This year, Vidya Venkat is back in Chennai earlier than usual. For the past three years, the 39-year-old Singapore resident has conscientiously returned to her hometown to attend an event that’s unmatched any place else—the Chennai Music Season. “I don’t need an incentive to come back, just being here and experiencing the flavour of everything is what matters," says the hard core classical music fan, who has returned this year with her four-and-a-half-year-old son and mother.

In tune: M.S. Subbulakshmi performed her first concert at Madras Music Academy

Venkat is one of a brigade of NRIs who will join locals, foreigners and interstate visitors to participate in the frenzy of the festival, which runs for almost two months starting mid-December. More than 2,000 performances of Indian classical dance and music, plus seminars, discussions, and lecture-demonstrations will be presented by music and dance organizations, or sabhas, for an occasion that has been called the largest cultural event in the world.

Indeed, the whole city seems to acquire a metric form where no one moves or speaks out of tala. “It’s the best time of the year to take out traditional silks and Kanjeevarams," says Kamla Ravikumar, an artist and music lover. The festival, also called the December Season, is a swirl of silks and Carnatic tunes that blend with the sounds of kutti tumblers of filter kaapee and the sizzle of crisp dosai.

Chennai’s Margazhi or Music Festival of December was first hosted in 1927, a year before the inception of the Madras Music Academy, when the Indian National Congress held an All-India Music Conference in Chennai, as part of a political conference in the city. The December festival then began as an occasion to commemorate the anniversary of the Academy. But over the years, other sabhas got in on the act and hosted their own festivals around the same time. Today, the festival belongs to the whole city. Vincent D’Souza, a prominent journalist and editor-in-chief of three local weeklies and, says: “December is the Tamil month of Margazhi, a time for devotion. The roots of South Indian classical music are steeped in this devotion, and music is an important and traditional form of worship."

Some folks such as Karukurichi N. Shashikiran, grandson of the legendary Gottuvadyam Narayana Iyengar, will use the occasion for a bit of innovation. Together with the Music Academy, Shashikiran intends to organize a non-alcoholic New Year bash as an offering for world peace by the musical fraternity. Shashikiran pioneered the world’s first encyclopaedic CD-Rom on Carnatic music, titled Nadanubhava, with artist S. Sowmya. “Over 2,000 concerts conducted during 20 days is an unparalleled achievement. Nowhere in the world will one find such an amalgamation of talent," says Shashikiran, also the director of

As ground zero of the season, the Madras Music Academy is the most important venue. After all, the maestro M.S. Subbulakshmi performed her very first concert in this arena. This year, festivities at the Academy will go on till mid-January. The fest will be inaugurated by N.R. Narayana Murthy, chief mentor of Infosys Technologies Ltd.

For others, a crucial part of the music season is a concert by the Mylapore Fine Arts Club. “Our sabha provides rasikas (concert goers) with something new every year. Our experiments of combining different styles have been highly appreciated," says Vardharajan, the club’s treasurer. In keeping with those traditions, this year will see a concert by Mandolin Srinivasan.

The Narada Gana Sabha is another preferred destination. Slated to host about 70-80 performances, the sabha provides an opportunity for performers to give a new dimension to dance. Another reason for its popularity is the sabha’s canteen, one of the best in the city. Attendees can be seen here digging into the “tiffin" menu. Sevai, halwa and bisibelle bhath, with its rich fragrance and taste, compete with the traditional idli, dosai and vada.

A sabha that is very popular among the youth for its innovations is Hamsadhwani. Some even refer to it as the NRI festival. Now in its 13th year, the sabha promises a great show. “Ours is an exclusive event where we give opportunity to talent abroad. The main artist must be an NRI," says Sundar R., secretary of Hamsadhwani.

Over the years, the festival has become an important platform for cultural exchange. Music lovers from all over the world witness first hand the rich repertoire of classical as well as fusion music. One such cross-cultural performer is Eero Hameenniemi, a Finnish Western classical musician who’s been attending for the past 20 years. This year, Hameenniemi collaborates with artistes Bombay Jayashree and Karaikudi Karamani. “The festival has become an important part of my calendar. To hear music which has become familiar but still has the capacity to bring with it an element of wonder and surprise is what makes this festival a very exciting and emotional experience."

An indicator of the importance of that emotional experience is the fact that the entire event is privately funded. This year, the names on the stage will include Sangita Kalanidhi Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, Palghat R. Raghu, N. Ravikiran, R.K. Srikantan, R. Ramani, Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Carnatica Brothers—Sashikiran and Ganesh—Rashid Khan, Sudha Raghunathan, R. Vedavalli, Bombay Jayashree, Sanjay Subramaniam, Mala Chandrasekar, Vyjayanthimala Bali, Priyadarshini Govind, Anita Ratnam, Mythili Prakash, Sonal Mansingh, Rathnapappa, Katherine Kunhiraman and Ananda Shankar Jayant.

Enough reason why you should be headed to Chennai this holiday season.

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