Chennai: Every December, like seasonal mushrooms, a rash of small all-vegetarian canteens sprouts on the sidelines of the Chennai music festival, if only to prove that music may well be the food of love but that it’s no substitute for the more edible sort of food.
A different fare: The Vani Mahal canteen, run by Gnanambiga catering service. Running canteens during the music festival is useful publicity for caterers, helping them secure orders for the wedding season. Arjoon Manohar / Mint
With their mobile assemblies of gas ranges and gigantic utensils, the temporary canteen usurps a corner of an auditorium’s parking lot or a vacant space behind the building, ready to feed the throngs of concertgoers—often many thousands of people over the course of the month.
But while a good canteen can generate useful word-of-mouth publicity and a great canteen can make its owner a legend, the caterers must live with one ineluctable truth: that when the season ends, they will come away bearing losses, or at best a very slim profit.
“December is not an auspicious month for weddings in Chennai, so there’s no other catering work to be had. Running these canteens is useful publicity, and we make some contacts,” says Revathi Rajan, sitting behind her desk at a canteen on the grounds of the Vani Mahal auditorium. “But really, that’s the only reason to do it. Otherwise, there’s no profit that comes out of it at all.”
The Vani Mahal canteen is run by Gnanambiga, a catering service started by Rajan’s father-in-law, N. Jayaraman, three decades ago. In the early 1990s, Gnanambiga started its first canteen at the Narada Gana Sabha concert hall. But last month, heavy rain flooded its operational hub in a Chennai suburb, and Gnanambiga lost equipment worth a few lakhs of rupees. “So we aren’t running our usual Narada Gana Sabha canteen this year,” Rajan says. “But we will be back there next year.”
At Vani Mahal, the canteen runs along a narrow passageway and into a covered dining area to one side of the auditorium, accommodating less than a dozen tables of four each. Much of the space is consumed by two long, flat surfaces that are used to make dosas. On a nearby table sits a neat array of vegetables, less for the uses of the kitchen than as a strong subliminal suggestion of freshness.
In many auditoriums, such as the prestigious Madras Music Academy, the choice of a canteen is made on the basis of a bidding process; the caterer that submits the highest bid wins the privilege of setting up shop on the auditorium’s turf for the duration of the music season. The profit, or in many cases the loss, is entirely the caterer’s.
But some relationships have weathered so well that they now bypass the bidding process altogether.
“We’ve been in the business 11 years, and for every one of those years, we’ve been the official canteen at the Nungambakkam Cultural Academy,” says R. Vidyasagar of Sri Jayaraghavendra Caterers. Vidyasagar, too, admits that his canteen will end the season operating on a loss. “The only benefit here is the publicity,” he says. “We’ve been featured a couple of times already on television, and written about once in a Tamil magazine. It’s only the hope of future contracts that makes this worthwhile.”
The tradition of the music season canteen, says V. Sriram, a music historian, is almost as hoary as the music season itself. “It started in the 1930s, probably because many of the Brahmins at the time could not have eaten in conventional hotels,” Sriram says. “In 1935, we definitely know from the souvenir of the Music Academy that there was an official caterer.”
But it was only in the 1970s that the canteen became a decisive crowd-puller on its own merits. “That was the time cooks started to become great icons,” says Sriram. “I remember that there was a very popular Kasi halwa at the Music Academy, made by a gentleman named ‘Catering’ Krishnamurthy. People would come there just to eat the halwa, and it would sell out in three hours. He was the stud of his time.”
Other legends with eccentric monikers were also made. There was “Mountbatten” Mani, thus named because he was once lauded for his cooking by the former Indian viceroy at a Raj Bhavan lunch. “Gnanambiga” Jayaraman, now 74 years old, is himself part of a trio of renowned brothers, the other two also named after their canteens—“Meenambika” Kannan and the more famous “Arusuvai” Natarajan.
J. Rajan, one of Jayaraman’s five sons, considers himself procurer-in-chief for the Gnanambiga clan. Nearly every day, at 5am, Rajan sets off in a truck or two to the fresh produce market at Koyambedu, one of the largest such markets in Asia. Even before it is completely light, he has bought a few hundred kilograms of vegetables; dry provisions lie in stock in a huge godown near Gnanambiga’s head office.
At the canteens, the flow of activity closely follows the schedule of the concerts, which is one reason why profits are not as high as they could be. “My day technically starts at 1pm, but most people only stop by to eat in the half an hour or so between concerts,” says Vidyasagar. “At those times, the rush is terrific, but it means I have to spend the concert time itself relatively idle, serving only a few customers.”
But every December, Vidyasagar still looks forward to meeting his regulars. “We get phone calls from people, asking about the day’s menu even before they arrive,” he says. “It’s a relaxed atmosphere, and the responses to our food are very warm. It helps if they remember us well, when the weddings begin again in January.”
This is the fourth of a series on Chennai’s music season. For earlier articles, log on to www.livemint.com/mp3.htm
On Thursday: Catch Just to Clarify, a podcast interview with music historian V. Sriram, on the long life of the Chennai music season on www.livemint.com