IF IT'S December, it must be destination Chennai. Margazhi is not just about music, it's about tourism too.

We have heard of eco-tourism, wildlife tourism, heritage travels and medical tourism that have taken off well. But this mecca of classical arts seems to specialise in `culture tourism'.

Most hotels, particularly the ones with an average tariff go on a `no room' reply during this tourist-friendly season. Says Kumar, manager, New Woodlands: "Each year, the inflow of foreigners and NRI rasikas is on the rise. Most of them get their accommodation booked seven or eight months in advance. Some even get it done for the following year before leaving the city after the festival. The rush is so much that we have to disappoint many as the preference is given to our regular clientele."

Hotel Maris renovated 35 rooms before the start of this year's festival for its `cherished' overseas guests. "Among them are many Tamilians from Singapore, Malaysia, London and the U.S.," says the hotel's general manager, N. Murli Parthasarathi. "This much-talked about annual cultural mela has earned Tamil Nadu global recognition. Together ITDC and TTDC can tap the event to tourism's advantage."

Bala Batavia, who has been in the U.S. for more than 25 years, times his annual vacation to coincide with the music festival. "Over the years, the festival has evolved and there's so much happening. Which means to enjoy the festival you need not be a die-hard classical enthusiast anymore. There's something for everyone — light classical, classical, fusion, Other Festival, seminars,... ."

A professor, he has introduced some of his foreign colleagues to Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. And a few have even started attending the Chennai festival. "We need to see this rare creative congregation as an ideal cultural tourism concept," he stresses.


"It's a great idea," agrees a senior Tourism Department official. Going by the growing response of the tourists to the Mahabalipuram Dance Festival conducted by the TTDC and the Tourism Department, the Chennai carnival can successfully be turned into a traveller's delight.

Of late, the patrons of the performing arts have been crying hoarse about the crude commercialisation of such an artistic endeavour. But the new-age audience and artistes seem to look at it as a fall-out of changing times. "When we are battling to save our heritage from imported influences we should not hesitate to tap the potential of tourism and thereby attract larger audiences," points out another regular at the margazhi utsav, U.K-based Sinhalese Srilanka Raja. For the past eight years, he has been spending every December in Chennai sabhas. Raja feels that a more organised set-up, devoid of chaotic programme schedules, can attract a large overseas audience, encourage exchange of ideas and bring in the much-needed revenue."

"Tourism doesn't mean dilution of quality or deviation from tradition. On the contrary, it will lead to interaction that will broaden the performer's perspectives. The current craze for contemporary themes and fusion works is an outcome of this," says Vijay Palaparty, a U.S.-based marketing management student and Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer. "The more the audience the merrier it is for the artiste. After all who wants to perform to empty halls?" Yet he has his own doubts about branding this self-sustaining cultural fiesta. Vigorous marketing may mar its aesthetic appeal.


To make his sabha's presence felt in the crowded cultural December scene R. Ramachandran, secretary, Hamsadhwani, started an offbeat NRI Festival eight years ago. His aim was to provide a platform for musically accomplished Indians settled abroad to showcase their talent. "This left-out but artistically inclined lot was just waiting for something like this to happen. And the response was spontaneous. So, 30 recitals may soon become 50." Ramachandran also plans to set up an NRI corpus fund, an NRI friends club and open centres abroad with NRI patronage.

Verena Klameth, a Swede based in Italy, has been coming to India for more than a decade to pursue her passion — Bharatanatyam. "My year-end visit serves twin purposes, learning and watching the art." In spite of food and accommodation problems, Verena is unable to resist the temptation and an annual trip to Chennai is a must on her list.


"Enriching and exciting experience," is how most of the students of the Colgate University, New York, put it. A select group headed by Professor William Skelton was here to present a collaborative work with Bharatanatyam exponent Sudharani Raghupathy. Coming from various academic fields, they underwent a 20-day training for the joint show - Puhar. Rachel, one of the students of the group, says "You can appreciate this ancient art only when you understand it. Every other thing (bad roads, pollution, fleecing autowallahs, etc.) pales into insignificance when compared to the lovable people here and their enviable heritage."

"The foreigner and NRI presence also means the opening up of more avenues for artistes. Many return to their countries and remember to invite you for their performances," says senior Bharatanatyam dancer Urmila Satyanarayana.

"What Salsburg is to Austria, Chennai is to Tamil Nadu. But the difference lies in the way they keep visitors hooked to Mozart and his immortal music. Everything is well laid out for their convenience. We too can make the most of our rich past and a happening present. We just need to package and present it more attractively," says the danseuse.

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