Its mid-December and I am in Chennai, the heartland of carnatic music. The Margazhi Mahotsavam or Season, as locals call it, is in full swing. A monthful of classical music, dance and lecture-demonstrations broken only by bouts of canteen hopping – but more on that later. A casual visitor to Chennai could have easily mistaken it for election season. Giant, larger-than-life, billboards of Kancheepuram wrapped musicians and star like portraits on vernacular magazine covers greet me everywhere I go.
As a musician and a rasika, I am overwhelmed by the plethora of concerts on offer. While season regulars have fine-tuned to an art, their concert attendance with advance planning, I prefer to play it by ear. At the heart of their organizational secret is a small indescript booklet. It lists all 2000+ concerts held across the city during the festival, cross referenced by venues and artistes. My first task upon landing in Chennai usually is to relieve my mother of her copy of this nifty booklet. For the Musically Challenged, yet another booklet lists every Carnatic song alphabetically with its raga, tala and composer – so upon hearing the first line, the MC can quickly rustle through the book to find the details.
Sabha-hoppers at the festival are the most adventurous lot . A peep into one hall for an earful of Raga Mohanam and they’re off to another hall to catch the latter part of a Tyagaraja kriti. I marvel at their memory and unflagging enthusiasm to carry it off. Then there are the quiet listeners who vigorously nod their heads in murmured appreciation and break into an occasional sabhash. Disapproving glares are their response when there’s a stage whisper or a shuffling of feet among the audience. Yet another kind of listeners are blessed with a 360° rotating neck. They greet long-lost friends and family with barely suppressed glee, unfailingly spotting them at far corners of the halls, oblivious to what’s happening on stage. I am particularly wary of the snoozers who nod off in the air-conditioned halls and unwittingly match the musician’s notes in the higher octaves. The mridangam thani when the percussion plays his solo recital, is often a restroom break. Such a mass exodus from the hall in the midst of a performance would be inconceivable in opera or concerts halls elsewhere in the world. To make matters worse the Season finds cell phones occasionally adding its plaintive tones to the instruments on stage. Whatever happened to silent mode?
A day at the season begins early. Morning programs feature seminars and lecture-demonstrations on various topics of classical music and draw huge crowds. When Nedunuri Krishnamoorthy, a stalwart in the field, gives a presentation on Annamacharya kritis he is accompanied by his disciples, the popular Malladi Brothers. The hall fills up rapidly and latecomers stand for nearly 90 minutes to listen to the maestro perform. Even the whiff of vadas and poori bhaji emanating from the canteen doesn’t tempt the glued audience. I could play the enthralled listener having gorged myself on an early morning idli and vada at the sabha canteen. The Season is a fulfilling experience in more ways more than just musical!
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