By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Winter Music Festival In Madras -- Ever-expanding, Ever-excellent!

In December 2007 and January 2008, I had written four essays in THE HINDU, comprehensively analyzing the intriguing phenomenon of the massive winter music festival in the South Indian city of Chennai.  Recalling them in this blog in December 2013, I had mentioned that there was no change in the scenario. 

And today, the picture still remains more or less the same -- and I take this opportunity to condense the original articles into a single essay. 

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Glossary and annotations
Maargazhi --  In South Indian calendar, coldest winter month (Dec./Jan.).
Carnatic music  --  Classical music of South India.
Rasikas  --  In several Indian languages, lover of art and culture, especially classical Indian music and dance.
Madras  --  Old name of Chennai in South India.

Tamil Nadu  --  Southernmost State in India, whose capital city is Madras (now Chennai), and where Tamil is the ancient and also modern language.
Music Academy  --  Prestigious cultural institution in Madras, mainly dedicated to  South Indian classical music and dance, which had played a pioneering role in the evolution of the massive winter music festival, and continues to have a unique status in the winter gala.

Greater Madras  --  Not yet a fait accompli, but rapidly evolving in recent years.
Sabhas  -- Institution organizing events of South Indian classical music, dance and drama.

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Marvelous spirit of Maargazhi season

During the past half-century, the whole world has undergone an unprecedented technological revolution, which has greatly altered the economic and social conditions everywhere, which in turn has transformed the whole cultural environment in many ways all over the world.       

So far as South India and Carnatic music are concerned, the lifestyles of our musicians as well as rasikas have changed dramatically.  More and more young people have gone away from here, to live and work in foreign countries, particularly in the West.   And more and more senior citizens here have started going abroad frequently to visit their children and grandchildren, coming back home with a different outlook and adopting an increasingly modern lifestyle.        

On another plane, more and more Carnatic musicians are getting invited by South Indian communities in foreign countries to perform there, and many of them have started going abroad on whirlwind tours, mostly to America and Europe in the West, but also to Australia in the East. All this exposure to the outside world tends to make them progressively give up the conservative lifestyle which used to be so characteristic of most Carnatic musicians even around the middle of the 20th century.   

Thus, the whole community of Carnatic musicians and music-lovers over here are no longer governed by orthodox cultural standards, which used to be considered a basic requirement for performing and even appreciating the spiritually-oriented and tradition-bound Carnatic music. 

All told, one would have expected these irreversible trends which have so substantially transformed the entire environment of Carnatic music in recent years — both in qualitative and quantitative terms — to have very seriously altered the basic character of the winter music season in Madras and diluted the powerful spirit which governs the whole festival.            

But the amazing fact is that nothing so disturbing has happened really, and the mega-gala grows on and on year after year like a magnificent banyan tree, with all its original roots still buried very deep in the spiritual soil, and some sprouts descending from the branches to the ground and striking new roots. 

Inspiration and excellence

Viewed superficially, this annual overflow of music may seem to make us mentally fatigued; but in reality it’s a tremendous source of cultural and spiritual inspiration. Probably the main reason for this is that from ancient times the winter month of Maargazhi in Tamil Nadu has always been associated with the flow of sacred music.   

Long before any of us had heard about the Music Academy or the music season in Madras — when today’s senior citizens were all very young children — we used to wake up before sunrise every cold winter morning to the sound and echoes of pedestrian devotees going on a procession in the street outside singing devotional songs in a chorus and clanging small bell-like cymbals called kinnaarams. And often we used to run out and join the procession and the singing.        

That’s the kind of musical spirit we had absorbed in our subconscious minds as children;  and it continues to condition our cultural outlook and interests today, even getting transferred in subtle ways to our children and grandchildren. 

An amazing thing about the voluminous winter festival is that the quality of the music which overflows is actually higher than that of the music which flows in a normal way throughout the rest of the year.            

There’s a perfectly logical explanation for this particular comparison. Since the occasion happens to be so special, all the musicians who perform in the festival are invariably anxious to make their very best efforts, whether they’re the most accomplished vidwans and vidushis or just promising young music students. And most of them do succeed in achieving great excellence, pleasing the public and the critics alike.               

Some questions and answers

What makes it possible for the festival to be organised on such a massive scale?   --   An important factor has been the progressive proliferation of Sabhas in the city during the past 50 years or so.   And none of the established or new institutions would be able to function effectively without the financial support of the rapidly emerging ranks of sponsors from the industrial and commercial sectors.   

Will the winter music festival in Madras go on expanding in future?  --   Most certainly, it will.  A very vital factor which will cause a further and formidable transformation of the whole social and cultural environment in the next 50 years will be the rapid and relentless expansion of the suburbs, in terms of both area and population. 

Most of these new neighbourhoods will be economically thriving and socially energetic, and will cry out for cultural activities and infrastructure.  Carnatic music will figure prominently in their cultural agenda, and the massive winter music season in the present metropolis is bound to spread itself out to cover all of Greater Madras, becoming even more massive than it is today.  

Spiritual bearings

Will the festival still retain its original spirit and character in the future scenario?    --    I am sure it will.   The festival is never likely to lose its basic spirit and character in spite of the tremendous changes occurring in the whole realm of Carnatic music, because Carnatic music itself has a way of surviving such extreme transformation in the environment.     

The most important reason for the triumphant survival of Carnatic music is the fact that Carnatic musicians and rasikas have a way of never losing the spiritual bearings which somehow continue to run in their blood generation after generation, no matter where they live and what they happen to be doing in the modern world. 

Will the increasingly voluminous music in the festival continue to be of the highest standard?   --   I strongly believe it will be so.  It is true that the further enlargement of the winter music festival and its extension into the suburbs will put much greater pressure on the performing artists during the hectic month of Maargazhi;  but that isn’t likely to affect the determination of the artists to make their best efforts to shine during the very special season. In fact, the higher pressure — like examination fever — is only likely to improve their concentration and enable them to perform better, and most of them are likely to achieve greater excellence at their respective levels.