More than just music: A Margazhi in Madras

During Margazhi music season, there’s a palpable excitement in the air — the expectation of soul-stirring concerts, ladies dressed in Kanjeevarams wafting from venue to venue. | Image - Eunice Dhivya

In less than a month from now, Chennai will usher in yet another year of its famous music season also known as Margazhi music festival. Held in the Tamil month of Margazhi, which runs from mid-December to mid-January, the relatively cooler and balmy weather of the city is welcomed with strains of Carnatic music. Enthusiasts are seen sabha (music hall) hopping in droves, and one would find them busy following their favourite artistes with their concert schedule.

Sabhas or venues that host artistes from across categories such as debutants, juniors and seniors, come alive with back-to-back concerts. And there are organisations that surface only during the margazhi season with their programmes.

Women clad in exquisite Kanjeevaram silk sarees and jasmine flowers adorned on their hair, are a regular to the scene. The festive feel is amped up by food canteens that cater to a broad range of gastronomical escapades. The micro economy around the festival is complete with home stays, serviced apartments and hotels in and around the epicentre of the festival — Mylapore — being flooded by showgoers from overseas and other states.

The festival which began as a small set of concerts around 80 years back in erstwhile Madras Presidency under the British, has today become a carnival of sorts, bringing together a diverse group of people, soaking up the melody and rhythm of classical music and dance, alongside other art forms like instrumentals, theatre, harikatha, etc.

While there are performances around the year, the convergence of music, audiences and the artistes assumes a crescendo, like a befitting ode to the end of the year and an equally beautiful beginning to a New Year.

The time of the year everyone waits for

All through her 10-year stint in Chennai, Vasanthi Shankar has never been to a Margazhi event. However, for the last three years, now based in Cheltenham, UK, she has been visiting the southern city with her daughter, who has a keen interest in the genre. From performances at the historically significant venues of The Music Academy to Bharath Kalachar, Vasanthi’s itinerary is dominated by shows of Bombay Jayashri, Abhishek Raghuram, Ranjani-Gayathri and relatively new names like Malavika Sundar.

The season is more than the music, and a lot about the ambience, she says. “It’s the atmosphere in ‘those’ parts of Chennai. There’s a palpable excitement in the air — the expectation of soul-stirring concerts, ladies dressed in Kanjeevarams wafting from venue to venue, students of music with their notebooks, earnestly writing down ragams, kritis (compositions), and taalams (beats), the lesser-informed rasikas metaphorically scratching their heads over ‘idhu endha raagam (what raaga is this)’,” she says.

Violinists waiting to perform for a concert (kutcheri). | Photo – iStock

Then there are people like Dr Malabika Mitra, who originally hails from Assam and has been living in Chennai for two years now. An ardent fan of Carnatic legend M Balamuralikrishna, Malabika calls the margazhi experience enriching.

“I love theatre and other forms of arts as well. For me, margazhi is a time to connect with music and dance, and with people who enjoy them,” she says.

Malabika has been taking her eight-year-old daughter, a ballet dancer, too for the concerts. “She enjoys the dance programmes a lot and I want her to be exposed to different forms of art,” she says.

Joy of performing

For renowned vocalist S Sowmya, the euphoria and the excitement around the season has remained the same for years — from being a young learner who went around sabhas as an eager rasika to being one of the most sought-after performers during the margazhi season now.

“Nothing has changed for me.  The festival is like a wedding ceremony — full of pomp and splendour,” she says, adding that she has eight concerts lined up this time.

It is not just senior artistes. A young performer, Shreya Devnath, a violinist and vocalist, also observes the density of performances during the season.

“It is not that artistes surface around this time. During the season, the sheer density of performances is the fascinating part—you perform probably at least 20 times then,” she says. “I am doing a solo in the morning on violin and later in the day, I don the hat of an accompanist, and then as a collaborator and so on. Each of these roles demands a separate mind and gives you a different space you occupy. All these happen in that one month — it is a huge thing,” she says.

