Editorial: Margazhi’s sanitised sabha hopping

There are few rituals in Chennai that are as emblematic of the city’s cultural identity as the annual Margazhi festival.
Representative image
Representative image

Chennai

The month-long observances of kutcheris and song and dance programmes in the Carnatic capital of India is an event that is eagerly awaited by both performers and rasikas. Hailed by aficionados of classical art forms across the nation and beyond, it is the definitive event that finds a pride of place in the cultural calendars of most cognoscenti. Of course, 2020 had been a washout for stakeholders in the Margazhi ecosystem as pandemic-induced lockdowns had relegated most performances to virtual spaces.
This time around, having lived with COVID for the better part of two years, Chennai is gradually opening up to in-person concerts, to the delight of citizens. The return to normalcy ushers in a ray of hope for hundreds of workers associated with the sabhas, the canteens, the schools, and the retail outlets specialising in musical instruments, costumes and accessories which have been devastated by the 1.5 year-long closure of operations. The season which is known to be a launchpad for many young artistes, thanks to back-to-back arangetrams, also fuels the demand for such wares.
The reopening, while well-deserved, is happening at a time when the threat from the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has put many State governments on the back foot. In Tamil Nadu, post the detection of a few COVID positive cases that were suspected to be of the Omicron variant, the government prohibited gatherings at beaches on New Year’s Eve as a precautionary measure. And it’s also the reason why many sabhas and auditoriums are still choosing to keep their events virtual, and to some extent, hybrid this year – i.e. a mixture of in-person and online events. To rid such e-concerts of monotony, a few deep-pocketed organisers have shot programmes in exotic locales, and employed state-of-the-art production values to make these shows look like the next best big thing since in-person attendance.
One of the major concerns pertaining to in-person events happens to be the demographic that attends such concerts. A significant quantum of the attendees at such events comprise senior citizens, as opposed to multiplexes where a majority of the attendees is the youth. And few sabhas are willing to bear the risk of bad press, in the event of any attendee contracting the infection at the venue. While most sabhas have enforced protocols concerning in-person concerts – the mandatory use of masks and sanitisers, and social distancing, many have chosen to err on the side of caution and limited the number of performances to 30 per cent of what they would have permitted in the pre-COVID era.
The months of December and January usually witness a spike in international tourist arrivals into Chennai, considering the Christmas and New Year holidays. This year, owing to the Omicron scare, those visitors might be giving the festival a miss. Another group that might be missed at the concerts this time will be the NRIs who usually make a beeline for Chennai, as many professionals and their children also make it a point to mark December in their kutcheri performance calendars.
It is worth recalling that in 2017, UNESCO included Chennai in its Creative Cities Network, which was yet another feather in the metropolis’ cap. The baby steps that the sabhas and organisers have taken to include the rasikas and visitors back into the fold of music and dance is highly commendable. It’s an invitation to get back to what we love most about Chennai — its inimitable culture of both the tangible and intangible kind. A modicum of caution is all that’s needed to make this festival a joyous and memorable event.

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