Home / Industry / Media /  Why Chennai’s famous music festival pulls few young rasikas

CHENNAI : The buzz of soft, animated conversations makes way for applause as the curtain rises at Vani Mahal, venue of the ‘43rd Isai, Iyal, Nataka Vizha’ (music, dance, drama festival), in Chennai’s T. Nagar locality. On this pleasant evening in the middle of December, the 800-seat hall is packed with grey-haired ‘rasikas’, connoisseurs of carnatic music. They have descended on Vani Mahal to attend a kutchery—a concert—featuring vocal duo Ranjani and Gayatri, among the most sought-after Carnatic singers today.

The sisters, clad in contrasting silk sarees, lose no time launching into their performance, enthralling the audience with a variety of ‘kritis’ (carnatic songs). The excitement is almost palpable as Ranjani and Gayatri individually intersperse the songs with ‘alapanas’—abstract, wordless and free-flowing explorations of a raga.

Aficionados in the audience bobble their heads and tap their palms to the rhythm. Through the evening, Ranjani and Gayatri cover ageless compositions by stalwarts such as Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776-1835), Thyagaraja Swamy (1767-1847) and Paapanaasam Sivan (1890-1973) — the first two are considered part of the trinity of carnatic music along with Shyama Shastri (1762-1827).

After two-and-a-half hours, the concert, which also features solo performances by accompanists on the mridangam and gangira (a frame drum) as well as tukdas (shorter songs lasting 5-7 minutes each), wraps up to deafening applause.

That performance personified Chennai’s music and dance season, held during the ninth month, marghazhi, of the Tamil calendar, which generally runs from 16 December to 14 January. Unesco has called this series of concerts the largest music festival in the world. With good reason: through the margazhi period, nearly 1,000 concerts take place, organized by scores of sabhas (associations) across the city.

The festival may also be the longest-running one in the world, given that it has been in play for over 90 years, apart from a truncated version held online in 2020 and 2021 because of the covid pandemic. The resumption of live performances has excited audiences and artistes alike. Indeed, Ranjani could not hide her joy at performing before a margazhi audience in person again. “I am very happy to be back and performing live," she said before starting the concert at Vani Mahal.

Enthusiasts from across the world descend on Chennai during the margazhi period, when the weather is fairly pleasant, to enjoy carnatic music in its purest form. For artistes, both seasoned and upcoming, it is a time to showcase their skills. A successful performance here, in front of a very knowledgeable audience, is a passport to success. “Everyone’s music gets seasoned during the season," says Neyveli Santhanagopalan, a leading vocalist. “An artist’s full year of practice gets validated here. This is also the best place to mould your style," he adds.

You might also like 

Shikhar Dhawan turns investor, scouts for sports tech firms

ICE cinemas are cool, but will they succeed?

Returning covid casts a shadow over commercial realty sector

Why 33-year-old Tamilnadu Investors’ Association matters so much

All in all, margazhi is a very special time in Chennai. Temples open their doors early and worshippers start the day reciting devotional hymns composed by poet-saint Andal in praise of Lord Krishna, whose favourite month happens to be margazhi. No marriages or functions take place and only spiritual activities are held during this period. Since song and dance are considered spiritual activities, a music festival fits neatly into the scheme of things. It is also a time of passionate arguments and colourful language as purists and modernists resume a no-holds-barred battle over which direction the art form should take.

Money to be made

For sabhas, these few weeks are critical. The money they make during the season keeps them going through the year. More than ticketing, it is the sponsors who keep them going. “Sponsors account for 75% of our revenues during the season and the balance comes from selling tickets," says N Krishnamoorthy, president, Sri Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha, which organized the Ranjani-Gayatri concert in Vani Mahal, and has almost 40 sponsors this year.

Some of the sabhas are backed by Chennai’s leading business families, who have been patrons of this art form over many decades.

To be sure, the season is not just about concerts. Some sabhas such as Music Academy have lecture-demonstrations (called lec-dems) and academic sessions. These sessions, attended by scholars, musicologists and musicians, have discussions on ragas, various compositions by legendary composers and various genres of music. Awards are also given to recognize artists. Santhanagopalan, for instance, will be conferred the ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ award by The Music Academy this season.

According to K Harishankar, who is the secretary of the Narada Gana Sabha and the Federation of City Sabhas, there are 13 full-fledged sabhas in the city today. Apart from their activities during the margazhi music season, they conduct concerts and dance programmes for their members throughout the year. “That is how we keep these art forms alive and kicking," he says.

That was not the case a 100 years ago when these classical arts were facing extinction as the abusive devadasi system was being dismantled. The need was felt to resurrect the art form in a different way. The All India Congress Session held in Madras in 1927 decided to set up The Music Academy. In the following years, there was a proliferation of sabhas and by the time India gained its independence, there were 50 of them in the city, boosting the art’s visibility and interest.

“The objective to preserve and grow carnatic music and classical dance has been met," says R Seshasayee, executive vice-chairman, Hinduja Group. He points to the emergence of “phenomenal talent" such as Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Ranjani and Gayatri, TM Krishna, Abhishek Raghuram, Kunnakkudy M Balamurali Krishna and Sriranjani Santhanagopalan, to name a few.

Some, such as Sandeep Narayan and Ramakrishnan Murthy, gave up careers and life in the US to return to India and pursue music as a career, adds Harishankar.

Dwindling audiences

However, while the supply of talent is good, audience numbers have been dwindling. It is a “winner takes all" situation today, with top artistes such as Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Ranjani and Gayatri commanding full houses while others perform to empty seats. There are many reasons for this, with social media playing a mixed role — fans are now getting carnatic music at the tap of a button, at a time and place of their choice and many don’t bother going to kutcheris.

