As the month-long Margazhi season winds down in Chennai, I feel a certain withdrawal. The top quality live Carnatic music that I had been listening to every day and the musicians behind it have suddenly disappeared and till the next season, I may have to be content with their online presence except for the odd concert. I am sure that just like me, the musicians, who had spiritedly presented the best they could offer for the year, will eagerly wait for the year to pass.
For music lovers and musicians, Margazhi in Chennai is magical. It features about 2000 classical concerts by all types of singers, instrumentalists and percussionists – ranging from veterans to young aspirants – from across the city. As one of the successful young musicians told me, it’s special because one gets to see one’s musical idols on a daily basis presenting rare ragas, rare kritis and various new ways of musical improvisations.
The star here is not just the vocalist, but also the accompanists such as violinists, mridangists or kanjira and ghatam players. Listeners pick their favourites early in life, and Margazhi is the time to binge-watch them live.
Making a personal schedule from about 15 top favourite vocalists (from an available list of at least a couple of 100s) and as many accompanists is a tough task. The permutations and combinations are so difficult that often a listener is forced to drop many must-watch concerts or ends up listening to other vocalists because a particular violinist or mridangist is a favourite. In short, it is the season that offers a heady mix of music, stars and all the thrills that they could possibly throw up.
For me, my season began by the end of November and I have been able to attend most of the concerts that I had marked as “must-watch”. I saw six concerts of Sanjay Subrahmanyan – my top favourite – which is still just around half his concerts; four of S. Saketharaman; two each of Kunnakkudi Balamurali Krishna, Sandeep Narayan, Gayathri Girish, Ranjani-Gayatri, Ramarkrishnan Murthy, Brindha Manickavasakan and Trichur Brothers; and one each of Gayatri Venkataraghavan, Sudha Raghunathan, Abhishek Raghuram, Vijay Siva, Rithvik Raja, Kumaresh and Jayanthi Kumaresh and a few others.
I did miss a few people I wanted to listen to, including Suryaprakash Ramachandran, Bharat Sundar, Rohit Prasad (mridangam), Sunil Gargyan and the veena sensation Ramana Balachandra, who was the talk of the town. In terms of accompanists, I got to watch violinists S Varadarajan, Charumathi Raghuraman and Akkarai Sisters – my favourites – and mridangist such as the Trichy Sankaran, Neyveli Narayanan, Neyveli B Venkatesh and Patri Satheeshkumar among others. As usual, it was an amazing line up of top quality talent.
The exceptional feature of Margazhi concerts is the high quality content that the artistes reserve for the season. Singers avoid two types of repetitions – one, they usually don’t repeat the previous years’s line-up at the same Sabha (venue) and two, they usually don’t repeat the ragas, compositions or innovations that they have presented elsewhere during the season. Therefore, each concert is a package of surprises and twists: there will be certainly new and rare ragas and kritis and innovative Ragam Thanam Pallavis (RTPs), korvais etc. These days, many of the singers compose their own pallavis and leave no stone unturned in terms of their manodharama, and even voice techniques. Multi-raga, multi-tala RTPs and complex “kalais” have become quite common and sruthibedham is something that almost everybody has taken a fancy for.
Watching back-to-back concerts also throw up a lot of interesting statistical probabilities: this time I heard many Bhairavis, Devamanoharis, Arabhis, Mukharis, Kalyanis and Khambojis as against a fewer Bindumalinis, Lalithas, Hamsanandis, Nayakis and Latangis and only one Varamu or Dhavalangi. And ragas rapidly changing in the same Pallavi, or during Alapana, has become quite common. Of course there were renditions that people are still raving about – the Sivaranjani and Hamsanandi (and many more) by Sanjay Subrahmanyan or the Varamu-Saveri RTP of Saketharaman which got him the best RTP singer title of the Music Academy, the Karaharapriya by Sandeep Narayan, the Poorvikalyani by Gayathri Girish, and the unusual Mohanam by Kunnakkudi Balamurali Krishna. There was one rapid-fire ragamalika by Sanjay Subrahmanyan, in which discernible listeners counted about 16 ragas. What’s more, listening to Ramakrishnan Murthy’s rendition of Pancharatna Kriti Sadinchane as a Tana Varnam was an awe-inspiring experience.
