I cannot think of any classical art that revolves around one particular institution as much as Carnatic music does around the Madras Music Academy. Painting and sculpture have their Louvre, opera its La Scala in Milan, and dance its Bolshoi theatre in Moscow, but somehow these just don’t compare. The only analogy I can draw involves another sort of art entirely. The Music Academy is to Carnatic music what Lord’s is to Test cricket—its most prestigious arena, its spiritual home, its fount of knowledge, structure and classicism.
Last December, the academy turned 80. It was born out of a Congress session in Chennai, and in 1929, the academy began to organize a week-long series of concerts to accompany its annual conference. That week has now exploded into a month-long season of, literally, hundreds of music and dance performances. Through that month, the academy holds as the centre of the hubbub. It can even be as much the focus of attention as the artistes it hosts; last January, an audio-visual lecture on the academy’s history drew a bigger crowd than some concerts in the bygone season.
Centre stage: A Madras Music Academy concert held in 2007. V. Ganesan / The Hindu
There are many auditoriums in Chennai with better acoustics, or better views of the stage, or more comfortable chairs, or better canteen coffee, but the academy experience remains unique. Its evening slots, reserved for big-name performers, have come to vaguely resemble rugby scrums, as crowds throng the inadequate lobby for unsold tickets. Silk-clad dowagers have not yet begun to tackle each other to get to their seats, but that day is perhaps not far.
In the afternoons, the academy stage is given over to younger Turks, eager to seize the day and prove their credentials. These are anxious affairs. The parents of the performers invariably have only one eye on the stage; the other roves restlessly through the audience, looking for musicians or connoisseurs or critics of note. Reputations can be made or unmade in a single afternoon.
My favourite time of the academy’s day, though, is the morning. December and January in Chennai is crisp and clear, gently lit by as wintry a sun as Chennai is ever likely to get. At 8am, the courtyard canteen of Mountbatten Mani Iyer or Kondithope Padmanabhan is already turning out battalions of idlis and vadas, vats of pongal, and lashings of filter coffee. Every season, the academy canteen attracts as many music fiends as it does breakfast fiends, who never once step inside the auditorium itself but discourse at length about the relative merits of upma over dosas.
Through the double doors is the academy lobby, lined with photographic portraits of the greats of Carnatic music, a pantheon of the art. Another pair of double doors beckons, finally, into the auditorium itself.
At the academy, December mornings are the preserve of veteran performers, sexagenarians and septuagenarians who sing or play with fuss-free abandon, their voices or fingers heavily classical, occasionally flickering but otherwise undimmed. The hall, on these mornings, is never full. Scattered enthusiasts keep the beat and nod their silver-haired heads in appreciation, read The Hindu, or think about lunch. Meanwhile, a torrent of brilliant, brilliant music cascades off the stage, flooding the academy with a rich peace, exactly as it has for almost a century now.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org