D.K. Pattammal

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

What’s in a season?

By S. Janaki

The December Season is the time when Madras or Chennai celebrates its classical culture. There’s so much of music, dance and related activities happening in the city – you simply can’t keep track of them! You not only have kutcheris but you have talks on music, and walks on music and dance.

The Chennai Music Season is one of the greatest music and dance shows on earth. It is powered by individual initiative and by organisations – there is virtually no government support. It has about 200 organisations hosting about 3000 programmes. Though called the December Season, it has grown like a balloon to encompass the months November to February. In Sruti we called the four-month long ‘festival of festivals’ the mad mad Madras Season, and presented a statistical analysis year after year. What started as a one-page table on the season in 1990 grew over the decade to more than six pages! We stopped publishing it because, at this rate, the pages of the magazine would have had nothing but the season table!

During the season, the city gets into the grip of a cultural fever. It is not an integrated festival, but a series of parallel self-contained events conducted by different organisations.

The Music Academy was inaugurated in 1928 and held its first conference in 1929. Then came the Indian Fine Arts Society in 1935, and the Tamil Isai Sangam which held its first conference in 1943. The famous writer Kalki Krishnamurthy then lamented that holding three festivals at the same time did not make sense. Wonder what he would have written today with the number of organisations holding festivals crossing the 200 mark and some sabhas conducting more than one festival!

The Music Academy introduced the concept of holding a Sadas and honouring artists and scholars. This was the humble beginning of awarding titles – now we have titles galore! Titles are given to musicians and dancers – young and old, to scholars, patrons, those involved in allied activities, and even to rasikas.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s several sabhas were launched, but the 1970s saw the boom in sabha culture. The new and the old sabhas conducted festivals in December which spread the season all over the city with hundreds of performances at the same time. As a result, every hall – big or small gets booked for programmes. Marriage halls too are now blocked by sabhas.

The season attracts a host of NRIs: both artists and audience. You even have special NRI festivals. Hotel rooms are booked, tickets are sold out months in advance. Of course, you can get daily tickets if you have the energy to stand in the queue to buy it and then again to go in a queue into the hall!

The recording companies and the media too have been cashing in on the music season.


It is a heady mix: You have free kutcheris from morning to noon, and ticketed kutcheris in the evening. You can watch a variety of artists – from little prodigies to 90+ pedigree musicians.

MUSIC – vocal, instrumental, instrumental ensembles. You can listen to traditional instruments like the nagaswaram, veena, chitraveena, violin, flute, as well as the new ones adapted to Carnatic music like the mandolin, saxophone and the keyboard.

DANCE – you can watch solo dance, group dances and dance-dramas. In solo we have the traditional margam – alarippu to tillana format – and the thematic presentations.

Canteens, of course, are the greatest draw of the Season. The Canteen is THE place where you can catch a lot of gossip. The menu is very attractive and sometimes even better than the music menu offered inside the hall! Manoharam, Soorya, Sooryakala, Chandrakala, Chandrakauns – if ragas have novel names so do the dishes.


Its hectic from morning to night during the Season – specially from 15th December to 2nd January.


Devotional Music – Years ago there was the Margazhi bhajanai around the Mada streets of Mylapore led by stalwarts like Papanasam Sivan. We now have devotional music and discourses inside the halls: Udayalur Kalayanaraman, Visakha Hari, and Jayakrishna Dikshitar are some of the big names. A number of ladies groups too are given opportunities to sing in the early morning slot during the season.

Lecdems – these range from the simple to the complex – aharya in dance to shatkala pallavi and the mind-boggling Simhanandana tala.


The noon kutcheris are allotted to concerts by juniors and sub-junior performers. Music and dance are held in the afternoon. The artists could be of any age, but are not star performers.


Stars are invited to perform in these ticketed slots which bring in revenue to the sabha. Two concerts are generally held in most of the venues – either two music or dance recitals or one of music and one of dance.

There was a time when concerts went past midnight – when Hindustani stalwarts like Pandit Ravi Shankar would herald in the New Year.

Traffic jams, parking problems, commuting and change in eating habits, predominance of old people in the audience, have all advanced the finishing time of night concerts to 9.30 pm. There is generally a ‘walkout’ at 8 pm. In a dance recital there is an exodus after the varnam. Similarly, you can see the audience making a beeline for the exit during the tani avartanam in a music concert – not a good trend. There seems to be a change for the better now!


There are many kinds of rasikas – the single-minded one-sabha rasika, the sabha hoppers, the talkers, the sing-along and tap-along types. If you are crazy you can follow your favourite musician to all the 20 + concerts where he or she is performing.


Musicians say the season concerts become benchmarks for them to live up to until the next season. On stage, the décor, acoustics and sartorial tastes of artists have undergone a change for the better during the season. Off stage you can see the flowing silks, sparkling jewellery, sherwanis and kurta pyjamas, colour coordinated couples, stylish mamis and bindaas youngsters moving in and out of the halls.

But everything is not hunky dory about the Season. It is almost like a cultural cyclone.

Does it lead to overkill? Of plenty beyond the human capacity to absorb and enjoy? Is quantity achieved at the expense of quality? Does it promote mediocrity? Do the performers suffer from overexposure? Has sponsorship affected the choice of artists?

The Season is a grand exhibition. You can take what you want and leave the rest. It is a good time for critics and connoisseurs to observe and analyse the trends in music and dance, and observe how the same raga, song or dance composition is handled by different artists. You can listen to some Hindustani music too. In dance you get to see a variety of dance forms – from our very own Bharatanatyam, to Kuchipudi, to Odissi, to Kathak, Chhau, Kathakali, Mohini Attam, et al. The audience for music is quite different from that for dance. Only a few go to both! I wonder why?

Nothing succeeds like Success! But as far as the Season goes – Nothing Exceeds like Excess! The merry show goes on and the illusion continues. It is a grand gala showcase of talent, virtuosity and versatility.

The Chennai Music and Dance Season is above all an affirmation of our strong cultural roots.

1 comment:

  1. And of course it's bonus time for the lady rasikas; the pleasant weather encourages them to wear their silks and tussars + kitchens can, temporarily, be shut down at home.