Seeing the top talent in Carnatic music of my choice in action all at one go during the season makes me marvel not only at their years of hard work, musical legacy, prowess and spontaneous creativity, but also their level of memory (which to me is mathematical) and intellect.
Is there a pet peeve that I have every year? Yes, it’s always about how the scheduling and ticketing could be modernised so that the concerts see more attendance. Watching even successful musicians singing to half-empty, or near-empty halls, is heartbreaking.
Carnatic music in Chennai is still a phenomenon in which mostly younger people sing to much older people. People in the 25-50 age group, the mainstay of our society and economy, are still missing in the audience. Except for a few, Sabha tickets are not available online and hence people outside the localities in which the Sabhas are located, and outside the city, find it difficult to access the programmes. It’s high time the Sabhas democratised access to the concerts rather than allowing musicians live through the dread of empty halls.
More over, the portrayal of carnatic music by the traditional media houses in the city is still jargon-laden, and that makes it sound more complicated than neurosurgery. The more contemporary ways of appreciating art and communicating about them, and experiential delineation are missing. Some singers have found their own breakthroughs to beat this staid system of jargon-laden and contrived communication, while others are still languishing in it. Dilution and fusion are not the way to popularise carnatic music, but it may be to let people know how thrilling it is. Looks like the old guard is still not very keen on this and those who are enterprising are confused.
During the season, I spoke to four leading singers including the undisputed numero uno Sanjay Subrahmanyam on various aspects of carnatic music and performances and have presented my conversations with them as long-form interviews and podcasts. In addition, I asked five musicians to summarise their Margazhi experiences. Here’s what they had to say:
Personally, the highlight of this season was my two-and-a-half hour concert that featured exclusive kritis of Muthuswami Dikshitar in Anandabhairavi, and a Ragam Tanam Pallavi (RTP) in Bhagesri. Dikshitar kritis are mostly in slow tempo and hence it was a challenge to sustain the audience interest till the end. I was really happy when it came off well. I performed in 17 concerts this season and was anxious about keeping my voice intact.
Thematic multimedia concerts that I had performed in the past had been very well received and I am keen on a few more in the next season as well. I always enjoy doing a little “out-of-the-box” thing in every concert, like a rare raga or a rare kriti or a surprise “grahabedham”, apart from the usual format. The Chennai Sabha ecosystem provides a perfect blend of bhakti, music, food and, of course, fond memories of the past.
I have been singing in Margazhi for more than three decades and my earliest memory of the season is probably listening to Vidwan Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer singing the Kamakshi Swarajati in Bhairavi, and Vidwan Sri KVN singing a majestic Kaligiyunte in Keeravani. They both had left an indelible impression on me. When I got promoted to the senior slot at the Music Academy in 2006, it was also the year my Guru Shri TN Seshagopalan was conferred the Sangeetha Kalanidhi title. He encouraged me to take up a tough Ragam Tanam Pallavi – an Eight Kalai Pallavi – that year and it turned out to be a successful attempt. His presence at that concert was a huge blessing for me!
Lecture Demonstrations (lec-dems) have always fascinated me and my only disappointment is that I haven’t been able to attend many of them because of my own concert commitments. I also enjoy giving lec-dems and hope to do them more often in the coming years.
Every music season, something new seems to happen that keeps it fresh even after so many years. This year, one of my most interesting ventures was releasing a music video with MadRasana in collaboration with Sean Roldan, performing the Tulsidas bhajan Gopala Gokula.
Making the music video was a great experience, but for me, live performances are the lifeblood of Carnatic music and still the most exciting part of the Margazhi music season. As part of MadRasana’s Music Festival, I was honoured to be the first Carnatic singer to perform live in a movie hall – Sathyam Cinemas. This was one of over 15 concerts I performed in the month of December, which also took a toll on my body and vocal chords.
