Sunday, December 29, 2013

"Margazhi Festival" The Music Festival In Chennai.

Anywhere between three hundred to five concerts every day, without break, for almost a month!  Budding artists, seasoned musicians, gods of music world, traditional, experimental, fusion, solo, duet, vocal, instrumental, free entry, ticketed, closed auditoriums, open air concerts -  you take your pick and enjoy Carnatic classical music to your heart content if you can make it to Chennai for the annual music festival, called the ‘Margazhi Festival’, held during December - January every year.

The concerts begin at ten in the morning and go on till nine at night.  Five to eight concerts in each of the nearly hundred venues every day. All the venues have attached canteen facilities running the whole day. Have your breakfast and attend the first concert at Narada gana sabha, hop onto a bus and reach Krishna gana sabha for the second concert and lunch, move on to the music academy ( I believe a musician has ‘arrived’ if he is accepted by the music academy and offered the prime slot in their AC auditorium equipped with Bose sound system) for hot coffee and very attractive ‘meduvada’ and ‘wheat halwa’  followed by the early evening concert and end up at  the Mylapore fine arts club for the last one and dinner.  Choose the venues and artists depending on your taste, purse and ability to move. You may stick to the free ones like the ISCON concert  (Carnatica and Sri Parthasarathyswamy Sabha, in association with Cleveland Tyagaraaja aradhana committee USA) and live on the beach  - the venue is almost on the beach - the whole day. The weather is wonderful this time of the year and if you are a frequent visitor to Chennai, it will be difficult to believe that you are in Chennai and not sweating.

I believe music lovers come from all over the world, rent rooms for a whole month and forget everything else during the period. We met a Sikh gentleman, a resident of USA, at the music academy, who was on his twelfth visit to Chennai for the music festival. A typical Sardarji replete with ‘Pagadi’ and beard, fanatically interested in carnatic claasical music, speaking fluent Telugu, Tamil and quite a bit of Kannada!

I had been hearing about the Margazhi festival from my sister for many years and decided to experience it this time. I know nothing of classical music, Carnatic or Hindustani, but I like listening to them. Just as I like attending quizzes.  I sit through three hour quiz programmes without getting even one answer and most often not even getting the question! It is almost the same with music. I will have no idea whether the artist is singing/playing a Raaga, Varna or Kriti, (more confusion if it is instrumental) but I enjoy them all the same.

I should thank the Ramanavami concerts I used to attend in Bengaluru when I was young and in particular Smt Srinivasamma and Sri Ranganathachar, an iyengar couple who lived near our house, for what little inclination towards classical music I have developed. This couple were the promoters of Carnatic Classical music in our locality without any vested interest. They arranged at least a dozen concerts during Ramanavami festival every year (over more than a decade as I remember) with the very active and even more enthusiastic participation of Sri Srinivasa Raghavaachar, a music teacher and their tenant. These concerts were held in a small hall built specially for the purpose above their house and we were one of the regulars for the concerts. Ramanavami usually falls in April after the final exams and we used to attend those concerts in a blissful state of mind, free from the worries of home works and tests. I don’t mind going through the primary school again if I can get back that Ramanavami feeling once more. We sat through these concerts enjoying the popular ‘devaranamas’ which we could recognize and dozing when the recital turned technical. Sri Srinivasa Raghvaachar, I guess,  was  a well respected gentleman in music circles and we have witnessed well known artists like Asthana vidwan Titte Krishna iyengar and Veena Doreswamy iyengar  performing in that small hall in front of an audience numbering not more than thirty.

I stayed in Chennai for three days during this 2013 season and attended six concerts. Since I have no idea about the technicalities of music I am unable to say anything about the quality of the concerts but can provide a layman’s account along with the photographs.

schedule for the 2013 season at the Narada gana Sabha

The first concert we attended. Violin duet By Vidwans Ganesh and Kumaresh. Narada Gana Sabha.
 Ganesh  and Kumaresh. I heard these names for the first time and I enjoyed the concert. I would have liked it better if the antics were less. One of them was singing in between and it was as good as his Violin.

