Do Chennai’s public spaces accommodate live music?

As the city gears up for a busking festival with 50 shows in parks, stations and malls, local musicians tell us how conducive our public spaces are

This weekend, whether you are strolling down Panagal Park, or navigating through shoals of crowds at Central Railway station, or Christmas shopping at Marina mall — pause and look around. If you find a group of people playing Illayaraaja, AR Rahman or other Tamil hits, you are witnessing On The Streets of Chennai’s ‘Awe50me Weekend’. This busking festival is right around the corner, with 50 shows being played at almost 50 venues across the city, over the course of two days.

“We have been taking live music onto Chennai’s streets and public spaces every weekend since January and this will be our 50th time,” says Rashmi (‘Rash’) Nandita, who co-founded On The Streets of Chennai with Senthil Raj. To commemorate this, the duo is taking on what they call a ‘culture adventure’ in bringing the street music scene to the city.

What started as a five-member group a year ago, has now swelled to an 80-member team as word of their attempts to bring in the busking culture spread within Chennai’s tight-knit music community. “We have various bands and musicians who perform with us. For this weekend, about 70 of us will split into 10 groups and perform at different venues simultaneously,” says Rash.

All for a smile

Do Chennai’s public spaces accommodate live music?

‘Busking’ conjures up images of musicians with their guitars, singing at city squares and subways. But the truth is, street performances have long been a part of the Tamil ethos, points out Eddie Prithviraj, director of Unwind Centre. “The whole aspect of taking music and dance to the streets is in our culture — look at Therukoothu. It is just that this generation’s style of music is completely different, especially in cities,” he says.

Unwind Centre, as part of its Road to GIF celebrations, organised busking at the Central Metro station, and will hold another this Sunday at the recently opened pedestrian plaza in Pondy Bazaar. Incidentally, the plaza has become a talking point in the community, with many musicians hoping it will attract more public performances.

There has been a definite surge in the busking scene, believes singer-songwriter Mr Kev, who has been busking on and off since 2015. “I started busking just to build my confidence. To stay in touch, you have to practise in front of an audience. Entertaining strangers at gigs becomes second nature then,” he says.

For two years, Mr Kev played with his guitar at Elliot’s beach in the evenings, convincing people to come listen to him, and crowd testing material. “I learnt a lot about body language, how to identify what kind of songs people will like, whether they are enjoying or not… And also what to say and not to say to strangers. There can be a thin line between friendly or charming and creepy,” he says.

Initially, he would be thrilled if someone listened to him for even 20 minutes. By and by, he learnt to hold crowds for up to three hours. However, his most loyal audience? “The street kids. They would stay for whole sets!”

By playing in public spaces, Chennai’s musicians hope to introduce the mass to different genres. Arjun Madhavan of Unwind Centre hopes to do this by playing what they call ‘clean, responsible’ music. “This way, families will also be more open when their kids want to get into the music scene,” he says.

For On The Streets’ Rash and Raj, however, the primary driving force has been just one thing: “We want to spread smiles and positivity everywhere with our music.”

Do Chennai’s public spaces accommodate live music?

But can you perform anywhere?

While the city has enough public spaces: from beaches to parks, a music performance might at times be termed as ‘public nuisance’. “I played at Besant Nagar for two years until they chucked me out,” says Mr Kev. He was asked “gently” by the police to get permission from the Commissioners’ office, before somebody could complain. After which, he started playing at Thiruvanmiyur.

“Today, busking can’t be spontaneous, it has to be pre-planned, by taking all the right permissions — as it should be,” says Eddie. But getting permission, explains On The Streets’ Raj, is not an easy procedure.

To beat that, they generally work with groups who already have permission. “For example, when we perform at Thiruvanmiyur beach, we do it through the Thiruvanmiyur Walkers’ Club, who already have permissions there. In parks, we have to talk to the park authorities,” he says.

On The Streets has also collaborated with the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. “The UCCN has tied up with Chennai Corporation, so it is easier to do such programmes,” he says.

The Busking Festival will be held on December 14 and 15. For more details on line-up and venues, follow @onthestreetsofchennai on Instagram.

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 2:42:09 PM |

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