In the final week of December, I caught a very bad cold, but still had four concerts to go, one of which was a New Year’s Eve special, with the Mridangam legend Umayalpuram Sri K Sivaraman. I was a bit worried, to say the least! However once we started, my co-artists on stage seemed to infuse me with their energy. After the concert, I told Sivaraman Mama that I had been nervous before the concert due to my flu, to which he replied, “All your sickness is gone now, you see that? Because music is the best therapy.” These words definitely rang true this season!
Margazhi is a special time of the year for any musician. The challenge of a grinding schedule is no match the festive feeling that emanates from being a part of one of the most premier seasons for music.
With the advent of social media, one gets to have a ready reckoner of sorts on what each artiste performs, and hence ensures that there are no repetitions and it is critical that their concerts are fresh. Of course, it goes without saying that we take every concert extremely seriously and create a mix of rare and popular kritis/presentations.
This Margazhi was no different. We always look forward to the season. The only thing we regret is not being able to make it to the concerts of others for want of time.
This music season, despite a turbulent take off, turned out to be a smooth journey for artistes and the aficionados alike. I saw a lot of emphasis on Tamil compositions, particularly with Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s all-Tamil concert at the start of the season.
I have always included several Tamil compositions and Viruthams in my concerts and in this season too I included some long-forgotten Tamil poems as well as new songs in every concert. I even tuned Mahakavi Bharathiyar’s verse ‘Veenayadi nee enakku‘ in raga Srothaswini and sang it as an RTP. This music season also brought me lot of new followers, friends and an award too from Narada Gana Sabha, instituted by CMANA, USA, in memory of the legendary ML Vasanthakumari.
Almost every concert hall in Chennai now stands revamped with air-conditioning and comfortable chairs, but sometimes I do miss the acoustics of an open air concert setting, which gives an open-throated singer an instant high the moment he sings the first note. In the midst of my busy concert schedules, I was able to set aside some time to attend morning lec-dem sessions, especially at the Music Academy. I also attended the concerts of some upcoming artistes and must admit that I am very impressed by them, and am happy for the future of Carnatic music. This year I also conducted a one-day fest to feature some of my talented disciples.
The December season is uniquely special, and as an artiste, I eagerly look forward to it every year. Learning many new compositions, polishing old songs, exploring and presenting new Ragas and singing new RTPs are all part of the meticulous preparation and hard work that the season demands. Personally, it was great singing in the evening ticketed slots in almost all the Sabhas I performed in, and a validation of all the years of determination and hard work that I’ve put in.
This year has been particularly rewarding, given how well my concerts were received and I’m thankful for all the amazing feedback I’ve received from so many people. Obviously, my own musical responsibility increases with every concert. So, in the coming year I hope to maintain my sincerity and love for the art, and strive to be the most honest and dedicated musician that I can be.
Musically, I have been making a conscious choice to include Tanam in every concert. There’s a precise melodic movement layered with an innate rhythmic flow that makes the Tanam unique. And, it has been interesting to find ways of singing it before compositions, thereby presenting it in new dimensions. This gives due importance to one of the challenging manodharma aspects to find an equal place in concerts, along with other improvisational forms.
I have also tried to reinterpret compositions that I had presented in the past, to find new lines and musical landscapes within them, and give it some freshness. The Ghana Raga Pancharatna of Saint Tyagaraja are also not normally chosen for expansive exploration. But, in a couple of concerts I presented them with detailed manodharma. Jagadanandakaraka at Vani Mahal along with Neraval at Omkara, and Endaro Mahanubhavulu at Parthasarathy Swami Sabha with Shri Raga Alapana, Ghana Raga Tanam followed by Neraval and Svaram. There’s so much scope for innovation and creativity within our existing framework and it’s upto each of us, as artistes, to tap into all the opportunities that exist.
Margazhi also encapsulates so much more than music. I especially love the sense of nostalgia, energy, passion, commitment, and positivity, that is so happily shared among many people from different walks of life. It’s a special feeling to be a part of it, and I already can’t wait for next year.