Come December and everyone in Chennai knows it is the music season, that period of the year when Carnatic music, the classical music of South India, is heard at various places in the city. Not that it is not heard at other times of the year, for Chennai is the Carnatic capital, rather like Nashville being the country music capital of the USA. But in December it takes on mammoth proportions with over 60 music organisations conducting more than 2000 programmes.
How did this come about? And why Chennai? The answers are better given in the reverse order. When the British founded this city in 1639, not many would have given it much of a chance for survival. But it grew from strength to strength, ultimately becoming the capital of a Presidency that stretched from Orissa to Kanyakumari. It put all other erstwhile strongholds in the shade as a commercial capital and that included towns such as Madurai, Thanjavur, Tirunelveli and Pudukottai. With power shifting to Chennai, artistes found this the real place to be in.
Music patronage here was not in the hands of the traditionally feudal aristocracy. Musicians were supported by the rich and powerful agents of the British masters – the dubashes, the men who knew two languages. Musicians, dancers and scholars attached themselves to one dubash or the other and from the 1750s onwards, Chennai’s temples and palatial residences began resounding to the performing arts. When the era of the dubashes waned with the East India Company ceasing to be a commercial power, the artistes found new patrons among the upcoming class of professionals –ICS officers, lawyers and judges, businessmen and doctors. These men did not have the wherewithal to have artistes in their individual pay. That is when groups of patrons began banding together to form Sabhas – social organisations that supported music and dance performances.
The traditional venues for public performances were temples, school and college buildings and the homes of the rich, the last being open to the public during occasions such as weddings, when music and dance were performed by artistes. Tickets were unheard of for concerts till the 1880s, when for the first time, a performance of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan’s introduced the idea, the venue being the Tondaimandalam Sabha at the TTV High School, Mint Street. Gradually the idea caught on and from a tradition wherein a salver was circulated among audiences on which voluntary contributions would be placed, Sabhas began selling tickets and paying artistes out of the proceeds.
The early performing venues were all in the heart of the old city – George Town. Some of these famed locations still survive – Gokhale Hall, Hindu Theological School, YMCA Hall, Pacchaiyappa’s Hall and Victoria Public Hall. But music is not heard anymore in any of these places. As the city pushed south and west from the 1890s onwards, Sabhas began springing up in places such as Mylapore, Triplicane and Royapettah. The oldest musical organisation in Chennai, which has survived from 1900 is Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha.
In 1927, the Congress party held its annual session in Madras. A music festival was held in parallel and a resolution was passed that a Music Academy ought to be set up in the city. This was duly formed in 1928 and from then on, it became the practice of the Music Academy to conduct an annual festival of music in December. That was when the High Court closed for Christmas and the lawyers, almost all of them patrons of music, were free to come for concerts. From 1932, Indian Fine Arts Society decided to do the same and so there were two organisations offering music and dance in December. In 1943, a third organisation – Tamil Isai Sangam joined the fray.
As the city expanded, Sabhas in various locations began emulating what these three had begun. And so the December season acquired its present contours. It cannot be really called a commercial success but the art has thrived on it. For it is the one time of the year when Carnatic music takes centre-stage everywhere – magazines, electronic media, newspapers… you name it. This is a unique reconfirmation that Chennai cares for its traditional arts.
This is also the time when youngsters get to present their talent. All the Sabhas present free slots for upcoming talent, which enables the music-loving public to evaluate them. This keeps fresh blood coming into an art form in which individuality is highly prized. December is when the theory of the art gets discussed in great detail and so that keeps the intellectual input coming all
Lastly, there are the canteens. Each of the big Sabhas has a top-notch South Indian culinary wizard running a kitchen for the duration of the Season. That keeps the foodies happy and the coffee flowing. What more can anyone want?
The writer is a well known historian of the city