Chennai Margazhi Music Season 2017 – 2018

December is here, and with it Chennai’s iconic Margazhi music season 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).

Come December all kinds of statistics float around. The most common one is that “around 60 organisations put up around 2,000 music performances.” That would really make the December Music Festival huge. But is it really that big? If there was that many performances ranging from mid-November to mid-January, it would mean they are hosting on an average 33 performances each day, morning to evening, across the city.

Bagging a tent pole has to be the first thing on your agenda at the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav in Pune. The concerts start at 4 p.m and go on for six hours; a backrest is strongly advised if you have an inexpensive floor ‘seat’, euphemistically called bharatiya baithak.

You can mark your spot with a bag or a water bottle and wander off — it stays marked: there is a strict code of honour among connoisseurs. Newspapers and bedsheets too can be spread out before 4 p.m. to establish territory. These also help protect your bottom from the mild December cool that has seeped into the grounds of New English School, Ramanbaug, Narayan Peth.

Every day for five days, 10,000 to 15,000 people pour into the grounds for the annual music festival started by the legendary Bhimsen Joshi 63 years ago in memory of his guru. This makes it possibly the largest audience for classical music at a single venue. And at Rs. 300 for the bharatiya baithak, and with musical offerings as varied as the menu in the food stalls behind the pandal, it is certainly a great deal.

If your tastes are highbrow, there are savants such as Ulhas Kashalkar and Prabha Atre; if you love the adrenaline of the Mysore brothers’ violin jugalbandi with tabla and mridangam thrown in, there is that too. And if that kind of decibel-driven music gives you a headache you can always take a walk, search for the best sabudana khichdi, and return in time to hear the tranquil young vocalist, Dhanashree Ghaisas.

Sawai Gandharva is a classical music fete for the aam admi and one of many such melas that begin to unfold as temperatures start falling across the country. Sawai is followed by the 141-year-old Harivallabh in Jalandhar, which claims to be the oldest such event in the country. By this time, the Margazhi has begun in Chennai, then there is Saptak in Ahmedabad, the Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata, Hridayesh in Vile Parle, Mumbai, and the Dhrupad Mela and Sankat Mochan festival in Varanasi to name a few. In a couple of months, the heat will start rising and the festivals will start winding down.

The festivals are as varied as the towns and metros they are staged in, each with a different history and audience. But they are inclusive and draw non-typical audiences in thousands, in a robust and heartening celebration of music, community, culture and, of course, food.

Classical music everywhere is the preserve of a few — if you invest time and effort, it becomes a richly rewarding, lifelong addiction. But what the melas offer is a chance for everyone — the connoisseur and the casual listener — to join in.

You will find people you rarely see at chamber soirees or auditorium dos. At Sawai, there are young children with bags of crayons for the night, some with their homework, sprawled next to adults. Everyday, an older woman sits right up in front threading beads and nodding to the beat. There are eager arrivistes dying to applaud and old-fashioned connoisseurs who shake their heads in disapproval.

“The feudal darbars have long gone and classical music has now moved to democratic spaces. And I say the more, the better,” says seasoned vocalist Ulhas Kashalkar who sang at Sawai, the last artiste squeezed in on day three. “I believe our music can impact everyone in some way. Most importantly, festivals teach you to sit and listen and value the art.”

Whether massive music festivals are the best places to find high quality art is a debate that classicists and connoisseurs will always differ on — and more on that later. For now, let’s look at the carnival as it unfolds — on open grounds, temple courtyards and makeshift halls. The lights, shamianas, finery, and great food complete the resemblance to a big fat Indian wedding.

The annual Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan began recently in Jalandhar beside the Devi Talab lake. It is always freezing when the festival — a tribute to the 18th century mystic musician Swami Harivallabh — kicks off. But that does not stop thousands of people from participating, partly as pilgrimage and partly for the musical experience.

I recall listening to the magnificent ‘Durga’ by late vocalist Shanti Sharma at the Sammelan in the 1990s; the thousands around the lake seemed impervious to the fog and chill. It was a surreal, deeply moving experience, as much a tribute to her music as to the audience, many from villages around Jalandhar.

 As Sheila Dhar points out in her sparkling musical memoir, Raga’n Josh, you have to really love your music to sit around past midnight swaddled in razaisand blankets on 10-degree winter nights in Punjab’s hinterland. The audience is instinctively exacting and very expressive. Dhar quotes the indomitable diva Kesarbai Kerkar on the Harivallabh gathering: “The Harivallabh people know how to listen. They know the difference between musicians and circus performers. You can’t fool them.”

