This December, the Chennai air is once again filled with musical notes from its Margazhi concerts, but are things slipping back to normalcy as hoped?

Carnatic vocalist performing in a concertCarnatic vocalist Sri Ranjani/ Photo Credit: Siddharth Murali
Features Music Monday, December 20, 2021 - 19:42

The month of December sees people from across the country, as well as the globe, visiting Chennai for the Margazhi season concerts. They attend Carnatic music shows, Bharatanatyam performances and go sabha hopping to catch their favourite singers live and give newcomers a chance. Last year, the season shifted online with live streams and pre-recorded shows due to the pandemic. While this December, the air is filled with musical notes from Margazhi concerts, it doesn’t look like normalcy has been completely restored as yet. The musicians and artistes are still recovering from a two-year closure of live events and with the pandemic not going anywhere, this year, the sabhas and auditoriums are grappling with implementing COVID-19 safety guidelines and exploring a hybrid setup when it comes to performances. 

While The Music Academy and Federation of City Sabhas have taken the online route, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Arkay Convention Center and Kalakshetra Foundation, among others, are holding hybrid concerts which include pre-recorded, virtual and in-person events. However, with dwindling sponsorship, many sabhas and auditoriums have cut down on the number of days, performers and time slots so as to err on the side of caution. 

Speaking to TNM, Arkay Ramakrishnan, the founder of Mylapore’s Arkay convention center, a sabha that has been around for 11 years, notes that the conditions are not organiser-friendly at the moment and many performance venues that were renting out their space for activities other than live concerts, have lost a major portion of their revenue during the pandemic. “We have not cut down on the number of days or time slots given to artistes. But the same cannot be said for many of the other sabhas,” he states.   

Some of these changes such as the reduction in the number of days and slots can be attributed to smaller audiences. Chennai’s music festival has historically attracted NRIs, who fly down to the city with their families to attend the concerts. In fact, artistes from far and wide arrive to perform at the music festival. Similarly, senior citizens form a significant proportion of the audience. “Family members might forbid senior citizens from attending live events due to the health risk. And older people might find it harder to access the shows online if the virtual concerts are not streaming on television or YouTube,” Carnatic violinist Lalgudi Krishnan says.  

Carnatic Vocalist Sai Vignesh's performance in Arkay Convention Center.
Credit: YouTube- Arkay Ramakrishnan

Carnatic vocalist Sri Ranjani's concert at Arkay Convention Center.
Credit: YouTube- Arkay Ramakrishnan

Virtual concert is no substitute

Many artistes share that the pandemic has made them realise how important performing in front of a live audience is and how the response shapes artistes’ performances. “As musicians, we are the ones singing but the applause from the audience is music to our ears. I feel we have been taking the encouragement we get from audiences for granted. We miss it so badly and I am so glad that Margazhi events are back,” Lalgudi Krishnan tells TNM. The violinist who performs concerts with his sister, violinist Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi, further says, “When we are performing live, the audience really keeps us going. A virtual concert is no substitute for that.”  

Carnatic vocalist Sri Ranjani, who has a number of performances (in person and online) lined up this December in sabhas like Mylapore Fine Arts Club and Krishna Gana Sabha, says that the switch to online events comes with both pros and cons. “I have been performing online events for the past two years now. It comes with benefits too. There’s the freedom to stop and edit if we are not satisfied with the content and we get to record from the comforts of our homes. But weighing the two options, I personally prefer live performances,” Sri Ranjani shares. However, she also adds that organisers had no other choice but to switch to virtual concerts to make the best out of the situation.  

An artiste from the younger generation, Carnatic vocalist Sai Vignesh who is performing this month in venues like Arkay convention center and Mangala Margazhi (an online music festival), among others, says that pre-recorded events are a burden on performers when they have to arrange a recording studio and cover the costs themselves as opposed to the organiser doing so. “There can be many distractions as well while recording. We also need to block the dates of other members who are part of the orchestra. Coordinating with the studio, organisers and the orchestra can be tiring at times,” he adds. 

Lineup of artistes 

While the Margazhi season has over the years served as a launchpad for a host of young talented musicians, giving them a platform to perform, the pandemic has thrown a spanner in this. The lineup this December is dominated by veterans and well-known performers. “Sabhas want to promote well-known artistes who would boost the ticket sales,” Arkay Ramakrishnan says. Sri Ranjani and Lalgudi Krishnan worry that this means young artistes will miss out on opportunities.

But even in pre-pandemic times, there has been ambiguity around the selection of artistes. There have been allegations of nepotism made against many sabhas. Sai Vignesh notes that as an upcoming artiste himself, he feels that the responsibility of forging a path is on the performer. “I think I got recognition after participating in many competitions and bagging the Mumbai Shanmuganandha Sabha’s Bharath Ratna Dr MS Subbulakshmi fellowship award in Carnatic music for the year 2019. Some young performers are very talented but they don’t market themselves well or it is vice versa in other cases. I’d like to believe that ultimately talent pays off,” he says. Sharing Sai Vignesh’s optimism, Sai Ranjani adds, “We are happy about live concerts taking place after such a long break. I think things will get better with time.”

However, a section of artistes say that those hailing from underrepresented communities face a variety of challenges when trying to get their foot in the door. The differences have been further widened by the pandemic, as artistes hailing from privileged backgrounds will be the first to recoup financially and be able to perform.

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