How Christmas made Chennai the Mecca of Carnatic Arts

If one goes back into the history of the season, you will see how it was the most democratic process.
How Christmas made Chennai the Mecca of Carnatic Arts
How Christmas made Chennai the Mecca of Carnatic Arts
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The December music festival season is at its peak. Like every year, thousands of music lovers have descended into Chennai. The season doesn’t stop for anyone or anything. It didn’t stop when the worst of times befell Chennai and her citizens. Did you know how this season was a completely secular and democratic affair close to a century ago? How Muslims, Christians and Hindus, but more importantly passionate music lovers, made this possible? Today we have several activists shouting that this festival is an elitist affair. If one goes back into the history of the season, you will see how it was the most democratic process. The season is synonymous with the prestigious Madras Music Academy. Over the last nine decades, it has been carefully nurtured to become a phenomenon that no other city in India can parallel. All this was revealed in a fascinating lecture-tour delivered by the erudite Chennai historian, scholar, orator, author and raconteur Sriram Venkatakrishnan.

This weekend he organized a ‘Music Academy Heritage Tour’. By the end of the tour what was revealed was how and why the city of Chennai was, is and will continue to remain the capital of Carnatic arts. You would wonder what is the big deal about one institution that has been doing music concerts. The fact is that there is no other such equally successful trope like the Music Academy is in Chennai. For this, Sriram took us back to a hundred years ago when Chennai was Madras or Chennapuri. A group of history enthusiasts and music lovers gathered in the current Music Academy at five in the morning to set out on this tour.

But this is the December Music Season and it was not surprising to find a mile-long queue outside the Music Academy’s box office. The line was for the concert of last year’s Sangita Kalanidhi awardee, the Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Those waiting in queue were also served hot coffee, totally gratis. The tour bus set off to the forgotten quarters of old Madras.

The December music season, as interpreted now did not begin for any religious reasons. None of what is popular today as Margazhi month of Shri Vaishnavas, legacy of poet saint Andal and so forth were remotely connected to the actual act or intention of beginning this festival. It was purely based on the fact that the High Court of Madras shut during the Christmas week and Easter week. The lawyers, advocates and judges who happened to be great patrons of Carnatic music would have enough time to attend concerts. It was keeping their convenience in mind that the music season began. Since the weather was also good in December, instead of summer when Easter Sunday falls in, it was decided to be made a permanent feature.

The other reason it took off successfully was to commemorate the annual session of the Congress party. These sessions would be conducted in different cities. An All India Music Conference was held for the first time in Madras in 1927 when the Congress annual sessions took place. A resolution recommending the organization of a proper Academy for Music in Madras was first passed. A year later an Experts’ committee consisting of some of the greatest musical stalwarts was formed. The Academy was formally inaugurated on August 18, 1928 by Sir C P Ramaswami Iyer at the Young Men’s Christian Association. The YMCA auditorium in Esplanade hosted the first Carnatic music conference. It was also decided that the festival would be in two parts. One part would be a presentation of academic sessions discussing various facets of music. The other would be concerts. This tradition continues till date.

The Music Academy successfully conducted festivals year after year in various locations in old Madras. In The Senate House in 1929, in the lodge of the Theosophical society, also called the Mani Ayyar Hall in Triplicane in 1930, in a special pandal erected in a park behind the current Rippon Buildings between 1931-35, in ‘The Flunnels’ on General Patters Road in 1936, in Lord Govinddoss Garden in 1937, in Old Woodlands Hotel in Royapettah in 1938, The Senate House between 1939-41, in the Sundaresswarar Hall at the RR Sabha between 1942-54 and in the P S High School grounds between 1955-61. This way the Music Academy functioned in various venues across the city till it got its own venue in the current location on Cathedral Road, now called Radhakrishnan Salai.

The reason for acquiring the twenty-eight grounds of land where the Academy currently stands is because of the enthusiasm of Justice Basheer Ahmed Sayeed. The grounds costed a princely sum of one lakh and twelve thousand rupees. The Academy could only afford sixty thousand rupees. The rest was taken as a loan from the Indian Overseas Bank. A part of the funds for the building were gathered by concerts of M S Subbulakshmi and Bharatanatyam dancer Kumari Kamala. Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone for the new building in 1955. After the ceremony, he is supposed to have casually crossed the main road and gone for dinner to TT Krishnamachari’s house on the other side.

In later years Pt Nehru would send every international guest and delegation to visit the Academy as a part of their tour in India. That was the passion with which people took up the cause, be they politicians or lawyers.

MS Subbulakshmi and Nehru at the opening of the Academy.

It is not possible to go through the entire history of the music season and the Music Academy in one go. If not for the generosity of those lawyers, advocates, judges, doctors, scientists and other professionals, the music season would have never happened. If not for Christmas it would have never happened! If not for Christmas, the city wouldn’t have realized it was the heart of everything Carnatic.

The Madras Music Academy conducted the annual December season through good and bad times. In the peak of the World War 2 when the city of Madras was evacuated, when the Tsunami hit Tamil Nadu, last year’s devastating floods and this year’s political turmoil and cyclone. Nothing can disturb the real cultural spirit of Madras and the Music Academy stands as a proud witness to history.

In no other city would you find hundreds of music lovers wake up before sunrise and line up outside a box office to buy tickets to a classical music concert. In no other city and no other institution do music lovers turn up in droves to attend academic sessions with such enthusiasm like they do at the Music Academy. This year, as it enters its ninetieth year of the festival, and as the world celebrates yet another Christmas Day, it is important to remember this history.

The lecture-tour conducted by the genius of Sriram was not just enlightening and educative but a very important to the understanding of modern history. If every city had a heritage conservationist and arts enthusiast like Sriram, we would go a long way in respecting our rich secular tradition. The tours are conducted on a regular basis and if you are interested, you must look them up online or contact the Academy.

V Sriram

The Music Academy is a cultural phenomenon and a witness to this tradition. In the last nine decades, it has become the ultimate benchmark for judging top-ranking Carnatic musicians and their career graphs. There is no Carnatic musician who doesn’t want to win the prestigious ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ award, the Nobel Prize of Carnatic world. As we wish each other Merry Christmas this weekend, we also wish more power to the Academy and its vision for sustaining the rich secular and cultural fabric of Chennai through Carnatic music.

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He can be reached at

Images: The Music Academy, Chennai 

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