Residents of a fishing village in Chennai that is just a few kilometres but many worlds away from the city's hubs for Carnatic music say they are delighted to be hosting a two-day cultural festival featuring top-notch performers.

A stretch of beach outside the Ellaimman temple in the Urur Olcott Kuppam, south of Mylapore and T-Nagar, will become the stage for the festival on Monday and Tuesday evening. The performers will include popular Carnatic musicians such as P Unnikrishnan, violinist R Kumaresh and veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh.

"I have seen posters about Carnatic music and have heard bhajans in temples, but I have never attended a kutcheri [concert] in a hall, where the high-class public goes," said K Saravanan, a resident of the village and a leading activist of the Coastal Resource Centre, which spreads awareness among fishermen about their rights pertaining to legal restrictions on construction along the coast. "So we are very happy about the festival. We also hope it will highlight the existence of our village."

The Season

Like Saravanan, none of the village's roughly 4,000 residents, half of whom are fishermen from the Pattinavar caste and the rest migrant workers, is ever likely to have entered any of the roughly 75 venues that are holding classical music and dance performances over a two-month period starting from mid-November. These performances are part of what is locally known as the Margazhi festival, for the Tamil month that falls in the middle of this period, or more widely as the Chennai Music Season.

It began about a century ago with a weeklong series Carnatic classical music performances, but over the years has extended to almost two months, starting in mid-November. It now includes dance recitals and some Hindustani music performances as well, making it India's biggest cultural festival in terms of the numbers of performers and events.

However, the festival attracts a startlingly homogenous audience of mainly South Indian Brahmins. Given that many concerts are free, especially ones that take place in the mornings and afternoons, ticket prices are not the reason for the exclusive character of the audiences. Moreover, not only the audience but the overwhelming majority of performers and organisers are also Brahmins, who account for only about 3% of Tamil Nadu's population.

Although classical art forms in most countries are elite activities, until a century ago the performance of Carnatic music included a wider swathe of the population. Before then, Carnatic music was performed in and around temples and in royal courts. While Brahmins were always a prominent part of the Carnatic world, as scholars, composers and singers, other communities were also an integral part of the milieu. Devadasis, women artistes dedicated to the deities of temples, players of the nadaswaram, a wind instrument, and the tavil, a percussion instrument, were part of this vibrant world. They belonged to the Vellala and Kaikola castes.

Social reform

But in the early 20th century the devadasi system came under attack from social reformers while the courts declined as an institution. At the same time, Brahmins, already ritualistically powerful under the caste system, became economically and politically powerful under the colonial regime. It was the powerful Brahmins of Madras, then capital of the British presidency of the same name, which included a huge area of South India, who stepped in to refashion and modernise Carnatic music. They created the concept of the modern Carnatic concert, the "kutcheri", a roughly three-hour presentation of specific items in a formalised setting, and set up the Music Academy, which became the pre-eminent institution for Carnatic music and an arbiter of what constituted artistic excellence.

These forces together led to a decline of other communities' participation in this new world of Carnatic music, as described in scholarly detail by Lakshmi Subramanian in her path-breaking work From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy, a social history of Carnatic music. Law, social reform and the nationalist cultural project of the Madras elite "worked in unison from the late nineteenth century to create standards of morality, new idioms of cultural expression and standards of aesthetic and performative practices," she writes. "This combination was potent and served to dislodge the devasadi from the stage and make her a relic to be retrieved by a sensitive artist or diehard researcher."

To cite just one example, barring a few exceptions, nadaswaram and tavil players did not find a place in the kutcheri format, and were left to make a living in ritual contexts, such as weddings. This was true even though Brahmins acknowledged their immense contribution to the art form. Renditions of the old nadaswaram maestros are still considered gold standards for raga elaboration while tavil players were is considered to the ultimate masters of rhythm. Just a week ago, at a workshop in the Music Academy, TV Gopalakrishnan, a leading mridangam player and singer, spoke about the tavil's central role in moulding Carnatic music's rhythmic dimension.

To make the festival more inclusive, leading Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna decided to take Carnatic music to more non-traditional venues, such as the fishing village. Krishna, a rare practitioner to openly criticise the unhealthy elitism of Carnatic music, roped in Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist who works in the fishing village. Jayaraman then raised money for the event through crowd-funding.

TM Krishna and other enthusiasts at the seafront.

To make the festival egalitarian, Krishna decided to include local art forms and have them share the stage with Carnatic music. The festival will therefore also have performances of villu pattu, a form of musical story-telling; paraiattam, a percussion form; and kattai kuttu, a theatrical genre. A group from Kalakshehtra, the famous dance academy that is located nearby, will also perform a dance drama.

"The harsh truth is that most of the villagers don't care much about Carnatic music," said Jayaraman. "But the art will suffer if it has such a narrow audience base."

The village's residents are happy that their art forms will share the stage with Carnatic music and also that their colony will get wider recognition. Even though the Urur Olcott Kuppam is more than 130 years old, today the area is mostly identified with upper middle-class colonies that extend up to the village's western border, such as Besant Nagar and Shastri Nagar, which came up much later. The village was established well before the Theosophical Society moved its headquarters close by, in 1883. Kuppam is the local word for a fishing village, and this one later incorporated the name of Henry Steel Olcott, the founding president of the Theosophical Society, into its own.

"Today, most people in localities nearby don't even know we exist," said Lakshmi, who heads the village's fisherwomen's co-operative society. "This festival will help bring awareness about our village."