It’s Margazhi!

Slowly and steadily, Margazhi’s relationship with Madras, now Chennai, has evolved into something intrinsic; the two have come to define each other. For the city, Margazhi has been written into its DNA. No other city celebrates the December music season the way Chennai does. It is a marquee event, one that has people not just from the city, but from across the world, waiting in anticipation, and planning for months in advance.

The December music scene opened in Chennai this year with as much pomp as could be expected. This year, the city’s sabhas will host some 3,800-odd concerts at nearly 90 locations and at the peak of the season, the number of rasikas would cross 50,000 across venues.

What makes Margazhi more than just an event is how nearly the entire city reacts to the season. There is a whole smorgasboard of content available across forms. Besides the dance season, there are also alternative festivals such as the now popular Ooroor Olcott Kuppam festival, drama shows right through and interesting food options. An added bonus is the salubrious climate in the city. Hotels in the area get booked (the restaurants at a couple of good joints are usually brimming at all times) and autorickshaw drivers at local stands ensure they dress up accordingly and chauffeur the sabha-hopping crowd.

CHENNAI: 19-12-2019-- Canteen at Sri parthasarathy Swami Sabha during December 2019 music season in Chennai. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

CHENNAI: 19-12-2019-- Canteen at Sri parthasarathy Swami Sabha during December 2019 music season in Chennai. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan


But the season as we know it today actually remained quite small-scale for a long time. Just three sabhas — The Music Academy, Indian Fine Arts and Tamil Isai Sangam — had a December music festival. Till the 1980s many sabhas only offered space for the conduct of programmes.

More the merrier

But concerts seemed an attractive option during the season since schools, colleges and courts are closed, and soon, others joined in. And about three decades ago the NRIs too started coming in. It has been two years since Chennai got the UN's Creative City tag and the December Music Season was a key reason. Minister for Tamil Language and Culture K. Pandiarajan said that the tag brought a sense of pride to citizens. He said that the Corporation of Chennai had, along with other organisations, been holding cultural programmes in parks to take music, dance and the folk arts to the public at large. He said efforts to retain the tag would be continued. “The city has been creative even before the tag and the season has been on for over nine decades now. We have had sabhas even in the 18th century,” said historian and secretary of The Music Academy V. Sriram.

K.S. Natarajan of Aanmajothi Trust, which is coordinating the programmes along with The Music Academy and Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in public parks, said more organisations were joining in the conduct of programmes. “The parks have varied audiences and we ensure that the performing artiste explains the art form so that the public can understand. A coordinating body has been formed to encourage the conduct of events. We welcome others to conduct programmes,” he said.

The Ooroor Olcott Kuppam festival, which is organised by environmental activist Nithyanand Jayaraman and vocalist T. M. Krishna, is an independent effort to take the arts to the common man. Residents of the fishing hamlet enjoy all the attention they get and the performances too.

Writer and heritage enthusiast Aindhukaram Kannan, who has been publishing a book on season concerts for 33 years now, and is at concerts from 7.30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily during the season, said that over the years many things have changed. “I see a lot of youngsters and elderly people throng the sabhas but there are not too many middle-aged rasikas. The level of knowledge about music has increased but what has come down is hall etiquette. Though there have been advances in audio equipment, acoustics in many halls are yet to improve,” he observed.

Big draw

Drawn by the music and the great variety on offer, rasikas like Urapakkam resident K. Muruganantham don’t mind driving long distances to come to the city during the season. “I drive about 30 km almost daily to attend concerts in the season and have been doing so for 20 years now. I try to attend two concerts daily. I choose the day's concert based on the listings in newspapers. Acoustics in music halls have improved and so have artistes’ performances in recent years. And I see more youngsters enjoying live music, year after year in December,” he said. Apart from concerts, he makes it a point to attend lecture demonstrations on music and dance since such events help in appreciating fine arts better. Though there are digital options to listen to Carnatic music, nothing brings more joy than live concerts, he added.

