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Where are the millennials in Chennai’s Margazhi music season?

Vignesh Ishwar at a MadRasana recording session where listeners could plug in with headphones

Vignesh Ishwar at a MadRasana recording session where listeners could plug in with headphones

It’s December, and a cool and breezy Chennai looks forward to the glittering Margazhi season. This is the place to be if you love Carnatic music. This is where stars are born.

Nowhere else in Asia does classical music get such a grand forum: Chennai hosts some 1,500 to 2,000 concerts over six weeks. Margazhi is older than the Edinburgh International Festival, and almost as old as the Salzburg Festival.

It is truly remarkable that a provincial music festival that began in 1927 has survived this long; and in fact grown in size and global acclaim.

The story of Margazhi is one of real success — thanks to the many sabhas, the musicians, teachers and audiences.

Behind the shimmer, however, is another Margazhi story that is hardly ever told: it is the story of stagnation and struggle. And about a possible dead end.

Over the years, the number of concerts and artists has grown substantially — but neither audiences nor financial returns have kept pace. The buzz around the hundreds of concerts that mark Chennai’s December calender have not translated into increasing footfalls, diverse audiences or more money for the artists, except for a few star performers; who too settle for a much lower fee than what they typically charge.

In stasis

Poor patronage and poor payments points to the stasis and fatigue that plagues the season: events continue to be held in old-fashioned venues, with poor seating, poor acoustics and indifferent lighting. Musicians invariably find themselves performing to predominantly older audiences rather than attracting the younger generation.

The Akkarai Sisters

The Akkarai Sisters

Except for the top stars, just a handful, the concerts in most sabhas often have no more than 100-150 listeners. The greater the number of performances, the thinner the attendance, because it is the same captive audience that gets distributed across venues. The newer, upcoming singers get the morning or early evening slots, when half-empty halls are the norm. These timings are a disincentive for any performing artist: who wants to sing to empty seats and a handful of loyal friends and relatives unless you are a hapless beginner?

To be fair, poor patronage and a predominantly greying audience is the norm for all forms of classical music the world over, even for jazz. According to a 2012 audience survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, U.S., only 8.8% of Americans had attended a classical concert the previous year, compared to 11.6% a decade earlier. Also, a disproportionate majority of the audiences was white, suggesting a demographic homogeneity.

In the West, though, these single digit numbers still translate into financial viability. Besides, Western classical music and jazz have another distinct advantage over Carnatic music: they have takers and stars around the world. For instance, a recent live-streaming of a Gustavo Dudamel concert from Mexico was simultaneously watched by about 44,000 people. We have no equivalent surveys for Carnatic music, but live streaming across continents is rare and viewers may not exceed a few hundreds.

Safely stagnant

Personal estimates, feedback from musicians, and anecdotal evidence all point to very small numbers of listeners for Carnatic music. The audience may not be shrinking (although some veterans say it is), but it is certainly not growing either. It is safe to say it is stagnant. Compared to the 8-10% public interest that’s reported for Western Classical music, Carnatic music may not have a patronage of even 1% of the population. It’s a tragedy that the music is getting confined to a handful of older people, and that most of them are either unable or unwilling to pay for the music, resulting in very poor gate collections except for the stars.

The concert fee for musicians is the lowest in the Margazhi season, as performers confirm. The sabhas don’t pay more than a pittance, with the accompanists getting even lesser. Sub-accompanists, such as ghatam and kanjira players are the worst off. “Many organisers say they don’t have much money; that they are doing it out of passion; that we too cannot miss the opportunity,” says a young and popular musician.

What explains this predicament? The exclusivity of the sabha ecosystem, which stops the event from becoming more popular, cosmopolitan or to cross over to more audiences. This automatically limits sponsors as well, and gate collections are too low to make up. And finally, the artists themselves seem unable to shake off the inherited socio-cultural baggage associated with the music.


Both sabhas and musicians stay stuck in a time-warp, wedded as they are to the “illusory safety of past practices,” to borrow a phrase from Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, who famously predicted in the 90s that the future belongs to the “Experience Economy,” where people would value experiences more than goods and services.

Experience economy. That is precisely the era we are living in now. It’s mostly driven by millennials and their penchant for experiences rather than physical assets, and all artforms face a bigger generational disadvantage than ever before. To this demographic, Carnatic music appears dated, staid and ritualistic, with little contemporary appeal. Stuck rigidly in the past, it cannot even lay claim to a chic retro allure.

Tapping into FOMO

In fact, however, Carnatic music is not boring, not ritualistic, and not cerebral as the sabha stereotypes will have us believe. It can be sharp, smart and exciting, lending itself to endless improvisation like jazz. Some concerts are as engaging as edge-of-the-seat thrillers. Some top Carnatic singers demonstrate this X factor and have probably reached the top precisely because of it. Strangely, their ‘coolness’ quotient increases as they go further from Chennai. These stars are even bigger stars outside home, their music considered edgy and fashionable, their idiom appealing to millennial listeners and fans.

