Every year, the excitement around the December music season is palpable. But beyond the clichéd imagery of rustling silks and fragrance of malli poo and coffee, often associated with the season, lies a love for the art forms that has kept the festival going for 85 years.
If the early days of the music festival stood on the shoulders of stalwarts such as MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattammal, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer and ML Vasanthakumari, today there is a wave of new talent that is sweeping the scene. “Promising youngsters are coming up and competence has increased manifold. Carnatic music has reached so many people,” says Nithyashree Mahadevan, a classical musician who has been performing for 33 years.
“Things have gone global and we have to reinvent ourselves, even if we are giving the same kind of music. We have to ensure we have a lot of variety in our concerts. Thanks to social media, musicians are more accessible to the audience than ever before. They communicate directly and tell us what they want us to sing, ask us about the compositions,” says musician Nisha Rajagopalan, who is a regular performer at the December season.
There are so many sabhas and so many performances that musicians must be careful not to repeat the same songs and present classical songs in innovative ways, she says. “You come home from a concert and there are 10 photographs on Facebook and comments about my concert. It has forced us to ensure that we learn more, increase our repertoire and package ourselves well, says Nisha.
As younger performers take the stage, the rasika too has turned younger (audience/connoisseur) with a new exposure to world music. “There are changes in the approach of the musician, changes in the taste of rasikas, changes in the concerts, in the duration of the concerts and concept of the concert,” says Nithyashree. Amritha Murali, a young musician, says that when the frequency of concerts increases, artistes cannot be content with a certain repertoire of compositions or learning. The challenge is also that musicians are performing so much that they need to be physically fit, as the period of rest between concerts is reduced. “I try to incorporate complex ragas, or something I have not performed before or recorded before,” she says.
“I have been a music season regular for about 10 years. I find that the young musicians are extremely competent and trained. They have started singing a lot of Tamil songs, which makes it easy for everyone to understand,” says Sarojini Sundararaman, a rasika. “It is time that the older singers made way for younger talent. The younger musicians are conscious that the audience must understand what is being sung so they explain the meaning of a song if it is in a different language and more so the emotion behind it,” says Malathi Vasudevan, a rasika of Carnatic music. Musicians and rasikas agree that the emerging trend of singing a number of Tamil compositions interspersed with the classical compositions has been a revolution that has played a great part in retaining audience interest.
Experimental music: The entry of a large number of youngsters has added a new dimension - that of experimental music. Youngsters are increasingly training themselves in different forms of music at the same time. They bring to the stage an interesting mix of the classical and the modern.
Says musician Aruna Sairam, “A few days ago I attempted something with playback singer Haricharan – drawing a parallel between film music and classical carnatic compositions. There was a great response. But I do what I always do. I don’t change what I sing and he did not change what he sang. Both of us stayed true to our core.”
“Way back in the 1980s and early 1990s, I had the good fortune to go to Germany and France to perform. I started performing with local musicians. One such performance was called Aruna: a thousand names of the divine mother, where the title piece was me chanting the Lalitha Sahasranamam and one of the musicians played the church organ and the other played the Didgeridoo.
Those years I did not even realise I was doing something quite unusual. For me it seemed like a natural progression,” says Aruna. “At a recent event at a women’s college, I decided to do a themed presentation of music by women musicians. We talked about these musicians and the barriers they broke down to get there. These are great opportunities to present our music in a different way,” says Nisha who sticks to the traditional classical music format, but tries variations within acceptable limits.
On the rasikas: Today, three-hour kutcheris have given way to two-hour shows. Rasikas are not able to sit through the concert due to a lot of constraints. Earlier, rasikas would come to concerts leisurely. Temple kutcheris used to start at 8pm and go on till 11pm. Now rasikas have become restless, Nithyashree says. Possibly due to the rise of nuclear families as it is difficult to leave their children behind at home.