Several leading sabhas organise lecture demonstrations in the mornings and these witness good crowds. Despite busy schedules, people do make time for lec-dems. “I know of an extremely busy doctor who made it a point to attend a month-long music appreciation course and patiently waited on the last day for her certificate. Since I knew her personally, I asked her how she made the time for an entire month? When rasikas attend such programmes they are able to appreciate concerts in a better manner,” industrialist Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti, who holds offices in several sabhas,said.

“When Semmangudi Mama (Srinivasa Iyer) became principal of the Swathi Thirunal Music College in Thiruvananthapuram, he had suggested to the King of Travancore to start music classes in schools and the king did so. Kerala has so many classical singers. Schools in Tamil Nadu too had music lessons in the 1950s but it was later discontinued. A revival would help our people connect better with our language, culture and traditions. It would make children more creative,” he added.

Beyond borders

Talking of audiences, one must not forget the non-resident ones from the US, UK, Singapore, Malaysia and the Middle East who form a major chunk of visitors to the city, mainly during the second half of the month. Hotels and guest houses in and around Mylapore get filled up. There are those who stay with relatives too. At the New Woodlands Hotel, there are guests who have been coming regularly for over 30 years now. “Some of our patrons stay for the entire month. And when they leave, they even make next year’s booking in advance,” said a hotel source.

Many NRI artistes too perform in Chennai during the season. “Though they would have performed elsewhere in the world, a concert in Mylapore is something that those from abroad covet. For many, a successful concert in Chennai is like an acid test,” said Mr. Chetti. Hamsadhwani secretary R. Sundar said that over the last 25 years they would have introduced over 500 young NRI artistes. For young artistes, sabha-hopping like the discerning rasika is the thing to do. More performances mean more exposure and "promotion" to a better slot. The top performers usually give evening concerts.

Vocalist and Carnatica founder K. N. Shashikiran said that Carnatic music had also spread across the globe thanks to NRIs inviting artistes over to their countries. “The Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival has become quite large now. And artistes who go to other countries also get a lot of students, who perform in their respective country,” he said.

New ideas

To make concerts a more enriching experience this season, organisers are coming up with novel ideas. Mudhra Bhaskar, founder secretary, Mudhra, said “We have organised ‘Mudhra Yatra’, a photo exhibition of 25 years of Mudhra’s journey. It has pictures of artistes including Abhishek Raghuram and T.M. Krishna, who performed in talent promotion concerts. This year, 30 documentaries on various initiatives of Mudhra would also be featured ahead of the daily concerts.” he said.

The season also witnesses a different kind of rasika, one who likes to satiate his taste buds and if possible take in a song or two. Many leading sabhas have canteens and the fare at the canteens is a hot talking point during any discussion about the season. Canteens do have their own set of loyal customers, visiting regularly to taste new dishes. K. Ramesh of Sasthalaya Catering Service, said: “We have been setting up the canteen in Narada Gana Sabha for the past five years. Many people who come to the sabha eagerly check for new dishes on the menu. This year, we have introduced items such as ‘Karupatti Halwa’ and ‘Sigaparasi Halwa’.”

And for the rasika who prefers to stay home, or is unable to get out, or can only watch concerts online, artistes themselves or fans or organisations ensure concerts or portions thereof are made available online. Some stream them live on social media.

Mudhra has a Paalam webcast project and Paalam Radio 24x7. For the first time during the December music festival, Mudhra plans to host an online music info quiz on December 29 for rasikas and students. Carnatica usually webcasts its New Year programme.

“There is no need for an audience to be tied up to our proscenium. The very paradigm has changed. There are rasikas who watch concerts online since there is the comfort of watching them when they want. There are those who watch the programmes live online and also after the cast is over,” explained Mr. Natarajan. Despite many onslaughts on its existence and some complaining about it being elitist, at 92, the season still remains quite sought after, with sabhas managing even with reduced funding.

(With inputs from B. Kolappan)

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 6, 2021 2:37:24 PM |

Next Story