Season of Melodies
  • Margazhi season, aka Madras music season, first began in 1927 as a small series of concerts or kutcheris
  • The almost two-month festival led to the establishment of The Music Academy
  • First held in April-May, it was shifted to December due to favourable weather and to attract tourists
  • At least 3,000 artistes perform during the Margazhi festival
  • Initially started to showcase Carnatic performances, the fest now has dance and other art forms
  • Harikathas, dance dramas, besides instrumental concerts for nadaswaram, violin, mridangam, also form a part

California-based dancer Visalini Sundaram, who performed during the festival last year, calls it an augmenting experience.

“Last year, I really enjoyed watching Meera Sreenarayanan at the Music Academy, which was new to me. Since then, I’ve been watching more of her online and saw her one more time in person. But I have always enjoyed watching dancers like Priyadarsini Govind. I am excited to be coming for the season again to perform a solo and watch performances, attend the Natya Kala Conference, and meet more people like me,” she says.

The taste of Margazhi

K Srinivasan, who has taken over the reins from his father ‘Mountbatten’ Mani Iyer, loves crafting menus for the margazhi. After all, he has a reputation to live up to. The title of Mountabetten was bestowed upon his father by Lord Mountbatten himself after tasting his delicious South Indian spread.  The canteen, run by the family for concerts under the aegis of the Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, will turn 10 this year.

Srinivasan says the canteen is popular for its variety. “A good number of them (enthusiasts) are middle-aged or senior citizens. I have a fixed menu for them with the staples like idli, dosa and vada. A new item every day during the season — be it chocolate dosa, spring rolls, cheese balls or chaat items — is prepared keeping in mind the kids. Moreover, there are a number of non-Tamils and a good section of Jains who visit the festival only for the food. I keep in mind their preferences as well,” he says.

Canteens too have evolved with the festival, explains food and travel show host and chef Rakesh Raghunathan. “Almost 15 years ago, these canteens were only set up for the sake of convenience. It was for the older crowd comprising couples and NRIs, who took up rooms around the sabhas. They were given home-like food — rice, sambhar, rasam, curd, etc. Over the years, they have morphed to become a planned menu which is unique to the caterer.”

An artiste performing a classical dance on stage. | Photo – iStock

The caterers who specialise in wedding food have become central to the canteen system, using their creativity and experience to conjure up menus.

“They have come up with their own formula looking at the appreciation and response they receive from the audience. I understand that the menus are curated keeping in mind the artistes performing on the particular day,” Raghunathan adds.

Challenges aplenty

While the number of young performers has been increasing year after year, the same cannot be said about the audience, rues N Murali, president, The Music Academy.

“The average age of the margazhi rasika (fan) is not going down and that it is a cause of worry. I hope that this changes in the coming years, as schools have music as an extra-curricular subject,” he says.

Radha Bhaskar, musician and musicologist, and treasurer of the 25-year-old Mudra, an organisation that organises concerts, says that the numbers coming in for the shows are dwindling too.

“The dip is because of factors like commuting. A person travelling from the suburbs to the centre of action in Mylapore will have to spend a couple of hours on the road due to traffic. This is one important reason for the dip in numbers,” says Bhaskar.

She adds that one must keep the momentum alive all through the year. “Carnatic music is for a niche audience and it cannot be compared to popular arts. It will not have the same size of audience. We have to embrace the digital push as well; in Mudra, we have started digital sabhas. Every Sunday, on Palam TV, we air the concerts we have conducted with relevant subtitles on information related to compositions, apart from lecture demonstrations and national conferences. We have succeeded in reaching out to audiences far and wide through such initiatives,” she says.

The other issue is the problem of plenty, observes celebrated singer OS Arun. “It would be wiser to have organisations coming together to organise concerts rather than each of them having too many of their own,” he says.

Younger performers too can play an effective role in ensuring crowds at the shows, opines Sowmya. “When I was young, I was a regular at the concerts of many stalwarts as a listener.  After their shows in the morning slots, they should attend concerts of seniors and other artistes in the latter part of the day,” she says.