. Ravindran

In tune with the times: Carnatic vocalist K. Gayatri with her tech accompaniments Photo: R. Ravindran

It’s 6.30 in the evening. There’s heavy traffic ahead of Narada Gana Sabha on TTK Road. We are behind a long queue of cars. After more than 10 minutes, the vehicles inch forward only to come to a halt again near the Music Academy. The annoyed driver suggests I avoid this road for the next couple of weeks. But isn’t it exciting to find your cultural moorings amid this chaos! More sabhas, more kutcheris, more performers, more rasikas, more food choices and, of course, more traffic, Margazhi turns Chennai into ‘maximum city’.

Ignore the naysayers. As winds of change sweep across the city through the cool December months, nothing warms your heart like the enduring spirit of the Season. A musical feast at the end of the year also signifies the ability of the arts to hold on as much to the past, as their capacity to explore the future and lend a meaningful rhythm to the present. 

As gen-next artistes jostle for space with established names on the crammed Margazhi itinerary, the festival gains new pace and a refreshing momentum. The high-on-tradition celebration is also becoming accommodative of new ideas and experiments with classical artistes forming edgy ensembles, loosening up the repertoire and finding alternative spaces to perform. And when you spot young faces in the audience, you realise ‘classical is contemporary’ is not merely an alliterative statement.

Plurality now defines Margazhi, its emotion and aesthetics. Meet 83-year-old R. Subrahmanyam, a zealous rasika, who in the early 1950s would enrol himself as a volunteer at the Music Academy’s festival, held then at R.R. Sabha in Mylapore, so he did not miss out on a single kutcheri. It also meant serving and watching the “musical giants”, whom he idolised, from up close. And every day, after the four-hour performances, he along with a few other volunteers, would sleep on the  jamakalam  in a room at the premises. The organisers would keep the fans on through the night for the “enthusiastic young team” to rest well. In the morning, Subrahmanyam would get back home to freshen up, only to return to attend the intensely-debated lecture demonstrations of well-informed musicians at the Sivaswami Girls High School. A week’s leave from work at this time of the year was a must for him. It was his much-looked-forward-to annual holiday.

Forty-year-old V. Venkatesh, a chartered accountant, has a ready-reckoner of the Margazhi schedule on his smart phone. He has marked the kutcheris he will be attending and has set a reminder too. He enjoys tweeting live from concert halls and posting his views on review blogs. He’s also friends with some of his favourite musicians on Facebook and provides feedback and suggestions to them.

U.S.-based Mouli is one of the many NRIs, who time their annual visit to their hometown during Margazhi — an ideal way to reconnect with the family, friends and art they have grown up with. A large number of young NRIs, pursuing classical arts abroad through Skype or personal training, also come seeking opportunities to perform and hone their skills. Not to forget the tourists from across the globe who throng the city; a few like Muriel from Paris (who has been attending the Margazhi for more than four decades), taken in by the cultural extravaganza, come year after year.

Mridangam vidwan Umayalpuram Sivaraman, who has accompanied a legion of maestros, in a career spanning 67 years, continues to be spurred by the reach and challenges of this unique congregation of rasikas and artistes. He often sees the reflection of his life in the festival. “We seem to have progressed along with it. We have walked to sabhas carrying our instruments, travelled in cycle rickshaws, autos, second class compartments in trains, and shared a cab with co-artistes without a murmur. There was so much rapport between the main performers and the accompanists that they would rehearse at each other’s houses and discuss the line-up for the concerts,” he recalls.

 Legendary vocalist Madurai Mani Iyer is said to have once gone for a performance in a  mattu vandi  (bullock cart) with his accompanists Lalgudi Jayaraman (violin) and Pazhani Subramania Pillai (mridangam) walking behind him. Well-known flautist N. Ramani with his vocalist-friend Ramnad Krishnan would take a tram to attend concerts at Indian Fine Arts (Gokhale Hall) and Tamil Isai Sangam (St. Mary's Hall) on Armenian Street. And they often walked back to Mylapore, where they lived, since trams stopped plying after 9.30 p.m.

Experience and expertise apart, the vidwans’ impeccable appearance — turban, long coat, silk  jibba , diamond  kadukkan , well-oiled  kudumi , aroma of attar — added to their aura. They were generous in acknowledging a good performance, even of contemporaries or juniors.

There were not many sabhas. The prominent ones were R.R. Sabha, the Music Academy, Bhakta Jana Sabha (Egmore), Indian Fine Arts and Tamil Isai Sangam. Concerts were also held at the Museum Theatre, Ayodhya Mandapam, Simpson grounds, Sangeeth Vidwath Samajam (Mylapore), Perambur Sangeeth Sabha, Hindu High School, and a few other places. None of the sabhas had a permanent hall. One mic would be shared by the main artiste and accompanists.

Technology has changed the profile of the festival and the way music is performed and perceived, says Y. Prabhu, secretary of Krishna Gana Sabha. Today, it’s so easy to be in touch with globe-trotting musicians. He remembers the Season at the sabha, earlier, being restricted to about a week (from December 25) and referred to as X’ Mas festival. And how his father R. Yagnaraman, who introduced the sabha’s famous Margazhi dance festival 35 years ago, would personally go to the houses of the artistes when arranging performances. 

As Margazhi moves into the digital era, young vocalists such as K. Gayatri, have on the stage, along with accompanists, their personal hi-tech speakers with an iTouch docked into them, as well as an iPad and laptop.  

Welcome to the new-age kutcheri where technology keeps talam with tradition!

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