The music season


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THE Music Season has its origins steeped in history. From time immemorial, the month of Margazhi (December/January) has been considered particularly sacred, as Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita states that among these months he exists as Dhanur masa, which is the Sanskrit equivalent.

Not surprisingly, it has been the practice among temples in Tamil Nadu to offer special worship to the deities during the month. No weddings are conducted during this period and no material transactions are undertaken by the orthodox as they believe that all of their waking moments are to be spent in the contemplation of the divine. Among the Vaishnavites this month is held in great reverence, for it was when Andal, the only lady Azhwar (12 divine saints), composed 30 verses on Lord Vishnu called the Tiruppavai. The Vaikunta Ekadasi falls around the middle of this month and the verses of Andal and other Azhwars are sung on all days. The Saivaites celebrate the Ardra Darshanam when the asterism Tiruvadarai is in the ascendant. On that day, Lord Nataraja is said to have danced for the pleasure of his devotees, Patanjali and Vyaghrapada.



Music and dance can thus be said to be have religious sanction during this month. However, it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the season as we know it today became crystallised. With the decline of the Tanjore court from 1799 and the death of Tipu Sultan the same year, Madras emerged as the new centre of power. It attracted businessmen such as the Nattukottai Chettiyars and the Komutti and Beri Chettis who all settled in Black Town (now called George Town). The Mudaliars followed suit. Brahmins, both Telugu and Tamizh speaking from Tanjore and Tirunelveli moved in, attracted by better employment prospects. The establishment of the High Court in the 1860s, created a new breed; the lawyers, who were to dominate the city for over a hundred years. Landowners and royalty followed suit. All these people were patrons of music and soon Madras became known as the musical capital.

In 1927, the Congress party session was to be held in the city. Foremost amongst its organisers was S. Satyamurthy, the famed lawyer, theatre actor, orator and freedom fighter. Given his friendship with the musical fraternity, he pressed for the organising of an All India Music Conference to coincide with the party session. This was agreed and the conference and exhibition of musical instruments was held at the Spur Tank, Madras, beginning from 24 December 1927. Concerts were held at a pandal erected in the Spur Tank and conference deliberations were held at the Museum Theatre.

During the discussions it was proposed that an academy for music be set up in the city. Thus came about the Music Academy, which was incorporated on 22 January 1928, with U. Rama Rau (noted physician and Chairman of the Legislative Assembly, Madras) as President. The Academy was formally inaugurated on 18 August 1928 by Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Ayyar at the YMCA Buildings, Esplanade. The Academy began holding the occasional concert and it was during its first annual conference in 1929 that it was decided that a week long music festival be held to coincide with Christmas week. The logic was sound. The courts were closed during that period and the sahibs were having several rounds of merrymaking. The native society leaders were at a loose end and this gave them something to do.



The Music Academy, however, came to be dominated by the Tamizh Brahmin lobby and the Andhra element decided to set up the Indian Fine Arts Society in the mid-1930s. Both sabhas organised music programmes in December and both operated from the then cultural hub, North Madras or George Town. By then Mylapore was fast emerging as a choice residential area and music began gravitating to it. The Academy began a long journey south, holding its conferences sequentially at the Senate House (east Madras), Royapettah (south centre) and finally Mylapore (south) where it functioned for many years from the Rasika Ranjani Sabha premises and its surroundings before moving into its present building in 1962.

In 1941, the Justice Party, the prevailing anti-Brahmin sentiment and, above all, a rise in awareness of the beauties of the Tamizh language saw the birth of the Tamizh Isai Sangam. This was the third sabha of consequence and its decision to hold music programmes during Christmas week led to a raging debate in The Kalki and other papers as to the viability of three sabhas existing in the city. Then in 1945 came the Tyaga Brahma Gana Sabha (Vani Mahal) to cater to the residents of T. Nagar. By the early 1950s, came the Mylapore Fine Arts Club and the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. It was, however, in the 1970s that the sabha boom actually happened, resulting in the situation as we know of it now with 70 odd sabhas organising over 2500 programmes spanning six weeks.



