Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Abhishek Raghuram at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha (Photo by R. Vasu)

Chennai, Where the Future Evolves in Two Months

In June 2011, a friend of mine, Mr. Venkitesh Krishnana, an IT professional living in New Jersey, wrote to tell me that he would be visiting Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu. His month-long visit would be starting in the middle of December, so he could be in the culturally rich Indian southern province during Margazhi, the ninth and most sacred month on the regional calendar.

During the month of festivities, Chennai is the host to more than fifteen hundred music and dance concerts, making it the biggest festival of its kind in the world. The annual event serves as a suitable reminder that music continues to be a way of life for hundreds of performing artists and thousands of ordinary people. It is also no wonder that so many people from different walks of life, like my friend in the United States, take it as an opportunity to revitalize their cultural and aesthetic roots. Furthermore, while some people lament that ‘the golden era is behind us because contemporary musicians are predominantly driven by commercial success, not fidelity to tradition’, others in society believe that southern classical art forms are on a path of revival and that the newly found enthusiasm during the festival is a validation of this belief. Personally, I admit that it is a matter of debate as there are very genuine concerns about the alleged dilution or deterioration that has been creeping into a commercially driven cultural realm.

In 2012, Chennai Music season completed its eighty-fifth year of uninterrupted existence. In 1927, the then emerging nationalist movement under the leadership of Indian National Congress had its all-India conference in Madras, and the city had its first national music conference along with the political conglomeration. The present-day Margazhi Music Season is the continuation of a socio-political resurgence, though it has departed somewhat from its political origins in recent years.

The Madras festival stands as a mirror to the transformations that Carnatic music and the South Indian dance forms have been going on over time. Though the present day kutcheri (concert structure) style in Carnatic music has been in position for more than a hundred years, there have been innumerable evolutions (progressions and sometimes decline) within the system. Initially the festival was one month long; however, it has gradually lengthened, and it is now two months long. This year the festival had more than 1,500 stages, presenting a panoramic view of the present-day arts scene in the Carnatic music and South Indian dance forms.

The Chennai festival is the world’s largest cultural event, perhaps larger than the Woodstock festival, but most of the people in the city or even the participating artists are not conscious of the proportion and size of the festival. One sociological reason for this might be that the festival highlights only classical art forms, which continue to be operational within a minority in the entire spectrum of the society even though the estimated expenditure for the festival was above thirty million rupees.

One of the many reasons for the unprecedented participation of non-resident Indian music lovers is the increased access to music archives that are widely available on the Internet and shared by many through different social networking groups. Archiving music and having it available has made a difference in the Carnatic music scenario as well. As a clear departure from the past, this year many concerts were also webcast and had many viewers from all over the world.

The hundreds of workshops and seminars that take place during the festival complement the thousands of concerts, which are literally shaping the future of Carnatic music and South Indian dance. That is why my friend from New Jersey wrote to me, ‘If you want to feel the future getting evolved in just two months’ time, take a trip to Chennai during December and January.’