A musician recalls a remark by a craggy old man, draped in a rough kambal, seated behind her at a concert by a very young Parveen Sultana in the early 60s. Eager to impress, the singer had dived straight into a fast, brilliant taan much too early in her recital. “Bibi, kudi te bahut soni ae par aenu gaan nain aunda(lady, this girl is very pretty but she doesn’t know how to sing),” he muttered.

Legends such as Vilayat Khan, Hirabai Barodekar and Faiyaz Khan thought it a privilege to perform for this unusual audience. At Sawai, 84-year-old Vasant Limaye, recalls hearing every musical great, from Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Kumar Gandharva to Jitendra Abhisheki at concerts that started in the evening and lasted as long as the musician and audiences wanted it to. “For Puneites, going to Sawai is like going on an annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur,” says Limaye who has been volunteering at the festival for six decades, sometimes taking time off work to do so.

But many old-timers now complain that it simply isn’t the same any more: that the genius, the temperament and the musical integrity of the 50s and 60s is missing. They point out that many organisers are callow and driven by commerce and the demands of the VIP culture. That the 10 p.m. deadline for the use of PA systems; the end of relaxed all-nighters; and the pressure to squeeze in four to five artistes within a couple of hours has taken the joy out of the festivals.

Shrinivas Joshi, who has taken over the task of hosting Sawai from his father, admits that a lot has changed over the last six decades. “There used to be an air of easy informality. My father would welcome every single artiste, sit through every concert over three nights, and still find the energy to sing at dawn.”

For the past many years, veteran vocalist Prabha Atre has been concluding Sawai Gandharva — it is an honour reserved for the senior-most Kirana Gharana artiste — and she is not happy about how classical music is showcased at festivals.

Real music, she says, is better enjoyed in an intimate setting with time to allow it to evolve organically. “These constant musical acrobatics in search of applause and the anxiety over what ‘sells’ is really killing our music. And the kind of chatpata music that gets audiences on their feet with loud taalis, it doesn’t work for me. Yes, of course festivals did once bring in the jaankar as well, but today the crowds that come have been raised on film music and reality shows. They don’t even know when to say wah and how.”

In his immaculately researched book, Hindustani Music in Colonial Bombay, leading tabla player and scholar Aneesh Pradhan documents the rise of more democratic spaces for classical music in the metropolis in the early 20th century.

Out of the homes of the elite and cognoscenti, music became accessible to larger audiences, he says, thanks mostly to burgeoning music circles. The music itself, according to Pradhan, began to be tailored for new audiences. Kashalkar says he stands by his music no matter how large or fidgety his audience is. “Your music must be powerful enough to connect. I recall Ali Akbar Khan playing the lesser-known Anvat raag at festivals; he didn’t stick to Yaman or Bihag,” he points out.

Down south, scholar Deepak Raja is sceptical about how much festivals can further the cause of classical music. “What you get in festivals is mostly market music,” says the staunch classicist, adding that Indian classical music depends viscerally on the artiste’s personal connection with the audience and a sprawl of thousands doesn’t allow that. What festivals do, however, he says, is create wealth and a market for artistes.

The context in Chennai, where the Margazhi season is in full swing, is different. As Raja points out, “Its complexion and economics are different.” You rarely hear of artistes quibbling about having to tone down their vidwat for the gathering. Audiences are often knowledgeable and have cultivated their understanding over the years, even though a few are simply drawn by the hype. And you have to be a mean cynic to not admire the tenacity of those who pore over their raga guides to get a handle on what is unfolding on stage.

Lakshmi Vishwanathan, a Bharatanatyam dancer and Margazhi watcher, says it is admirable that the season stays afloat despite cyclones, floods and not-so-small storms such as the one raised last year by vocalist T.M. Krishna’s decision to avoid the season on the grounds that the sabhas followed discriminatory practices. “The crowds are getting younger and so are the artistes,” she says.

Younger audiences are heartening but also bring their own challenges. Joshi talks of this. “The city and its demographics have changed, there are young people from all over the country, techies for example, and we have to keep that in mind. I had to go in for branding exercises.”

Malini Nair likes to explore the intersection between culture and society in her writings.

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. read more here