“Even before the concert ends, the crowds disperse. That is theorder of the day. Then I startedto sing important pieces well in advance and not at the end of the concert,” she says.
Music knows no language
A few days ago, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, a classical musician, performed an entire concert in Tamil. This was the second such concert and he was making a point.
The debate over whether Carnatic musicians should perform Tamil songs, is as old as the music season itself, if not older.
Today Tamil songs form part of the repertoire of most musicians, but it was not a smooth entry by any means! The whole thing started with Chidambaranatha Mudaliyar, a littérateur and Tamil lover, who said why should Carnatic musicians not sing in Tamil, rather than in Telugu or Sanskrit, both languages not well understood by the audience, says Gowri Ramnarayan, journalist and musician.
The Justice Party supported the cause and Rajaji and Kalki joined forces with them to support the demand for Tamil Isai. Kalki wrote powerfully espousing the cause of Tamil music.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Carnatic music consisted primarily of Telugu and Sanskrit krithis. Tamil compositions were sung as Thukdas or small pieces towards the end of a concert.
“Until then Tamil songs used to be used as Thukdas in the later half of the concert – one Thiruppugazh here, one Thevaram there,” says Aruna Sairam.
The big problem was that there were very few Tamil songs available that could fit into the traditional Carnatic format. As a result, a section of purists, resented the move to promote Tamil Isai, and even barred the legendary MS Subbulakshmi from singing at the Music Academy (although she had helped raise funds for the academy) for five years for singing Tamil songs in the first half of her concert. Interestingly, the people who were opposed to the movement were Tamils themselves and may have not known to speak Telugu or Sanskrit, says Gowri.
When she returned to Music Academy, she came on her terms and refused to accept any restrictions on language or compositions, says Gowri.
Vidwans like Madurai Mani Iyer, DK Pattammal and MS Subbulakshmi sang Tamil songs. It evolved into a movement and Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar constructed Annamalai Mandram to promote Tamil Isai.
Popular Tamil songs of the time included compositions by Shuddhananda Bharati, Subramania Bharati and Gopalakrishna Bharati. Papanasam Sivan wrote Krithis in Tamil.
“About 20 years ago, as I was waiting for my concert to begin, a lady walked into the green room with a request. She looked like she’d had a hard day at work.
She said she had left work without even picking up her salary that day just so she could attend my concert and hear me sing Shuddhananda Bharati’s Thandai Thaai Irundhaal.
There were tears in her eyes as she said this. This is what woke me up to the fact that Tamil Isai is at the heart of the Tamil speaking people,” says Aruna.
This does not mean I am giving up on the Tyagraja or Dikishitar. I continue to give a mix of Telugu, Sanskrit and Tamil pieces, she says.
Tamils are lovers of good music. Language is no bar here. They also like Telugu Keerthanas. But if the songs are in a known language it gets good reception. Young singers today are even singing Marathi abhangs in their concerts, says Nithyashree.
How the margazhi tradition began
December in Chennai is synonymous with the music festival, and the city is on the UNESCO’s creative cities network list for music. Interestingly, what has come to be called the ‘Margazhi’ festival coinciding with the Tamil month of Margazhi, was nothing of the sort when it started.
- The first official music festival was held in 1927 as part of the Congress Annual session. It was decided that the musical extravaganza would be held every year by a group of individuals who went on to establish the Music Academy
- Concerts were initially held in the month of Panguni (March-April) and later moved to the December Christmas season when the courts would close for the vacation and advocates (who used to be great patrons of music and art) could be free to attend all the concerts
- Today the Margazhi season spans close to six weeks, offering performances and lecture demonstrations, platforms for new talent with time slots for non-ticketed performances and ticketed performances by veterans, popular musicians and dancers
- The sabhas also boast of the best food during the season; rasikas often declare that their day is incomplete without a lip-smacking treat right after their favourite concert
- The music season has continued undisturbed no matter what – through the World War II years, the tsunami and the floods in Chennai