Chennai Music Season 2017: From best artists to sabhas, here's a primer for Margazhi
Here's your guide to Chennai's famed music season, which kicked off this Friday | #FirstCulture
It's as if all the energy in Chennai, that's otherwise sucked in by the heat and the humidity of the first 10 months of the year, channels itself into song, dance and festivity during December. It's when the city is truly pleasant, when temperature dips below 30 degree Celsius and when the sea breeze isn't hostile.
From December to — January during the Tamil month of Margazhi, and every year since 1928 — Chennai plays host to its music season: a niche Carnatic music and classical dance celebration held at the city's many sabhas (performance venues). And this year is no different.
How did the season start?
Even as the season was established after its inaugural edition in 1928, and launched in 1927 to commemorate the conference of the Indian National Congress in erstwhile Madras, sabha culture has been in existence since the 1850s, writes city historian V Sriram, who calls the platforms "an egalitarian concept" without the help of the government where "arts are provided sustenance entirely through private initiative". In the 1850s, performances were informal gatherings, he writes, the venue were public spaces and performances were not ticketed; collections were voluntary — "Audiences did not buy tickets and during the performance, a plate was passed around so that those who voluntarily wished to contribute could do so."
Where to go?
Today, there are a number of sabhas to choose from depending on the artiste you want to listen to/watch and the food you want to savour. There's the legendary Music Academy, the Mylapore Fine Arts Club, Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha which is the oldest sabha in the city, Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Narada Gana Sabha… Here's a comprehensive list of the concert schedule this season, but there's nothing more local than scanning the day's newspaper to get an idea of which concert you want to attend.
What to do?
There are hundreds of performers — some old, some new, around 20 to 30 active venues and about five performances a day. So of course catching them all is impossible. If you're stumped, maybe this express schedule will help you out.
Chitravina Ravikiran: As this year's Sangita Kalanidhi awardee, this prodigy musician is a must-listen, whether at a season concert or at his Music Academy concert for the season.
Vignesh Ishwar: A disciple of TM Krishna, Ishwar's full-bodied voice has been making waves at home and abroad.
Bombay Jayashri: Arguably one of the most-recognised faces in Carnatic music, non-regulars might remember as the voice and composer of 'Pi's Lullaby' for Life of Pi. But it's her silken voice and mellifluous renditions that attract concert goers.
S Varadharajan: This violinist is a staple of Sanjay Subrahmanyan's concert team. However, his solo concert at the Music Academy is one of the most-awaited this season. Not to mention, Sanjay Subrahmanyan himself, whose experimental concerts are much sought after.
Sid Sriram: The voice behind the latest runaway hit, 'Maruvaarthai Pesadhe' from the Tamil film Enai Noki Paayum Thota, Sid's no stranger to Chennai's Margazhi season. It's where he started as a young kid from the Bay Area, and it's why he's home-bound every December Season.
A Kanyakumari: A violinist, she has not only garnered a number of accolades, including being the first woman violinist to receive the Music Academy's Sangita Kalanidhi, but she also has a school of students to rival the largest and most-talented of them all.
Leela Samson: You might recognise her as the classical singer in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease in OK Kanmani, but as one of the most respected figured in Bharatanatyam, this stalwart is a don’t-miss.
Anita Ratnam: Ratnam, a well-known face in Indian classical dance, began training in Bharatanatyam when she started but today, she has modelled a unique dance style called 'Neo Bharatam' and defines herself as a "contemporary classicist", which is huge leap away from the traditional and conservative world of dance.
Not really a big connoisseur of arts? An excellent reason to visit sabhas is for the food — it's as popular as the artistes themselves. And no, I'm not joking. Think of eating during Margazhi as an endurance sport, because not only will have to pick from the choicest of South Indian food — like pongal swimming in ghee, vadais that are sun-kissed golden, fluffy idlis, and full meals — but you'll also have to probably endure waiting in line for a long time. Maybe keep some snacks in hand.
UNESCO's recognition of Chennai as a 'creative city' based on its music tradition isn't just about Carnatic music. It's also about breaking barriers and inclusiveness and diversity. For instance, Chennai tradition isn't synonymous (or shouldn't be) with classical music; there's also the gaana paatu and the ancient martial form of silambam. The Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha (held in February 2018 this season) is also another example of art (traditional and marginalised) that's taken outside the comfort zone of the sabhas and into unusual spaces including train stations, fishing villages and buses.
If you prefer your arts in an academic form (because who doesn't?), there are always the lecture-demonstrations (fondly called lec-dems) at most of the sabhas. And if Margazhi isn't really your thing — which fair enough, isn't for everyone — Chennai has the beaches (while you're at Marina, climb the lighthouse), the Government Museum and the Connemara Public Library (built in the beautiful Indo-Saracenic style), the gigantic Anna Centenary Library, the three-century old CSI St. Mary's Church at Fort St. George, the San Thome Basilica or climb up St Thomas Mount and take in the view. The city has its share of legendary biryani joints as well and the popular Nair's Mess that's packed even before lunch starts. Or better still, hit up Buhari's for some iconic chicken 65, which they claim to have invented.
Some sabhas offer online ticketing. Click here to find out more.
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