In Madras, ‘tis the season of song and dance


In December, this city in southern India breaks into a month-long celebration of all things classical with more than 2,000 concerts of music and dance, making it one of the largest cultural events in the world

It is that time of the year when Chennai is abuzz with excitement. All over the world it is festive season as well, with Christmas and New Year being celebrated across the globe.

The flavour of the season in Chennai though, is the Marghazi festival of music and dance commonly referred to as the Music Season. The six-week long festival begins on the first day of the Tamil month of Marghazi on 15 December. With a number of large and small kutcheris (Carnatic music concerts) being performed by experienced and highly competent musicians, the festival is filled with excitement. It has now acquired the distinction of being one of the largest cultural events in the world. These six weeks are event packed and during this time more than 2,000 concerts, lecture demonstrations, expositions and deeply intellectual, knowledge based discourses and debates are held. All music related, of course!

The music season is by all parameters, a resounding and an outstanding success and the success of the festival is unequivocally reflected in the fact that it has been extended to a two-month period of musical extravaganza, very similar to the Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz festival. It is now a long-drawn affair and will witness hectic activity in order to accommodate budding talent as also, the long line of accomplished and veteran musicians, who have carved for themselves, a niche and a reputation, of sorts, as Stalwarts and have a legion of rasikas (fans) and their own place in the musical firmament. An astounding characteristic of the event is that a single genre—Carnatic Music—is the mainstay of the entire festival.

The festival is a recurring annual event and has now spawned off a flourishing industry, built around the music season with mushrooming music shops, canteens selling South Indian cuisine, technological start-ups showcasing their innovations for classical arts with mainstream cinema multiplexes exhibiting music and dance-based media products.

The actual and the original purpose behind the festival is to allow people who delight in Carnatic music to listen to their favourites and also cater to the connoisseurs of music who have eclectic tastes, discerning and who can appreciate the nuances of Carnatic music and can ride the crescendo to ecstatic heights. It is also providing a platform to blossoming geniuses who want to reach stratospheric heights and etch their names in those rarified heights. The festival has become more than just a show. People from all over the world now descend into Chennai to partake in this carnival. It is now evolved into one of the greatest music shows on the planet.

The genesis was in 1927. The founders of the Madras Music Academy would hold music concerts in different locations every year. Moving from one city to another, the festival took place in the months of March and April until it found its permanent abode in Madras on TTK Road. The weather in Chennai during this time is very pleasant, hence the event was hosted during this time of the year. From 1928 onwards the festival was held in Chennai every year in December and the tradition continues till today.

Initially, the festival was a purely an all Carnatic affair with music concerts, harikathas, lecture demonstrations and award ceremonies, the festival has widened in scope now. It is now appealing to a wider audience. Now they have started hosting dance, drama and several non-carnatic art forms. It begins in the afternoon and ends late in the evening. A plethora of artistes are now performing during these power-packed six weeks. There could be more than 2000 performances by a galaxy of artists whose count could vary from 600-800.

The performances during the festivals are organised by sabhas (or music halls) like the Narada Gana Sabha, Krishna Gana Sabha, which are geographically spread all over Chennai. These sabhas also bestow titles and awards to the performing artists.

During the Marghazi festival, you can witness a wonderful chemistry between the artists and the audience. The sabhas are colourful to say the least—the silk sari, kurta and the dhoti are not just concert attire but also a fashion statement. At the festival, you can see connoisseurs hum along in the concert precincts or you can find coffee table analysts critiquing over a plate of mouth-watering vadas (lentil-based delicacy). Young music students try to lay bare particular points in the concert and from an analytical perspective and raga theory. And there are concert hoppers who try to maximise their joy by hopping to as many concerts in a day because they cannot decide and take their pick.

This festival has grown organically over several years and has developed a life of its own. The sabhas have mushroomed over the years and there are hundreds of sabhas across the length and breadth of Chennai, ranging from thatched roofs to posh auditoria and are run by connoisseurs and experts who also double up as entrepreneurs.

The origin of the Marghazi festival can be traced back to the freedom movement. It was established to counteract the elite Christmas and New Year celebrations of the British. The Indian elite drew upon their cultural traditions to challenge the cultural imperialism of the British. It has its own special place in the annals of Indian history.

If you want to partake in this cultural jamboree and be a part of the excitement you should plan a trip to Singara Chennai (beautiful Chennai) during December.


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