How do they recognise sabha audience? From the look of bliss on their faces!

Festival atmosphere in the canteen. Totally ethnic. And you know where the left overs, if any, go!
On to the purely middle class Mylapore fine arts club. Vocal recital by Sri T V Sankaranarayanan, again a new name for me.  Madhurai Mani Iyer style. Fully traditional. I just could not get the lyrics and could only guess whether it was Alaapana, varna or Kriti based on the activity of the Mrindangam artist.  

Vidwan T V Shankaranarayana

what is 'Sumal' onion? My neice deciphered it as Tamil english for 'Small'. Bagala Bath of course is Bakala bath.

Mandolin Srinivas, Rajesh
The next day’s first concert was Mandolin U Srinivas at the Krishna gana sabha, located in T Nagar. I had first heard about Srinivas more than thirty years ago. He had made a public appearance when he was just about ten years or so. I had had no opportunity to hear any of his concerts and this was a good chance. Enjoyable concert but audience not very civilized.

Vidwan Vijay Siva
From Krishna gana sabha we went on to Tyaga brahma gana sabha to hear Vidwan Vijay siva, Vocal, yet another new name for me.  The red light on top of my brother in law’s car and the armed guard in the front seat, facilitated easy movement of the vehicle (sometimes on the wrong side of the road - not for evading traffic and arriving at the venue in time but for ‘security’ reasons) and allowed us to alight in front of the main door from where we were escorted to the VIP seats in the front row. I enjoyed the VIP treatment for two days because of my ‘Hoovina jate naaru’ status. (a saying in Kannada which means - along with the flowers in the garland the thread too reaches the god). I think I had ‘Rajayoga’ in my horoscope though for a very short period, which helped me enjoy the concerts from the VIP seats without the usual disturbance of people getting in and out.

The third day we attended two very lively concerts. One was the vocal recital by OS Arun, one more new name for me. (most of the names were new for me as I have hardly attended Carnatic concerts after leaving Bangalore thirty years ago) It was at the ISCON temple with its sea facing stage.  Vidwan Arun was in the middle of the very popular kriti, Brochevarevarura, enjoying himself and almost dancing. And that is what I felt like doing too when I heard it. He finished it about ten minutes after we reached there and I felt bad for having missed the earlier part. 

Vidwan O S Arun
ISCON almost open air.
As if to compensate for this loss, Kadri Gpoalanath, (again at the Tyaga brahma gana sabha - with the reserved VIP seats) played the same on his saxophone, as the main piece. I enjoyed this concert immensely as there were more ‘kritis’ which I could recognise and many of them in Kannada! I think his Mangalore background has something to do with it. Apart from providing great music, Kadri Gapalnath was a sight to see with his bright coloured dress, jewellary and gold tipped saxophone. He and his accompanying artists seemed to be able to read each other’s minds and were enjoying themselves very much.

Kadri Gopalanath
We were to leave Chennai in the afternoon on 18th Dec and my sister insisted that we visit the Music Academy before we left. So I had a chance to hear Udayalur Kalyanaraman’s ‘naamasankeertanam’ for a short while. We could stay there just for half an hour and I think we created considerable disturbance to others while we tried to pass through the rows to get in and get out. We went to the canteen for a cup of coffee and saw people enjoying an early lunch being served on plantain leaves. All the dishes looked very attractive, meduvada and wheat halva the best. My sister had suggested that we have lunch there but I had vetoed the suggestion because it would be too early and we had more interesting items at home.  After seeing the spread I felt that refusing that lunch was not wise. (Photography not allowed at the Music Academy)

I should make it a point to take the canteens more seriously if I go to Chennai again for the music festival. I may not be able to fully appreciate the quality of the music, my case being something like the Telugu saying “gaDdiku telasuna gandhala vasana” (can a Donkey appreciate the fragrance of sandal wood?) but I can certainly appreciate the quality of eating that goes with the music in Chennai! 

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