The music season usually kicks off by the last week of November, with a few small sabhas beginning their programmes earlier than others. Many of the city sabhas do not have premises of their own and consequently they need to plan their programmes in advance of the biggies in order to utilise available venues. For instance, the Kartik Fine Arts begins its programmes on December 1 at the spacious Narada Gana Sabha venue, where it continues till the 15th. That is when the Narada Gana Sabha begins its own programmes and so the Kartik Fine Arts moves to the RR Sabha premises. By the 21st, the RR Sabha begins its own programmes and so the Kartik Fine Arts moves to Anna Nagar where it hosts a series of Tamizh based music concerts at a college. The Kartik Fine Arts operates out of four different locations successively.

The big sabhas and many of the older established ones either have premises of their own or long standing rented venues and therefore do not suffer from this problem. Many of the fledgling sabhas simply operate out of the nearest kalyana mantapam (marriage hall), hotel or school premises. These are not built with acoustics in mind and hearing music in such places can be nothing short of torture.

The first week of December sees the influx of Indians from abroad. Earlier such visitors had to perforce stay with relatives and friends, with the New Woodlands Hotel being the only lodging nearby. Now there is a proliferation of hotels and paying guest accommodation, the latter offered by parents with children living abroad and whose flats are much larger than what they really require. The Woodlands continues to operate at full capacity nevertheless.

It is quite simple to spot the NRI among the crowd of local attendees. The NRI typically clutches a mineral water bottle, has a handycam (which he/she surreptitiously uses to record concerts till noticed), has a concert and song guide in hand and sports ethnic clothes (saree/dhoti) which do not wear well. They also have repetitive tales to tell of how they hosted a musician when he/she came to perform at Milwaukee or Chatanooga and based on this tenuous connection will try and meet up with the musician once again and re-establish contact. The poor musician, no doubt having accepted a three month overseas tour, will oblige, in anticipation of some much longed for tayir sadam in the US.



For the musicians the season begins looming large even by the middle of August when they are approached by sabhas and booked for concerts. Fans keep a tab on each artiste’s popularity by counting the number of performances during the season. If an artiste suddenly drops down in the concert count from the previous year, the rumour mills begin to work overtime. Voice failure, miscarriage, divorce – all these are speculated on and analysed.

Overseas sabhas too keep a track of performances during the season and overseas tours are often decided on this basis. All this puts pressure on the artistes and many are forced to accept more concerts than their stamina permits. There are only a few who set a firm limit on the number of performances. But that requires great courage. Most artistes prefer to run the risk of cancelling concerts at the last minute rather than not accept them at all.



Next comes the awards fever. Sabhas begin announcing their awards by the middle of September. Carnatic music has never been free from awards, but it was only in 1942 that the Music Academy decided to award the President of its annual conference the title of Sangita Kalanidhi. The Indian Fine Arts Society followed suit with its Sangita Kala Shikhamani. Today we have over seventy awards given during the season by sabhas big and small. In terms of money, they mean little, but artistes consider them as appendages to personal prestige and accept them regardless. It is not a surprise to see an artiste receiving the Sangita Kalanidhi, also receive an obscure award with a cash component of Rs 1000 from a two year old sabha operating out of a kalyana mandapam.

By mid-December, the season is in full swing with the Music Academy and its close parallel the Narada Gana Sabha having begun their festivals. Artistes and audiences have a tough time keeping track of various concert dates and programmes. The smaller sabhas stick to evening concerts by prominent artistes. The bigger ones have full day programmes. Mornings are devoted to lecture demonstrations, afternoon concerts are free and showcase young talent, while evening concerts are ticketed and feature the big stars.

The vernacular and English newspapers and periodicals bring out special supplements on Carnatic music, with profiles of artistes past and present. Websites devoted to music provide schedules online which are used by the tech savvy. All sabhas bring out booklets comprising their own schedules, with the Academy’s being a glossy affair (but of late full of factual mistakes and printers devils). Kannan’s Season Comprehensive Guide is an integral part of the season. Brought out single-handedly in earlier years by a bank official, it now receives sponsorship, but the effort remains Kannan’s own. It lists concerts by dates, venue and artistes. There are many reference books of songs that help lay audiences identify ragas, talas and composer names. The problem arises when songs in different ragas have the same opening lines and that is when the knowledgeable person (who is sitting in the next seat, with a faintly superior air) comes in useful.



