If you are a first timer, it is absolute chaos. It will take you a little while to understand the method in the madness. So what is this whole hullabaloo about the famous ‘Chennai Season’? “If Kalidasa had lived in the current times, he would have rewritten his Ritu Samhaaram with Chennai in mind,” joked a veteran. “The only seasons this city knows are hot, hotter and hottest, and the December season,” added another. Well, these are just regular conversations about the world famous December season in one of the many ‘sabha’ canteens.
In the Gregorian calendar, the month of December falls right in the second half of the traditional Hindu solar calendar. For most part, Indians continue to follow their traditional calendars and almanacs, especially when it comes to religious festivals and other rituals. The Gregorian calendar falls short in its antiquity in comparison to most of these traditional calendars. The accuracy and art of dating is mindboggling if you bother to peek into these calendars across various castebased or religion-based communities in India. It so happens that December falls into the Tamil month of ‘Margazhi’ (pronounced as Maar/Ga/Rri), a time frame crammed with historical and mythological stories. According to the Tamil calendar, the ninth month of ‘Margazhi’ is more sacred than the rest. The Hindu god Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu from the famous trinity of gods, in his magnum opus, the Bhagwad Gita, refers to this month as one of his many manifestations. As the sun transits through the zodiac of Sagittarius, it brings in a new energy and warmth for the winters.
Like most other performance traditions, classical music and dance were patronised by temple economies. Though the artistes belonged to traditional families, it was the temple that would act as an arena for exhibiting their art, an offering to the gods.
As India headed towards becoming a secular democratic nation, most of the princely kingdoms were dissolved into the Indian Union, as a result of which these art forms migrated to the proscenium for public consumption. However, most of the content remains the same, an offering to the gods, as a service.
Over the decades, this came to be known as the famous ‘December Season’ in Chennai. Being a holiday season for most tourists, the artistic welcome was more than one expected. For the uninitiated, every year, for close to a century, the city of Chennai transforms into a Kumbh Mela of music and dance. Already famous as the ‘Mecca of Carnatic music’, the city splits into little pockets of venues (over 500 in the last count!) where music and dance performances take place round the clock. Several individuals and institutions have sustained this long hoary tradition and grown to be patrons. The first and the biggest of them is the Madras Music Academy. Over the years, this institution has come to be called Chennai’s own Carnegie Hall. “If you haven’t performed here, you’ve really not yet arrived on the scene,” quips a young musician.
Every year, the Music Academy gives out the Sangita Kalanidhi Award for a musician’s lifetime achievement in successfully promoting Carnatic music, be it vocal or instrumental. The foyer of the main Academy complex has an exhibit of all the earlier awardees and going through that feels like walking into a time capsule of Carnatic history. This year, the award goes to vocalist Sudha Ragunathan. She is only the twelfth woman awardee in the long illustrious history of the Academy. The other performers to watch out for are vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan, mandolin player U Shrinivas, violinists Mysore Brothers and Veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh. Besides the Bharatanatyam performances by Alarmel Valli and Malavika Sarukkai. And the list is endless!
The Academy also conducts a dance festival in the first week of January where the who’s who of the country’s classical dance fraternity can be seen performing.
There are other institutions like the Krishna Gana Sabha that conducts the annual Natya Kala Conference, Narada Gana Sabha (where everything can be given a miss except the food at the mess) and the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan behind the Kapaleeswarar temple, among several others. This year, a series of mini-festivals and conferences are a part of the season. Contemporary dancer Anita Rathnam is hosting a thematised festival dedicated to the male dancer called Purush and Kalakshetra is hosting its own music festival in their premises. By the end of the ‘season’, don’t complain if you end up with a bad fatigue. The little French town of Puducherry, with its world’s famous Auroville, is a drive away to get rid of those blues.
Over a little more than a month, Chennai will witness a staggering number of performances, as many as 7,000, making this the world’s largest gathering of Indian classical musicians and dancers at any given place and time. Performances, academic discussions, seminars, heated debates, acerbic critics, controversial reviews, fan followings, Kanjivaram silks, fresh jasmine flowers and perfume in the air. These are the flavours of this season. All this would mean less without the endless steel tumblers of strongly brewed south Indian filter coffee and the equally phenomenal vegetarian food served in makeshift cafeterias at every venue. While the entire season mostly reeks of what the critics call ‘Brahminical ideas of culture and entertainment’, it has become a signature cultural event for the city. A visit to this season is a must for every music lover, from anywhere in the world, especially if they want to witness south Indian festivities at its best.
Sai is a writer, editor and culture critic