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Friday, December 11, 2009

Madras Music Festival

Come ‘Margazhi’ (the Tamil month starting from December 16th to January 15th), Madras/Chennai city will be in festive mood due to various counts. The onset of winter season makes the mood jubilant. Lord Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita (Chapter X Verse 35) that among the months he is ‘Margasirsa’ which corresponds to the tamil month ‘Margazhi’. It has been the practice among temples in Tamil Nadu to offer special worship to the deities during the month. No weddings are conducted during this period and no material transactions are undertaken by the orthodox as they believe that all of their waking moments are to be spent in the contemplation of the divine. Among the Vaishnavites this month is held in great reverence, for it was when Andal one of 12 Azhwar (divine saints who composed poems on Lord Vishnu/Narayana) composed 30 verses on Lord Vishnu called the “Tiruppavai”. The “Vaikunta Ekadasi” falls around the middle of this month and the verses of Andal and other Azhwars are sung on all days. The Saivaites celebrate the “Ardra Darshanam” on “Tiruvadarai” star. On that day, Lord Nataraja is said to have danced for the pleasure of his devotees, Patanjali and Vyaghrapada. December in Madras is unique due to its celebration of the music festival. The Madras Music festival is the world's largest cultural event, larger than the Woodstock festival in Edinburgh. Interesting isn’t it? Please read on to know more about the festival.

History of the Music Festival

The History of the Madras Music Festival dates way back to 1927 when the Indian National Congress decided to hold a Music Conference at the end of its party session in Madras. The prime reason for this conference was Sri E. Krishna Iyer who had played a vital role in reviving the south Indian dance art form “Bharatanatyam”. Foremost amongst its organisers was S. Satyamurthy, the famed lawyer, theatre actor, orator and freedom fighter. Given his friendship with the musical fraternity, he pressed for the organising of an All India Music Conference to coincide with the party session. This was agreed and the conference and exhibition of musical instruments was held at the Spur Tank, Madras, beginning from 24 December 1927. Concerts were held at a pandal erected in the Spur Tank and conference deliberations were held at the Museum Theatre. During the discussions it was proposed that an academy for music be set up in the city. Thus came about the Music Academy, which was incorporated on 22 January 1928, with U. Rama Rau (noted physician and Chairman of the Legislative Assembly, Madras) as President. The Academy was formally inaugurated on 18th August 1928 by Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Ayyar at the YMCA Buildings, Esplanade. The Academy began holding the occasional concert and it was during its first annual conference in 1929 that it was decided that a weeklong music festival be held to coincide with Christmas week.

Madras Music Academy

The Music Academy has endeavored to provide various avenues to further the advancement of the science and art of Indian music. Annual music conferences are held every December to collect all information regarding music, maintain the library and publish a journal. They also help to bring to public notice aspiring musicians and scholars by conducting competitions and other presentations. For a decade, E.Krishna Iyer worked as the Secretary of the Madras Music Academy. The first Music Festival was held in December, 1927 which is before the inauguration of the Music Academy. Since then, it had become a part of the Madras Music Academy's Activities to conduct several expositions and concerts on Carnatic Music every December. This later came to be popularly known as the Margazhi Season or is even referred to as the Music Season amongst Carnatic enthusiasts. This soon became the norm for all sabhas in Madras to conduct several concerts each day during the season.

There were several sabhas (music groups) before the formation of the Music Academy like the Parthasarathy Swami Sabha in Mylapore which was formed as early as 1900. However, it was the Madras Music Academy that set the trend of conducting the music festival during December. During the first few years, the Academy conducted its activities provisionally in George Town and later moved to Mylapore. In 1955, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone for the music academy building that exists today on TTK Road in Mylapore.

Growth of Music Clubs or Sabhas

The Music Academy, however, came to be dominated by some groups and the Andhra community decided to set up the Indian Fine Arts Society in the mid-1930s. Both sabhas organised music programmes in December and both operated from the then cultural hub, North Madras or George Town. By then Mylapore was fast emerging as a choice residential area and music began gravitating to it. The Academy began a long journey south, holding its conferences sequentially at the Senate House (east Madras), Royapettah (south centre) and finally Mylapore (south) where it functioned for many years from the Rasika Ranjani Sabha premises and its surroundings before moving into its present building in 1962.

