A Carnatic music concert in a south Indian temple is a double homecoming of sorts. It is a return of the performance form itself to the space that housed and nurtured it for hundreds of years before fondly sending it off into the big, bad world of auditoriums and concert halls. But it is also a return of the songs to the deities who inspired them and who feature in line after line of the beautiful poetry.
Dream venue: The Shiva temple in Chidambaram. Seux Paule/ AFP
In Chennai, an organization called the Kalachara Marumalarchi Trust has now undertaken the noble mission of bringing the performing arts back into the temples of Tamil Nadu. In December, the trust, formed by musicians Sangeetha Sivakumar and T.M. Krishna and two other partners, conducted six concerts at an eighth century temple in Chennai’s Triplicane area. They all played, it was heartening to note, to full houses, and I’m hoping to see the initiative rolled out to some of the bigger, more picturesque temples outside Chennai.
I’ve attended only a few concerts in temples, all situated within the firm metropolitan embrace of Chennai, which isn’t quite the most ideal setting. However deep you are in the recesses of these temples, the soundtrack of the city—the honking of buses and cars, the raised voices, the mechanical groans of construction—will inevitably filter through. On a humid summer evening, with more people crammed into a space than should be strictly possible according to the laws of physics, it is difficult not to think, at least wistfully, of air conditioning and cushioned seats.
But the musical experience, on every occasion, has been fully worth those few ounces of discomfort. The temples themselves are acoustic marvels, and if the sound system has been calibrated sensibly—which is, regretfully, not a given—a performer can fill the space with warm, resounding music, contained like a treasure within the stone walls. Carnatic music also seems to be more powerful when performed within a temple—which is perhaps not surprising, since it is essentially a style of chamber music, intended to move intimate audiences with its songs of devotion. I am not the most religiously inclined person, but at particular moments in temple concerts, even I have sensed my skin prickle from the faith hanging thick in the air, so palpable that it appears to form an invisible chain between the singer and the deity beyond.
Just as cricket fans draw up blueprints of Dream XIs competing in a dream stadium, I have my own dream concert in mind: performer, accompanists, song list and venue. The other details are peripheral to this column, but here’s my choice of venue. I’ve only been to the Shiva temple at Chidambaram once, and my sharpest memory of that visit is the searing heat of the flagstones in the afternoon, which forced me to skitter barefoot into patches of shade. But I also remember the grand sprawl of the temple complex, and the broad, vacant expanses of its corridors. During my imagined concert, on a December or January evening, a sea breeze of blessed coolness will pass over the small crowd of seated pilgrims like a benediction, and the music will bounce through the ancient halls and sanctums exactly as it did centuries ago.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org