For music lovers, there is no other place to be in the month of December than in Chennai for the grand old Margazhi season. This is the time that artistes from all over the world come together and render performances throughout the month in the city sabhas or auditoriums. The south of Chennai is lit up in resplendent glory with Carnatic concerts taking place from morning till late evening throughout the month of Margazhi, from mid-December to mid-January. Rasikas rush out from one sabha immediately after a kutcheri/concert because they don’t want to miss a performance by their favourite artiste in another sabha. And not to forget the December Sunday morning routine of waking up eagerly to revel in a lec-dem-breakfast combo by music and history scholar V Sriram. The fun goes on throughout the season.
This year, owing to the pandemic, most concerts have been shifted from sabhas and stages to gadgets and live-streams. Carnatic music aficionados from other parts of the country and overseas who book flights and train tickets meticulously every year so they can attend this classical art fest have been left disappointed. It is not just the audiences who will miss sabha-hopping to watch their favourite artistes perform live. Even artistes say they miss performing in front of their beloved rasikas.
“I miss the energy that I derive from the audience. There is always some kind of positive energy from the listeners, a force from the audience who come to your concert. That I surely miss,” says vocalist Kunnakudi Balamurali Krishna.
“Performing online is definitely not the same as performing on stage with a live audience. It’s weird performing alone in front of a camera. But I felt this lack of josh only before the concert. Once I started singing, I got engrossed in the art,” he adds.
It is rare that a musician expresses a desire to perform at a certain venue. V Sriram narrated one such anecdote in a lec-dem about how renowned Carnatic singer MS Subbulakshmi had endearingly voiced a wish to hold a concert in the Parliament building in the national capital. Former Finance Minister of India TT Krishnamachari had written about the incident when the Bharat Ratna awardee had visited Delhi in the late 1940s, post-independence. On a day off, he had taken her to the Parliament and given her a tour of the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and the Central Hall, and that is when she admiringly told him, “Mama, inga oru kutcheri paadina evalo nanna irukum!” (How wonderful it’d be to sing here).
The kutcheris take place on a traditionally bedecked stage with flowers and awnings, and a compactly placed high-quality mic system. When this scene has to be shifted to the homes and recording rooms of artistes, it can be challenging for someone from a non-technical background to set up the systems and ensure good quality and seamless audio output for the listeners.
When asked about singlehandedly setting up the audio systems — as formal technicians cannot be hired owing to physical distancing norms — veteran mridangam player Mannarkoil J Balaji explains, “I used a lavalier mic for my solo performances. It was very good. But you must have a sound-proof and a fully air-conditioned room for the bare minimum because the mic picks up even the slightest of sounds. Sometimes even a ‘hiss’ noise may pop up if these things are not taken care of. The room must be sound-proof. This can be achieved even within a normal house setup.”
The pro percussionist, who has been performing for more than three decades, however says he does miss performing live at sabhas.
“Going to an auditorium wading through thick traffic, even though a bane, is always fun in terms of travelling to various destinations back-to-back during Margazhi. This is one aspect that I’m totally missing,” he shares.
It is also the season where Carnatic music enthusiasts who study the intricate and finer aspects of the classical art attend lecture-demonstrations by various well-read scholars. One such speaker is Sriram. Not only is he known for his in-depth knowledge of history, he is also loved for his razor sharp wit.
“I don’t like the virtual medium one bit. I continuously yearn for the time when there is a live audience back again,” Sriram tells TNM.
As author Gregory David Roberts said, “Food is music to the body, music is food to the heart,” the Margazhi season is time for rasikas’ tryst with the banana leaf sappadu and strong filter coffee. Sastha Caterers has launched the Margazhi Live Canteen at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club near St Isabel’s Hospital, Mylapore. They serve breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner, both dine in and takeaway. There are different menus for each day. From Mor kuzhambu, Puliyodharai, Pineapple rasam, Kadamba sambar to Pal payasam, Elaneer payasam and Semiya payasam, you can hog on an eclectic variety of traditional delicacies on a giant green leaf. And finish with a beeda. For breakfast, you can’t miss the quintessential masala dosa with loads of sambar and chutney.