Aruna Sairam

Aruna Sairam

In the West, the experience economy has changed the pop music industry: album sales disappeared and it was streaming that brought in revenues. Musicians now lean on live shows, which have evolved into pretty electrifying affairs. There is so much value addition that it draws in even non-regular audiences.

A British survey found that only 8% of the audience at such events was festival goers; 53% came for the experience. FOMO is real, and so is the need to announce “look where I am!” on social media. And the music industry has tapped into this anxiety.

Interestingly, in March this year, Deezer, the music streaming service, recorded a 270% increase in subscribers to its most popular classical music playlist, a BBC report said — and 43% of the new listeners were millennials. This is where Carnatic music has failed. It has left the millennials behind. A handful of musicians such as Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Bombay Jayashri, T.M. Krishna, and Aruna Sairam have constantly broken new ground by innovating with form and content, improvising, making the concert unpredictable, creating contemporary repertoires and localising them, and making it about the audience. No wonder a sizeable chunk of their audiences, particularly outside Chennai, are younger people.


Crossing over

It’s unfortunate that as sophisticated and enjoyable a classical form as Carnatic music hasn’t crossed over to younger audiences, and that a large number of its practitioners are perpetually struggling to make ends meet. Even the low-paid concert markets, including those overseas, are controlled by cliques and it’s a perpetual struggle to make ends meet unless one finds a break in film music or fusion bands, or agrees to sing at weddings and private parties.

The only way out is to innovate and make the ecosystem around Carnatic music more popular and experiential without watering down its classicism or quality. It’s about a paradigm shift that will contemporise the concert.

It has worked for other forms of classical music or jazz. Gustavo Dudamel, Yuja Wang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lang Lang, Kamasi Washington and several other musicians are commercially successful stars, who haven’t compromised on classical values. They represent traditional art with millennial appeal.

Bombay Jayashri

Bombay Jayashri

Would it work for Carnatic music? Of course it would. And it’s demonstrated by MadRasana, a Chennai-based voluntary initiative. Since its inception in 2016, MadRasana chose to break away from the sabha culture and concert etiquette and to seek younger and more cosmopolitan audiences, which in turn expanded the market for Carnatic music. “When we started, we had two objectives: first, to improve production values and second, to make more people listen to Carnatic music,” says Mahesh Venkateswaran, founder. “Our promotions are only on social media, which is where the millennials are.” Even for free concerts, the audience needs to make some effort, such as signing up or sometimes donating to charity.

To place classical music in contemporary settings, MadRasana organises garden concerts and concerts in plush cinema halls. They also arrange for live, intimate settings where people can sit close to their favourite artists and listen in on headphones during recording sessions. They create curations for workout sessions and music videos for songs. All this, while ensuring that the classical essence is not diluted. “Our primary message has been, if it’s your first time in Carnatic music, this is the place for you,” says Venkateswaran.

The response has been tremendous. A lot of people, mostly young, and several from States outside the south, who haven’t been exposed to Carnatic music, attend MadRasana concerts or watch their YouTube videos and they seem to like what they see.

The MadRasana YouTube channel has doubled subscriptions in a year and the feedback has been great. “A lot of people from other countries such as Brazil and Argentina are showing interest,” says Venkateswaran. Their Konnakol videos, Carnatic percussion language sometimes explained to foreign audiences as Indian scat, or of the Kanjira Quartet have attracted listeners worldwide.


No gimmicks

If Carnatic musicians want further evidence of what draws in younger, cosmopolitan audiences, they don’t have to look further than the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The two Carnatic concerts held at the Biennale so far — one by T.M. Krishna in 2017 and the other by Sanjay Subrahmanyan this year — were runaway hits and had a predominantly young audience.

A detailed Sarasangi ragam-tanam-pallavi by Subrahmanyan had the audience on its feet, a stunning demonstration of how Carnatic music can easily cross over without gimmicks or dilution. His accompanists S. Varadarajan (violin) and Neyveli Venkatesh (mridangam) were also cheered regularly.

There was no rigid concert etiquette, the audience was uninhibited in its show of appreciation and yet fully attentive to the nuances of pure classical music. The response to Carnatic music has been similar at book fairs, art shows, film festivals or thematic music events. Getting out of stuffy sabha halls is clearly a major step forward.

A few singers have realised this. They stay with the sabha system in recognition of its immense contribution to sustaining the form, but have also found a millennial idiom. The majority, however, are still trapped by the burden of old practices. They don’t realise that their music needs fresh air, new connections and very different platforms in order to stay alive.

@pramodsarang is a journalist-turned-UN official-turned-columnist based in Travancore.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2022 3:25:59 pm |