Chennai is a city wafting aroma’s of indulgent food, architectural wonders of temples, fancy footwork of Bharata Natyam, also Rajnikanth and then there’s music.
Forget the Berlin Music festival or even Huawei Joburg Day, the Chennai Music Season is touted as the largest music festival in the world, with a total of around 1500 individual performances by various renowned and amateur artists across the span of one and a half months.
Chennai in the month of December–January spanning some six weeks is filled with much fanfare, the soul of Madras comes alive with a number of large and small ‘kutcheris’ (Carnatic music concerts).
The audience throng in large numbers to the magical city of Chennai – that’s still affectionately called Madras by many – who hail from various cities across India and from the international Indian diaspora to experience the Chennai Music Season. During the Margazhi festival, the relationship between the concert and audience is unparalleled.
The success of the festival is reflected in the fact that it is a two-month period of activity in an attempt to accommodate the utmost talent in a burgeoning artistic fraternity. An astounding characteristic of the event is that a single genre – Carnatic music – remains the mainstay of the entire festival.
It was in 1927 that the The Madras Music Season trebled the heart of city, kicked off by a group of individuals that later went on to establish the Madras Music Academy.
Concerts held at various venues at different places every year and then the Madras Music Academy settled on its present venue at T.T.K. Road.
Each year the festival begins on December 15, the first day of the Tamil month of Margazhi, and packs in over 5,000 concerts, lecture demonstrations, expositions and deeply intellectual, knowledge-based discourses and debates.
Madras Music: How It All Began
The origin of the Margazhi festival can be traced back to the freedom movement. ‘Korappu’ is a compositional format in carnatic music where two musicians exchange questions and answers through their instruments.
This can also be the heart of how the people of Madras used carnatic music to counteract the elite Christmas and New Year celebrations of the British Raj.
The Indian elite drew upon their cultural traditions to challenge this cultural imperialism.
Carnatic music and classical dance were not just cultural symbols but also overt political weapons that mobilised irreverence towards the British Raj. Several poets, including Subramania Bharathi, developed a sociopolitical repertoire that is integral to concerts even today.
The politics of identity was accentuated by another historic event, one where the founding signatories of the first charter of the Madras Music Academy – all of whom hailed from the Brahmin community – signed a resolution. They resolved that the devadasis (temple dancers), who were the custodians of classical dance and were disenfranchised by the British rule, shall be brought back into the mainstream and featured in the main annual festival.
The festival is now also a cottage economy with plenty of music shops, canteens selling South Indian cuisine, technological start-ups showcasing their innovations for the classical arts and with mainstream cinema multiplexes exhibiting Carnatic music and dance-based media products.
The silk sari, kurta and dhoti are not just concert attire, but also a fashion statement.
At the festival, connoisseurs hum along in the concert precincts or critique an artist over a plate of sumptuous South Indian ‘tiffin’ in the canteen right outside the hall. Elsewhere, young music students analyse a particular moment of a concert that could be a differential equation in music and raga theory.
And then there are the concert-hoppers who take in more than one concert within the same time slot at two different venues because they cannot bear to pick between the two. It is as if everybody is an equally proactive stakeholder in this mega event.
Having grown organically over a hundred years, the festival has developed a life of its own. The concert venues are called sabhas and over the years, more than a thousand sabhas have mushroomed across the length and breath of Chennai, ranging from ones with thatched roofs to posh auditoria, and are run by connoisseurs and music experts who double up as entrepreneurs.
The festival’s strength and sustenance is derived from the organic growth of its three essential components – community funding, artist participation and audience vibrancy. The artists must make the most of this platform where audience and festival organisers from around the world congregate. The festival is not just meant for entertainment, it also characterises Chennai as the ‘seat of culture’ and is a phenomenon that has stood the test of time.
One such innovative individual who has taken the sounds of carnatic music to new levels is Karthick Iyer. Keeping the elements of the Indian raga and carnatic music prevalent to a Western world, Iyer has perfectly fused contemporary music together taking the soul of South Indian music to the world stages.
Chennai may be the city but Madras speaks of a city with a soul of never-ending emotions.
Karthick Iyer Live is a collaboration of musicians from different musical cultures – showcases Indian music in a never seen before global format. A firm believer in taking Indian music to the world, Karthick Iyer’s long and illustrious musical journey led him to IndoSoul and the formation of his band Karthick Iyer Live.
Comprising of musicians from diverse musical backgrounds including Vikram Vivekanand on guitar, Naveen Napier on bass, Ramkumar Kanakarajan on drums, Sumesh Narayanan on mridangam and percussion and Karthick Iyer on violin and vocals, the band is a melting pot of varied genres and styles.
Performing a unique genre of music they fondly call IndoSoul, which is the title of their debut album, the band often collaborated with multifaceted musicians crossing over genres, cultures and languages defining their signature sound.
Beginning at the tender age of eight, Karthick has over 20 years of experience in the field of classical Carnatic music. His soul-stirring voice and emotion-driven violin performances have helped him create a niche audience for the popular multi-genre music he is associated with now.
Have a listen to Karthick Iyer Live here
Contributions by: Sharada Ramanathan, Madras Music Academy, Karthick Iyer