Prologue: As a young girl who grew up on a healthy diet of Dickens, Austen and R. K. Narayan, I often fantasized about becoming a writer. As I got older, I did realize that my skills were perhaps better employed doing quantum physics (the jury’s still out on this one), but the secret dream was to at least write a blog someday! Thanks to The Goddess, I finally make my debut with a series of posts on classical music leading up to the Madras Music Season.
Enjoy, and don’t forget to comment! — Physics mAmi
“Come, Oh beautiful girls of brindAvan! Tis the month of mArgazhi ; an auspicious day brimming with moonlight…”
These opening lines of the tiruppAvai (collection of poems by the saint-poetess ANDAL , who is believed to have lived over 2000 years ago) are among the earliest references in tamizh literature on the glory of mArgazhi — the 9th month of the tamizh calendar that falls between mid-December to mid-January. The whole religious significance apart, to me, ANDAL’s verses and the context in which they were composed brings out the romance in mArgazhi! Here was a young girl who would imagine that her little pastoral village of srIvilliputtUr (near Madurai) was indeed brindAvan, that magical land where her Lord and Hero (Krishna) romanced his beloved (Radha); and would go around the village calling on her friends to come join her, as she sought him with her music and penance.
Fast forward to the 1920s, and there was a different kind of passion and fervor in the air. A society ravaged by imperialist powers was finally waking up to the call of ‘freedom’ and taking on its colonial masters. Along the sidelines of the Indian National Congress session in Madras in Dec 1927, interestingly, an All India Music Conference was also held. Two resolutions were passed: one which led to the creation of the Madras Music Academy and the other which decided that an annual week-long music festival would be held in Madras every December – thus, the Madras Music Season was born! Those were heady times when cultural revivalism coincided with the nationalist movement; when a society whose traditional systems were wilting away without state support had to reorganize itself in modern ways to save them.
What started off as a week-long affair with one sabhA, has today grown into a month-long festival, with concerts being held in nearly 20 different venues across the city! The one venue that still maintains the mArgazhi connection is perhaps the Music Academy whose programs begin exactly on the first day of mArgazhi, but the “Season” itself starts off in early December, much before mArgazhi, and stretches all the way through mid-January. It has blossomed into a true celebration of the classical arts – music, dance and drama – when the city gets to witness Birju Maharaj’s dazzling footwork at close quarters, listen to Rashid Khan’s brilliant tAns, or lighten up with a Crazy Mohan drama, even as the faithful get to
chase follow around their favorite Carnatic musician(s) across venues and compare notes. For students of music and dance there’s more food for thought, with the early morning lecture-demonstrations nicely complementing the piping hot veN-pongal and freshly brewed filter coffee served at the canteens.
Yes, come December, there is truly something in the air in Chennai! Unlike The Goddess, I’m one of those incorrigible Chennai-aites who swears by the city, rain or shine, Amma or no Amma. And like an over protective mother who wants to showcase only all that is good in her child, the one thing I advertise to all my non-Chennai friends is the December Music Season. It is the best brand ambassador for the city; the best way to get to know this maddening city with all its contradictions.
Born into a family of music rasikAs, the Season has been an integral part of my growing up. The memories are so many, that I don’t know where to begin! I’m told I was dragged along as a toddler to the concerts my parents attended and made to keep beat with the music, until I dozed off on my mother’s lap. But my own earliest memory is that of my grandfather sitting on a chair on the dais of the Music Academy (he could no longer sit cross-legged on the floor after his surgery) and listening to T.V. Shankaranarayanan, nephew and disciple of his favorite singer (the legendary Madurai Mani Iyer). Sadly, it turned out to be the last ever concert he attended, as he passed away the following January.
Other images flash before me:
– Watching my parents being awestruck at the wizardry of a young U Srinivas playing the mandolin, at a time when I was too young to comprehend what was going on;
– Standing with mom in the balcony of a packed Music Academy and listening to the rising stars of the times (Sowmya, Unnikrishnan, Nithyashree) singing in the (free!) afternoon slot, while secretly hoping that some mAmi would vacate her seat so I could sit;
– Watching with pride as my smart little sis would, with great ease and élan, rattle off the name of the rAgA the artiste was singing, even as mAmAs and mAmIs around us would smile and watch with open-mouthed wonder;
– Awaiting the start of the tani Avartanam (the solo-time for the percussion artistes) so we could sneak out and indulge in the vaDas and boNDAs whose heavenly smells would often waft in and distract us;
– Looking out for The Hindu’s music supplement that would carry the concert listings, so mom, dad, sis and I could mark out the concerts we wanted to attend and make our own Season schedule;
– Listening to T.M. Krishna for the first time as a young college student and being blown away by the power and intensity of his music – the beginnings of a musical crush that was to last a long time!
– Running into an old schoolmate at a couple of concerts, discovering that we shared musical tastes…meetings that led to much more than just musical exchanges 🙂
Today, as I stand precariously close to mAmi-hood myself (I refuse to admit that I am one already!), the thrill and romance of the December/mArgazhi season has given way to a more comforting, warm, fuzzy feeling. I still watch out for the Hindu listings (suitably supplemented by kutcheribuzz now) and as a family we still make our own Season schedules (albeit on google calendar). But the excitement and the heady rush have given way to a more sedate sort of enjoyment. The rose-tinted glasses are off, as is the hero-worshipping, and our appreciation is a lot more tempered and critical. But the beauty and magic of mArgazhi endure…
I leave you with a musical rendition of the first two verses of ANDAL’s tiruppAvai, sung by the late K V Narayanaswamy.