The annual Music Festival conducted in December-January in Chennai is a unique phenomenon. It is the largest festival of its kind in the world, with close to 2000 performances of music, dance, drama, spiritual discourses, lecture-demonstrations, discussions and related events.
While the essence of the festival is entertainment through these forms of art, there is an impressive gastronomic delight built in – In the close to 60 odd sabhas or organizations that host the various activities, impromptu canteens spring up, catering mouth-watering dishes relished not only by the rasikas who attend the programmes, but also by the local residents who take full advantage of these temporary canteens. Indeed, many of the performing artistes also join the rasikas in enjoying the menu!
Started in 1927, the Madras Music Festival (the original name from days gone by when Chennai was Madras) has grown to its present gigantic form over the years, thanks to the generous patronage of the corporate world, and the discerning music fans (rasikas) who come from all over the world.
While most enthusiasts coming from abroad (USA, UK, the Middle East and Singapore for the main part) are Indians, there is a growing number of westerners with interest in Carnatic Music who attend these concerts.
In 2017, most sabhas are reported to have had between 50 and 100 people of non-Indian origin every day, especially for the music and dance events. The Season provides a platform for established artistes as well as budding ones to showcase their talent.
My wife and I attended this year’s season. While we regularly travel to Chennai during the Season from wherever we are, we would rarely get more than 3 or 4 days of quality music. We decided long back that this year would be different. And it was. We stayed put for 18 days in all, soaking in the grand art in all its glory. And we found that the Season has evolved over the years, in more ways than one. Here is how:
The first, and perhaps the most satisfying aspect was the quality of the performances. There has always been this lament of doomsday pessimists that Carnatic music is on the decline, that a few years down the line, it would be relegated to history books. Even the wackiest pessimist would have had a change of heart had they, like us, attended the festival this year.
A vast majority of performances were by talented youngsters in their 20s and thirties. And they performed like stalwarts! There was no sign of undue nervousness, no stage fear. Instead, all of them exuded supreme confidence in the way they went about displaying their understanding and even mastery of the complex art form that Carnatic music is.
The selection of kritis, the pace of delivery, an occasional remark about some significant aspect of a raga or composition – this was, for us, a pleasant change from bygone years when artistes came on stage, belted out their fare, and left. Today’s performers do not seem shy of communicating with the audience – and every time this happened, I saw the audience love it. Without exception.
A few years ago, one of the magazines lamented the “death” of the Ragam Tanam Pallavi, the ultimate jewel of the Carnatic music platform. This year, the audience was treated to a veritable feast of RTPs! Indeed, a new term has emerged – the RTK – Ragam Tanam followed by a weighty composition (called Kriti) to underpin the beauty of the chosen raga.
The quality of accompanists: A missed or misplaced note (referred to as abhaswaram) played by the accompanist can stick out like a sore thumb, disturbing the flow of the main singer and audience satisfaction. It is a tribute to the teachers and trainers of today’s young accompanists that the cynic in me could not identify a single instance of abhaswaram in the 40 odd concerts I heard this season. On the contrary, some of the violin accompanists were superlative, matching the main artiste note for note, unfazed by the stature of the senior they were accompanying.
Never shy of going back stage and talking to artistes, I had the pleasure of conveying my sentiments to many of these youngsters. Many of the new (to me, not the regular concert goer in Chennai) violinists I met were all students of Sangeetha Kalanidhi Smt Kanyakumari. I mention this because the Parur and Lalgudi schools are known to produce violinists who strictly adhere to sruti suddham or purity of notes. Here is another set of high level performers being trained by one of the top violinists of today – what can be more reassuring about the future of our heritage than this?
As for the percussionists, no amount of praise is enough. Every single mridangam, ghatam or kanjeera player seems to a master of mathematics, so sure is their grasp of laya. Sure some of the less experienced ones need to mature, but they don’t lack talent, they merely need on-stage experience. Which, thankfully, is abundantly available. Which could well be the reason for yet another significant change noticed this year – far few people walk out during the solo by the percussionists, and this in turn motivates the artistes to perform better.
The ubiquitous internet and its ally, the sophistication of present day smart phones, have made a huge difference too, unlike in the preceding years. It is possible to find out details of the song being sung by looking it up instantly on the internet – knowing about the composer, the raga in which it is being sung, and especially the ability to follow the lyrics as the kriti unfolds on stage, has made a huge difference to the overall enjoyment of the concert. That’s technology aided entertainment in the truest sense!
Time keeping: An extremely satisfying aspect noticed this time around was the clockwork precision with which the major sabhas conduct their programmes. The Music Academy has always been very strict with schedules, but other sabhas are catching on quickly. My wife and I experienced only one instance of a programme not starting on time. I may be unaware of other lapses in this, but the general consensus is that most places the programmes start and end on time.
Themed events: Finally, a whole new range of themed events are adding value to the festival. Ranjani and Gayatri, arguably the top vocalists in the circuit, did an RTP in each of their concerts, paying tribute to various composers. They did this by choosing one popular kriti of each composer and doing an RTP in the raga of that composition, using the first line of the composition as the lyrics for the pallavi. I was amazed at their innovative sense, as were most others.
There were some restaurants that combined meals with music – by having artistes present in their premises. This gave the rasikas a chance to see their favorites close – up, and interact with them. Most sabhas distributed daily leaflets – absolutely free of charge – carrying tid bits and anecdotes from around the city’s sabhas – al this by a bunch of enthusiasts giving of their time and effort voluntarily.
My wife and I came away more than satisfied after this season, convinced that the face of Madras Music Season is changing, and changing for the better. I am convinced that far from fading away, Carnatic music is poised to reach a whole new dimension in the capable hands of today’s generation of performers.