Officially the ‘season’ hasn’t begun in Chennai.
There is only one season for the music lover in Chennai /Madras, and that is the music season in December-January. The weather is beautiful, with the North West monsoons having (normally ) receded, the sun not so powerful, and that pleasant chill in the air in the evenings and mornings, which lets women wear their Kancheepuram silks without feeling hot and bothered (as is the norm).
This is the time when various ‘sabhas’ (clubs) – now numbering more than a hundred, I think – stage Carnatic music concerts daily. Very often there are two concerts in the evening by established, who are known as ‘senior’, musicians. The less known, and those yet to prove themselves, are given a morning slot or an afternoon (2 pm) slot.
There are also Bharata natyam performances, and some of the sabhas also present plays or dramas. Karthik Fine Arts is one of these. This is a 34 year old sabha, and like most other sabhas, based in Mylapore. Because it doesn’t have its own concert hall Karthik Fine Arts starts its season earlier - by the first week of December. And presents the first concerts of the season at the Swami Gnanananda Hall of Narada Gana Sabha. By December 15, when Narada Gana Sabha hosts its own concerts, Karthik Fine Arts moves to other venues.
I managed to go to a few concerts of Karthik Fine Arts in the first week with Ganga at the Narada Gana Sabha, close to where I live. The auditorium is a huge one, a 1000 seater, I think, and is one of the better maintained ones. The early season concerts were well attended, even the 4 pm ones on working days.
It is the done thing to be seen at concerts, even if you come late, or leave half-way. Women love to dress up in their silks, and with jasmines adorning their hair definitely make it a point to attend. Men are less colourfully attired, but one does now see many T-shirts in the audience.
One of the ‘how do you do’ questions at this time of the year is “And which kutcheris did you go to?” whether one is a member of a sabha or not, in which case one buys daily tickets. And then one has to discuss, debate and dissect: “Yes, so-and-so did not sing well at that sabha at all, I think he has lost his voice”. Or “such and such’s Thodi was marvellous, so reminiscent of Madurai Mani” – thus assuring that one’s familiarity with the great masters of yore is registered. Or even wondering why the singer favoured only one composer, and sang fewer compositions of others! Knowledge aired casually, but clearly establishing it.
Then there are those who insist on sitting in the front row and keeping time with irregular beats, alarming the singer, and almost throwing him off his stride. The serious aficionados enjoy the music to the exclusion of everything else, with eyes closed (a couple of them may snooze off, if the music is soothing enough!), while some others note down the songs sung, to check on them later – nowadays all necessary information is available on the Internet. Cute little handbooks which identify a composition with the raagam, and composer, fit neatly into small handbags, and many check them out then and there. Sometimes the search takes so long, that the song is over by the time the raagam is determined.
There are others who could safely be called sabha hoppers, who attend one concert at one sabha, and rush to the next one at another. They pick and choose, debate the merits of each and every singer, and accompanying artistes before making the decision. What does help is the location of the concert halls – almost 90 % of them are based in the Mylapore area, so hopping from here to there is not really all that difficult, if you learn to ignore the congested traffic, that is.
The audience profile, I find, is generally the retired, or 50 plus, members of the Brahmin community. I have never been able to understand why the interest in Carnatic Music is restricted to this group. It is clear that the masses who generally listen to film music with its wild rhythm and fast-paced numbers, welcome equally songs based on Carnatic ragas. The popularity of the songs of Sindhu Bhairavi and Sankarabharanam 20 to 30 years ago, and today’s numbers like ‘Kangal Irandal’ and ‘Konja neram konja neram’, is proof enough of this.
Very few youngsters, unless they are the performers’ students attend the kutcheris. Neither do other musicians. Youngsters prefer to be on stage rather than in the audience.
A recent trend is that of visitors from abroad who come here to soak in the atmosphere of the season. Youngsters who left Chennai/Madras to study or work abroad make an effort to be present for the season at least once in a couple of years. Some of them were students of music, and miss the music and the unique atmosphere in Chennai. They listen all they can, savour and store the experience to be enjoyed at leisure, till they come back for another recharge.
What used to be a convenience for hard core music lovers has now become a side show at the concerts during the Season. For the music lover who just could not spare the time to break for a meal, canteens were set up at the venues. A quick bite between the songs, and the rasika was satisfied, and he headed back to the auditorium, ready for another schedule. This has now become a great business. Huge pandals (temporary pavilions) are put up alongside the halls, big names in catering take up contracts and total feasts are provided. In fact there are people who visit the concert venues just for the pleasure of eating at these places; music is a distant second, often skipped too. With the wedding season off at this period, it is a blessing to caterers who present their best here, too. The rush is something crazy.
At Narada Gana Sabha there is an open air canteen, run by Woodlands, that functions round the year, and serves splendid coffee and snacks. It is almost always nearly full, despite the season's caterers. The menu is displayed clearly outside at the top. After one of the concerts we managed to find time and a table for a quick coffee, excellent as usual.
Availing themselves of the congregation of music lovers, music stores set up stalls in the foyer of the sabhas, with CDs and DVDs of concerts, and books on music and musicians, or related to music in some way, sure of attracting customers.(Click on picture to enlarge).
Here is a no-frills schedule of the concerts from the beginning of the season to January 18.
And here is where you can learn all about the music and dance world of Madras : http://kutcheribuzz.com/