For those who may not have heard of the Chennai December music season, here is a ‘serious’ one-liner: This is the largest festival of classical music and dance in the world; the coming-together for a whole month of musicians, dancers and connoisseurs from across the world. Ok, now for some fun.
December is when Chennai awakens to its own artistic legacy. Chennai is India’s cultural hub and art happens through the year; yet December is special, very special. So special that many who have been in a state of ‘cultural coma’ over the preceding eleven months suddenly awaken to becoming official aficionados of art for and only December.
For established artists, it is the time to bask in their glory, crowds milling around them, the media hounding them for one-liners, rasikas desperate for a glimpse, a photo op. The ones trying to establish themselves want every available platform. Any of their numerous performances could be that ‘special one’ when the cognoscenti deliver their votes of acceptance.
The singers dig out the mufflers, scarves and shawls from the deep reaches of their closets. Every throat specialist in Chennai is ready to face the onslaught, the frantic mid-day request for an express remedy. For dancers, painkillers are suddenly their best friends. Rehearsal after rehearsal and sandwiched somewhere in-between is the concert. The homes of artists turn into fortresses. ‘Beware, an artist lives here’.
During the season there are at least 20 sabhas holding their ‘annual’ festival. Organisations come in different hues. These can be graded according to age. There are, of course, the ‘vintage’, ‘know-it seen-it, done-it-alls’. There, the committee member walks around with an air of superiority in all respects. ‘His’ — because most of them are male! — understanding of art is usually minimal and his authority, maximal. Then come the ‘middle-aged sabhas’, those in the second tier, their committee members hoping that in the next 50 years their grand-children (who will by then be committee members) can be the music honchos. Then there are the fly-by-night operators, who hold music and dance festivals once a year, in December. Their focus is clear: get a small piece of the cake, it will rise on its own in the oven; money which is available in abundance.
Getting a season ticket in a sabha is like winning a bumper prize in a lottery. You’d better know somebody to get that card and then you can, if you wish, pass it around to your friends and relatives. Family members who hardly speak to one another cozy up only because one is a member of a sabha. If this was made into a comic strip you would see a bubble over the head of the person that reads ‘I want that pass’.
Within this ‘hungama’ exists, like an omnipresent God, the corporate. We could hold a ‘corporate banner hunt’ across the city and be sure to find them all. If you are a serious investor, then just gauge the size of the banner, the number of places it is found and importantly the number of times the CEO or chairman of a company is a ‘chief guest’ or receiving a title that has the following words in some combination — kala, sangita, natya, seva, ratna, tilaka. With this information you will know where to place your money. This is not sound advice, however, since some corporate chief guests have by now gone under.
Almost all television channels, magazines and newspapers become culturally sensitive. They send out their most experienced, revered journalists, with decades of experience in covering art and culture to interview musicians, write columns and bring out the hidden aspects of the season. If you fall for that, it just means that you don’t read culture news. In general, when an artist gets a call from a journalist during the music season, it is from a ‘temp’ or ‘on assignment’ or ‘intern’. I am certain they have Wikipedia open, just to make sure they get the name right. Of course they write the most insightful pieces on art! And let us not forget the reviewers. Almost like in a Harry Potter movie, they tumble out of empty cupboards. Many of them have ‘a listening experience of over four decades’ or have learnt music ‘from when they were 12’, or read all the musicological books that were ever written. Or, if you are a clever reviewer, just bring along a knowledgeable rasika to the concert that you are reviewing.
But now, a serious note.
Is the music and dance season a perfect world? Absolutely not, it is still a private upper-class club, restricted by practice, tradition and habit. Sponsors don’t really care where the money is going; they spread it so thin that whether the money is resulting in any long-term impact to the art is an important but unaddressed question. Opportunities are not always given on merit and many good artists are obliged to importune sabhas for a ‘concert chance’ compromising their self-respect.
There are many such issues that need addressing and I do hope we do, very soon. Nevertheless the December Music Season gives you a rare insight into music and dance and their practice, something you must experience.
Welcome to Chennai.
Originally written for The Hindu