Non-resident Indians (NRIs) are the biggest supporters of the art today, coming to Chennai in droves for a slice of “nostalgia". But R Thyagarajan, founder of the Shriram Group, is worried: “Is that effect peaking?" As the next generation of NRIs integrates into local societies overseas, he fears they will lose touch with the music season back home.

The need to attract young rasikas into carnatic music has never been felt more. “It is true that predominantly only older people come to enjoy carnatic music," accepts N Murali, president of The Music Academy. But attracting youngsters is proving to be very challenging. Today, they have multiple options to consume music — be it Western music, jazz, rock, rap or film songs.

“Kids of today want everything in an easy form. Carnatic music is complicated," says Thyagarajan. Also, one needs to have some knowledge of the music to understand it.

If these factors are not enough to put them off, there is this issue of their short attention span. Carnatic music is too long for their comfort. “Youngsters find the music stale," says Ragavan Manian, a former techie and multi-instrumentalist, who has performed in Parliament. Today, he teaches the art and holds music appreciation classes, across genres.

Nowhere is this general lack of interest more obvious than in the sabha canteens, which, in recent years, have become a major attraction of the festival season. With top caterers rolling out a mouth-watering spread, the canteens have become magnets for gastronomic enthusiasts who aren’t really into carnatic music. Indeed, there are times when there are more people in the canteen than in the concert hall, much to the ire of the music enthusiasts.

Purists vs modernists

Any attempt to innovate and take carnatic music to a wider audience invariably ends up in a passionate debate between purists and innovators, with the former accusing the latter of diluting the art form. The purists see red at the slightest change in the structure of the music, packaging of a concert or use of western instruments such as the keyboard. “Classical music has a rigid system so that people can learn. Any innovation has to be within the raga structure and the scope for that is limited," says Thyagarajan.

According to Murali, institutions such as The Music Academy have been set up to protect traditional music. “We can’t play to the gallery," he asserts. Thyagarajan agrees; “Classical literature like Shakespeare will not be appreciated by an overwhelming number of people. The same is the case with Carnatic music," he says, adding, “every art form cannot have a majority following."

They do not fear that the art will die, taking solace from the fact that as people age, they move towards carnatic music. Ragavan explains their rationale sagely: “As people get older, they find this form of music meditative. This is very similar to people embracing spirituality as they age." The good news, he adds, is that the age at which people are embracing carnatic music is dropping.

But people who want to innovate disagree that all will be well if the status quo continues. “No art form can be fossilised like this," says Seshasayee. Without embracing change, it will lose more and more of the audience, others warn. Why should the concert still follow a format that was set by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar back in the 1920s, they ask. Some point to the progressive carnatic band Agam, which has managed to garner millions of views, and IndianRaga, which fuses Indian classical music and contemporary western music. Their success has made it clear that there is a large section of people who prefer a lighter form of carnatic music.

Ragavan draws a parallel with cricket to explain the hesitance of the purists in embracing change. “When One Day International cricket emerged, people were worried it would kill Test cricket. That did not happen. The carnatic music establishment is caught in a similar mindset, he says.

Elitist tag

The rigidness of the establishment has also led to carnatic music being labelled “elitist". Singer TM Krishna has refused to sing during the season as he finds it “non-inclusive" and dominated by the Brahmin community. “...if carnatic music wants to reach out to the larger world, it needs to go through a catharsis, something that will rid it of all the ‘othering’ that is part of its cultural edifice. Until then, everything that is claimed to be an innovation is merely tinkering," he says. Krishna’s views have led to him being branded a rebel.

Murali refutes the charge of elitism vehemently. “We are not consciously shutting out anyone. There is no discrimination," he asserts, adding, “everyone is given a chance and it will be most welcome if more people from other communities embrace carnatic music." He points out that classical dancer Nataki Natrajan, a transgender, is being awarded by The Music Academy this year.

Dr S Sunder, an orthopedic physician and carnatic vocalist, has a different take. He says that the art has changed considerably over the years. Before Ramanuja Iyengar came into the picture, the concerts were lengthy and sometimes ran through the night. Iyengar’s format was 4.5 hours long. Today, they do not last more than two-and-a-half hours, he says. Again, the violin, he pointed out, is a western instrument but accepted today as part and parcel of every concert.

Change is in the air

To be sure, change is in the air. Recently, vocalist and playback singer Sid Sriram had a unique concert with the nadaswaram, a wind instrument, which carnatic vocalists do not often have as an accompanying instrument. Likewise, Abhishek Raghuram had a concert with a flute, which is normally played solo, as an accompanying instrument. Both were well received.

“It is not right to say that carnatic music does not innovate at all," says Dr Sunder, emphasising that any change that appeals to the masses will become a tradition, but that will be a slow process. Rapid change, in his view, typically becomes another form of music.

He too agrees that there is scope for change in terms of packaging. Sunder has in the past tried thematic concerts with limited success. For the last 25 years, he has also been conducting a ‘music forum’ to educate children on what to expect from carnatic music. “We have two options. Educate people to a level where they can appreciate the music or dilute it so that it can be acceptable to the masses. I prefer the first option," he says.

But there is hope. Among the 800 rasikas at the Ranjani-Gayatri concert, 22-year-old Sai Krish Vetrivel, a third-year medical student, stood out. Though his family has little interest in music, Sai has been learning the violin for the past 14 years. “I am learning so that I can appreciate the music more," he says. Carnatic music will be on firmer footing with more fans like him.

Elsewhere in Mint

In Opinion, Raghu Raman says India's projected high GDP growth faces a challenge: a steady supply of corporate leaders. Vivek Agarwal analyses how a House panel wants reining in of Big Tech. Siddharth Pai says generative AI models like ChatGPT have competition

Catch all the Industry News, Banking News and Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Recommended For You
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsWatchlistFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout