January 2, 2002


The Rediff Special / Shobha Warrier

    Sreenivasa Iyer
   Kunnakudi R
   Rajkumar Bharti

The weather in Chennai is pleasantly cool since the exit of the northeast monsoon. The capital city of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu sports a fresh green hue. And, if you listen carefully, you will hear the strains of music in the air. For the Margazhi Mahotsavam, the season of music and dance, has arrived.

This is the same city where, a few weeks ago, the now-displaced police commissioner Muthukaruppan ordered all discotheques to be shut down. His reason? Discos were against Indian culture since they encouraged youngsters to dance wildly to loud western music when they should be learning Indian classical dances!

Now, however, Chennai's air is filled with aalapanas, raagams, thaanams, pallavis and the sounds of ghunghroos (anklets) tinkling to the beat of Indian classical dances! Kacheris (concerts) by Soumya, Nityashree or Yesudas get precedence over films featuring Ajit, Vijay or Hrithik Roshan. Television serials are forgotten at least for a month. This is the magic Margazhi weaves over the residents of Chennai.

When I met the 94-year-old Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer, the grand old man of Carnatic music, at his quiet residence, his radio was not switched on. “What is there to listen to on the radio?” he asked disparagingly. There is no television in his house.

There was a time when All India Radio used to broadcast all the important kacheris of the Margazhi music season live; this was a great treat for the classical music lovers or rasikas (as they are described in Tamizh) all over India.

It takes little prodding to get Semmangudi Swami to reminiscence about the old Margazhi days. "I can't help but remember my days in my village, Semmangudi. People walked along the streets blowing conchs and singing bhajans [religious songs] in praise of God. Even in Chennai, we used to hear bhajans and the sound of conchs in the mornings. As a young boy, I used to go behind the singers. Everything has changed now..."

Not everything. Even today, most of these old traditions are followed in Mylapore, the oldest part of Chennai. With the advent of Margazhi, the streets around the Kapaleeswara temple reverberate with music. Early in the morning, you see groups of people walking in the streets singing bhajans. This is one suburb where modernity and traditions co-exist amicably.

Times have, however, changed from Semmangudi Swami's days. For that matter, it has even changed from a young Soumya or Nityashree's days. That was when rasikas from all parts of the city would trek to the Music Academy or Krishna Gana Sabha or Tamizh Isai Sangam to listen to a particular singer. Now, there are sabhas in almost all parts of the city and its suburbs. All the musicians perform in these sabhas, so rasikas no longer have to travel to listen to a singer. Besides, as compared to the handful of musicians then, you have more than 2,000 artistes performing from morning till evening today.

Seventy-five-year-old Sushila mami (aunt) has not missed a single Margazhi festival for as far back as she can remember. Even though she cannot afford the cost of listening to the accomplished singers, she is happy just being part of the music world. "I have my rice by 10 in the morning and get out of the house. There are so many sabhas these days, so there is no dearth of places to go. If I don't relish the music of a particular singer, I move to another sabha."

Sushila mami is particularly happy this year for her 13-year-old granddaughter who has, till date, only displayed interest in A R Rahman is accompanying her grandmother to the various sabhas.

Critics argue that with the increase in the number of sabhas, and with the entry of sponsors, commercialism has crept in resulting in a deterioration in both the quality of the singers and the rasikas.

Some of the most sought after singers like Soumya, Nityashree Mahadevan, Unnikrishnan and Rajkumar Bharati however believe this has helped the art grow. "It is very good for music to have so many sabhas and so many concerts because it popularises the art," says Soumya. "But I do agree the quality of artistes has gone down. When I was young, you heard only great vidwans [masters] singing."

Unnikrishnan felt, "It is good that more sabhas have sprung up in the last decade or so and that more and more people come to these sabhas. For the music to be alive, you need more performers and more rasikas. Unless new performers are given a chance, music will not grow."

What about the quality of the rasikas? Has that been diluted in the process? Many people seem to attend the sabhas to flaunt their new saris and jewellery. You can actually see them exchange gossip and inspect each other while the poor singer sings his heart out. Some even have the audacity to walk out in the middle of a song. At the same time, the presence of the die-hard fans cannot be denied. People from not just the neighboring states but from as far away as the USA make it a point to visit Chennai during Margazhi so that they don’t miss this unique festival.

Semmangudi has a very high opinion about the quality of rasikas during his time. "Only very serious music lovers attended the concerts; they were well-informed and appreciative of music. There never would be more than 300 people for [even] a very big kacheri. Now, you get a festive feeling during Margazhi."

The truth is that the kacheris of the prominent singers are always crowded. Otherwise, most of the time, the sabhas are empty.

When asked if the Margazhi Utsavam has changed over the years, Kunnakudi R Vaidyanathan said, "One thing that has not changed in the last 30 years is that you hear only music everywhere. Come Margazhi, the people of Chennai think of only music. When I say 'the people of Chennai,' I mean those who reside here and all those who come here from places like the United States of America to listen to Carnatic music and be a part of the festival."

The "major change" Rajkumar Bharati sees today, as compared to 1974, is "the communication revolution. Margazhi is widely publicised now. More and more people are getting interested in the season. Earlier, only All India Radio relayed the concerts. I still remember how I used to wait till 8.30 each evening; that was when AIR relayed the concerts. Then, television channels started telecasting the major concerts. Now, you see it on the Internet as well. I was amazed when a US-based friend told me he knew my whole itinerary for the season!"

Semmangudi adds, "Sangeetham [Music] has moved from the villages to the cities. Now, you see a lot of women singing Carnatic music and all of them sing so well. You now see many people singing our sangeetham in America too. Sangeetham has crossed the oceans and that is the magic of our music. That is why I feel this art will never die.”

Design: Rajesh Karkera

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