Canteen facilities are a major attraction. Four sabhas have established themselves on the strength of their culinary and musical fare. These are the Music Academy, the Narada Gana Sabha, the Mylapore Fine Arts Club and the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha. The last named, around 103 years old, was however a late entrant to the December season. In the old days, Krishnamurthy of the Music Academy canteen was a treasure whose Kashi halwa was relished by many. The chef supreme at the Music Academy now is ‘Mountbatten’ Mani. He acquired this prefix after being reportedly praised by the Viceroy himself during a lunch at the Raj Bhavan, Madras. Mount Mani paid Rs 1.30 lakh for bagging the contract at the Academy this season.

He is well patronised by music lovers and others who simply came to have a meal or snack. But Mount Mani pales in comparison to what three brothers have been upto in the other sabhas. Arusuvai Natarajan, the eldest, caters to the populace at the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha and the banner that announces him as the chef is larger than the sabha’s own. His brother Jayaraman holds sway at Narada Gana Sabha, while youngest brother Kannan operates from the Mylapore Fine Arts Club.



All three brothers have made the season a food festival in its own way. Natarajan specialises in full-scale meals while the others top the charts by way of snacks. It is a common sight to see artistes relaxing in these canteens after their performance, fawned upon by fans. Old timers remember with fondness such epicures as Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Dr S. Ramanathan and M.D. Ramanathan coming to the canteen and discussing matters musical and otherwise with those present. Some of the more fastidious are of the view that canteens dilute the importance of music, but a sabha without a canteen is perceived to be dull fare.

Music fans are themselves divided into three groups. There is one which is never satisfied with what is offered now and claims that with Semmangudi no more all that was good in music has passed on. Yet this group continues attending concerts, always hoping of hearing something that will recreate old memories. This group is, however, best avoided. The second follows a single idol (whoever that may be) from sabha to sabha. They will not countenance listening to any other artiste. The third is the one that really keeps the season going. With eclectic tastes and preferences, a growing knowledge and curiosity they throng the sabhas.

How do the artistes, having to cater to as many as 21 concerts in the month, often to the same audience, manage to offer variety? A lot of planning is involved and several artistes learn new songs for the season in order to offer something new every time they sing. Yet the season does put them under a lot of pressure and it is only the most hardy and seasoned performers who are able to take December in their stride. In addition, the cool weather of Madras during the season causes a plethora of throat problems.



Waiting to catch the artiste at an unguarded moment and looking for an opportunity to pounce on them, are the critics who represent various dailies and periodicals. Each one has his or her own favourites whom they assiduously promote. The critics, often over burdened with too many concerts to attend, usually write the most perfunctory of accounts with little depth. Gone are the days of detailed analysis that Kalki or Aeolus (S.V. Seshadri) were capable of.

The electronic media with its mega serials offers tough competition to the season. 8.30 pm usually sees a thinning of audiences as they prefer to go home and watch the soaps. It is only the top two or three artistes and that too on a good day who are able to retain a full house till the end. Out of deference to changed times the concert duration has also been reduced from the earlier four hours to two and a half. A rather innovative series of programmes is the Margazhi Maha Utsav, the brainchild of a private production house. A series of concerts are held from 1st to 15th December at the Chettinad Vidyashram (among the best auditoriums in the city). These are open to all and generally attract record crowds. The concerts are recorded and telecast live over a private channel from the 15th to the 31st December. Sponsorships have poured in and this could be the way of the future.



The season as we know it, is not a commercial success. Most sabhas, barring the top ten, are operated by fly by night operators. Despite heavy gate collections, artistes are fobbed off with a mere pittance. The prestige that the season has acquired, however, forces artistes to accept these terms in order to be simply seen (and heard). Sabhas largely thrive on sponsors who view the whole event as a charity. The other commercial interests of the city such as hotels and shopping malls do not participate in the season, thereby preventing it from acquiring a broader appeal.

The government has remained indifferent, which according to many, is a positive thing. The city’s infrastructure – transport, roads and accommodation – all come under severe pressure and this has only worsened over the years. The crying need is for buses to transport audiences to nodal points, but even this has not been thought off. Most sabhas were built during the days when there were few cars and these buildings have handkerchief size parking lots. The chaos in the surrounding areas during the programmes can only be imagined. The younger generation remains largely untouched and the season also has a Brahmin tag attached to it. Fortunately, music heritage walks, screening of vintage films and the music quiz have all somewhat increased the appeal of the season.

Yet it is that time of the year when Carnatic music makes a statement and manages to hold its own against television, cricket, cinema and other entertainment. Even if only once a year, it resurrects itself and stands out, testifying to the eternal nature of its appeal.