In 1941, the Justice Party, the prevailing anti-Brahmin sentiment and, above all, a rise in awareness of the beauties of the Tamizh language saw the birth of the Tamizh Isai Sangam. This was the third sabha of consequence and its decision to hold music programmes during Christmas week led to a raging debate in The Kalki and other papers as to the viability of three sabhas existing in the city. Then in 1945 came the Tyaga Brahma Gana Sabha (Vani Mahal) to cater to the residents of T. Nagar. By the early 1950s, came the Mylapore Fine Arts Club and the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. It was, however, in the 1970s that the sabha boom actually happened, resulting in the situation as we know of it now with 70 odd sabhas organising over 2500 programmes spanning six weeks.

The Music Climate

The music season usually kicks off by the last week of November, with a few small sabhas beginning their programmes earlier than others. Many of the city sabhas do not have premises of their own and consequently they need to plan their programmes in advance of the biggies in order to utilise available venues. The big sabhas and many of the older established ones either have premises of their own or long standing rented venues and therefore do not suffer from this problem. Many of the fledgling sabhas simply operate out of the nearest kalyana mantapam (marriage hall), hotel or school premises. These are not built with acoustics in mind and hearing music in such places can be nothing short of torture. The first week of December sees the influx of Indians from abroad.

Next comes the awards fever. Sabhas begin announcing their awards by the middle of September. Carnatic music has never been free from awards, but it was only in 1942 that the Music Academy decided to award the President of its annual conference the title of Sangita Kalanidhi. The Indian Fine Arts Society followed suit with its Sangita Kala Shikhamani. Today we have over seventy awards given during the season by sabhas big and small. In terms of money, they mean little, but artistes consider them as appendages to personal prestige and accept them regardless. By mid-December, the season is in full swing with the Music Academy and its close parallel the Narada Gana Sabha having begun their festivals. Artistes and audiences have a tough time keeping track of various concert dates and programmes. The smaller sabhas stick to evening concerts by prominent artistes. The bigger ones have full day programmes. Mornings are devoted to lecture demonstrations, afternoon concerts are free and showcase young talent, while evening concerts are ticketed and feature the big stars.

Media & the Music

The vernacular and English newspapers and periodicals bring out special supplements on Carnatic music, with profiles of artistes past and present. Websites devoted to music provide schedules online which are used by the tech savvy. All sabhas bring out booklets comprising their own schedules, with the Academy’s being a glossy affair. Kannan’s Season Comprehensive Guide is an integral part of the season. Brought out single-handedly in earlier years by a bank official, it now receives sponsorship, but the effort remains Kannan’s own. It lists concerts by dates, venue and artistes. There are many reference books of songs that help lay audiences identify ragas, talas and composer names. The problem arises when songs in different ragas have the same opening lines and that is when the knowledgeable person (who is sitting in the next seat, with a faintly superior air) comes in useful.

Now a days almost all the TVs relays some portion of the recorded concerts during the season especially Jaya TV which conducts programmes exclusively called “Margazhi Maga Utsavam”. The concerts are held based on Themes (for e.g. songs from nandanar charitram, songs on Krishna, songs on Sakhti etc.,) and at the end of the concert the audiences can shoot a question to the singer and the singer can choose the best question for which prizes will be given to the participant. Laxman Sruti, the famous music troupe also organizes a programme titled “Chennaiyil Thiruvayyaru” since 2005 and the media campaign for the same is visible across the Chennai City. It also conducts the replica of the Pancharatna Kritis of Saint Composer Tyagaraja during the festival.

Music and Canteen

Canteen facilities are a major attraction. Four sabhas have established themselves on the strength of their culinary and musical fare. These are the Music Academy, the Narada Gana Sabha, the Mylapore Fine Arts Club and the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha. The last named, around 103 years old, was however a late entrant to the December season. In the old days, Krishnamurthy of the Music Academy canteen was a treasure whose Kasi halwa was relished by many. The chef supreme at the Music Academy was ‘Mountbatten’ Mani. He acquired this prefix after being reportedly praised by the Viceroy himself during a lunch at the Raj Bhavan, Madras. Arusuvai Natarajan and his two brothers were also involved in providing sumptuous foods during the season. The famaous Jnanambika Catering holds sway at Narada Gana Sabha, It is a common sight to see artistes relaxing in these canteens after their performance, fawned upon by fans. Old timers remember with fondness such epicures as Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Dr S. Ramanathan and M.D. Ramanathan coming to the canteen and discussing matters musical and otherwise with those present. Some of the more fastidious are of the view that canteens dilute the importance of music, but a sabha without a canteen is perceived to be dull fare.

Are you read to catch the music season?!!

Reference :

The Hindu : Music Musings : Margazhi Season and Music Academy – V. Sriram