Music

December Music Season: The great survivor

Sanjay Subrahmanyan performing at Krishna Gana Sabha on December 25, 2014   | Photo Credit: RAGHUNATHAN SR

The December Music Season is one of the great cultural survivors of our time. It has been written off repeatedly and yet it has gone on. When it began, it was just a handful of sabhas with around 20,000 followers at most. Survival at that level is more or less assured since the attrition of patrons is made up by new arrivals. What is important is that it has survived even after growing exponentially — a cultural statement of commitment by artistes, organisers, patrons and sponsors.

The Season’s history is also a story of evolution — of changes in technology, audience tastes, performing venues, and much more. It began at a time when concerts were still held in open-air venues — the 1927 All India Music Conference was held in tents at Congress Nagar, an impressive name for a makeshift location on the dry bed of the Spur Tank in Chetpet. There was no amplification then, but ambient noise levels were practically non-existent. After all, that was a time when Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha, operating from the verandah of a house, was the city’s premier music organisation. Rasika Ranjani, with its new-fangled notions of chairs, proscenium arch, and balcony seats was still two years away.

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

In 1936, we find the Music Academy’s souvenir announcing artificial amplification for a Veena Dhanam performance as also for a concert by Brinda/ Mukta/ Abhiramasundari. That is the first mention of microphones and speakers. The concept of public address systems for Carnatic music had begun three years earlier, at the Kumbakonam Mahamakham. Concerts, however, were still open air — there were complaints of poor acoustics at closed-door settings such as the Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street. Artificial amplification in a pre-built venue was clearly not to the taste of audiences. But this gradually became the norm. Today, we find artificial amplification whatever the size of the venue. Amazingly, the Asian College of Journalism’s mic-less auditorium has found no sabha expressing interest. Maybe, in time to come, a venue like The ARTery in Balaji Nagar with its chamber experience will take this forward. But the present amplification is at more or less Kumbakonam Mahamakham levels.

Open-air to closed door

Today, closed-door venues for the December Season are taken for granted. Yet, at least till 1939, the Music Academy was experimenting only with outdoor locations.

When Rasika Ranjani Sabha remodelled its venue in the 1950s and Annamalai Mandram threw open its doors at roughly the same time, non-airconditioned venues were still the norm. While work on the Music Academy’s TTK Auditorium progressed, the debate on AC vs natural ventilation continued. Eventually, the AC won, as it did at Annamalai Mandram. But it is interesting to see how several other well-known locations — Mylapore Fine Arts, Vani Mahal and Sastri Hall, for instance, continued for quite a while without air-conditioning. Eventually, they all toed the line — mainly due to ambient noise. By the time Narada Gana Sabha was built, there was no debate. Mandatory air-conditioning has led to several other problems — a perennial cough in the audience, for one, plus December throat for the musicians, and instruments constantly going off pitch. Till date, no sabha has got its AC settings right, it’s either freezing or sweltering. It is in this context that an experiment like MadRasana becomes interesting — it began with the possibility of outdoor venues but the city put paid to that. However, their virtual offerings are all recorded outdoors, with no changes in the editing room. The outdoor concert minus ultra-powerful speakers still has its pluses; the pity is that most of us don’t realise it.

Ramakrishnan Murthy performing for Madrasana

Ramakrishnan Murthy performing for Madrasana   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The NRI effect

One of the key features of the December Season is the contribution of the Non-Resident Indians. There can be no denying that the Season declined in the 1980s and revived only in the following decade, when international travel eased up with liberalisation, as did communications. The NRIs, with their music associations (they don’t call them sabhas there) became the new patrons. The December Season became their evaluating ground, for identifying talents to be invited overseas, for concerts, lectures and teaching. Even in the virtual concert era, NRI patronage remains key for Chennai’s sabhas. There are special block offers, and the hope that large numbers of NRIs will buy tickets and log in to concerts remains eternal. But long before COVID, Lalitharam’s Parivadhini channel had already begun offering such a service. Even within India it has, with other similar offerings, worked wonders for those with mobility issues, in particular the elderly, who form the bulk of Carnatic audiences. Yet another shift has, therefore, happened.

In future years, while in-sabha performances for live audiences remains a possibility, streaming to homes is the new reality. It will be interesting to see how Carnatic music overcomes the biggest challenge in the latter variant — short attention spans of not more than 10 minutes. It makes you smile when you remember the storm that broke out in the 70s, when the Music Academy reduced its concert duration from three hours to two-and-a-half.

Sudha Ragunathan performing for Kartik Fine Arts at Narada Gana Sabha

Sudha Ragunathan performing for Kartik Fine Arts at Narada Gana Sabha   | Photo Credit: K_V_SRINIVASAN

The December Season has always survived more on sponsorship than ticket sales. There may be great challenges in future to this, particularly the latter aspect. The present trend is to practically demand that a YouTube or Zoom link be provided, for free. It was bad enough for many rasikas to expect musicians to live on love and fresh air, but at least people landed up at venues to listen. But now, to expect as a matter of right that all performances be beamed free into homes is expecting too much. Hopefully, this trend will change. And all may yet be well. After all, the December Music Season is the great survivor.

The Chennai-based author, a historian, writes on music and culture.


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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 1:03:07 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/december-music-season-the-great-survivor/article37805582.ece

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