Chennai Floods

Let art heal: A message to those opposing Chennai’s music festival

There is a long history of artistes using art to create social awareness and heal wounds. Why is this time different?

December in Chennai is usually a time of celebration among classical musicians and dancers as they prepare for Margazhi season, the world’s largest gathering of classical artistes. Not this year. As Chennai recovers from devastating rains and floods, many individuals and organisations have questioned if it is fair to go ahead with the Margazhi season. They have launched tirades on Facebook about how it is insensitive for people to sing and dance when the city is suffering, guilt-tripping those who want to contribute through art. The reaction among dancers and musicians has been varied: some have shown ambivalence, others have responded with ‘the show must go on’.

In all this chaos, it is important to ask some questions about art. How relevant are Indian classical arts in today’s day and age? Do any of the 200-year-old Varnams composed by the Tanjore Quartet brothers hold any value or significance now? Will a beautifully rendered Hamsadhwani Ragam give solace to someone in trauma?

There has been a long history of using artistic expression for social awareness in India. Way back in 1896-’97, when large parts of north India were reeling from famine and a horrid plague, a Famine Relief Concert was organised and funds mobilised to the help those suffering. An old review of the concert details the performances by the artistes and how they helped to raise funds.

Indian Famine Relief Concert report

Then, in 1934, when a massive earthquake struck Bihar and Bengal regions, the Congress organised a fundraising concert. It was at this concert that Sarojini Naidu recognised a shy Akhtaribai Faizabadi, who later ruled the ghazal stage as Begum Akhtar. A decade later, in 1944, MS Subbulakshmi raised funds with benefit concerts for the Kasturba Memorial Fund, for which Mahatma Gandhi expressed gratitude. In the 1960s, Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam diva Yamini Krishnamurthy performed more than a hundred dance recitals to raise lakhs of rupees for various social causes. Charles Fabri, a senior dance critic who reviewed of one of her benefit performances, wrote:
“Yamini danced, like she was possessed. Her ankle bells fell off but she couldn’t be bothered. She danced her heart out, pleading to her gods to end human suffering. She broke down by the end of her performance and the hall cried with her. Though she was inconsolable, she made us feel like her dance was one of the solutions to the many problems the world was facing today. The purity of her art and heart moved everyone. There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience!”

Begum Akhtar Jalsaghar

As East Pakistan struggled to become the independent nation of Bangladesh during the 1971 war, the political and military atrocities there forced a tide of at least seven million refugees to pour into India. The region had just suffered the Bhola cyclone, killing up to half a million Bengalis. Following the exodus to Calcutta, their plight worsened as the refugees faced starvation and diseases such as cholera.

Pandit Ravi Shankar’s biography says:
“I was in a very sad mood, having read all this news, and I said, ‘George, this is the situation, I know it doesn’t concern you, I know you can’t possibly identify.’ But while I talked to George he was very deeply moved... and he said, ‘Yes, I think I’ll be able to do something.’”

George Harrison, along with Pt Ravi Shankar, organised the famous “Concert for Bangladesh by George Harrison and friends” at the Madison Square Garden in New York City. Some of the world’s leading artistes including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Ringo Starr, Sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Tabla maestro Ustad Allah Rakha performed. Millions of dollars were raised and given to UNICEF in aid of Bangladesh. This concert became a role model for numerous benefit concerts in the following decades. You can find glimpses of the concert here:

A poster for Harisson and Shankar's Concert For Bangladesh 

Several classical artistes like Yesudas, violinist Dr L Subramaniam, tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain, the late Mandolin Srinivas and others gave concerts through the 1980s and 1990s to raise funds towards relief measures for disaster-affected regions across India. In Tamil Nadu, when the tsunami devastated large parts of the state’s coast, right in the middle of the 2004 Margazhi season, several artistes and Sabhas diverted funds for relief measures.

Recently, during the devastating Chennai floods, we got to know the sad case of DS Aiyyelu. Aiyyelu is the greatest living expert in stitching Bharatanatyam and other classical dance costumes. You won’t find a single dancer who in their professional performing career hasn’t approached Aiyyelu for advice and help. This little video is probably the only documentation of Aiyyelu’s over five decades of work.

The Chennai floods washed away his shop, hundreds of costumes, sewing machines and everything he had. How can dancers and musicians understand his suffering? By putting on the costume he stitched for them. By dancing and raising awareness. By diverting funds to help Aiyyelu get back his livelihood. The publicity-shy septuagenarian is never going to cry about his loss. If you, the artist, can help him, do it. If you can’t, don’t stop others from helping him.

Like Aiyyelu, there are several instrument-makers whose shops and homes were wiped out in the flooding. These people made Mridangams and Veenas despite the measly income that brought them. They stuck to their profession to keep an art form alive because of their passion. They need help now. This is not a time for selective solidarity. Art should be used to heal the battered society. If the powers of art can change an artist’s life, there is no reason to deny the same succour to others. Gurus and teachers pass on their art because they genuinely believe that it can bring about a change in the society. It’s time to prove them right.

Finally, this is the birth centenary year of the legendary Carnatic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi. Throughout her life, she gave benefit concerts to raise funds for humanity. She was the first Indian classical musician to be honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay award in 1974, and the award citation reads:
“In April 1944, after five successful benefit performances given for the Memorial Fund honoring Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, Subbulakshmi’s voice became an instrument for public causes. Receipts of concert halls – filled to overflowing – and open amphitheaters – often packed with tens of thousands paying only four annas each (three U.S. cents) so as to deny no one the joy of her songs – have been given to constructive works. Equivalent to over one million U.S. dollars, her contributions have benefited foundations for the poor, hospitals, orphanages, schools, and music and journalism institutes. While becoming the idol of millions, this lady has remained deeply religious, unpretentious and almost childlike in her simplicity. In electing Srimati M.S.Subbulakshmi to receive the 1974 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes her exalting rendition of devotional song and magnanimous support of numerous public causes in India over four decades.”

Is there a better way to show the world that art heals? Had Subbulakshmi too cancelled every performance that came her way, even if in solidarity, the world would have been a worse place. But she had the conviction that her art could transcend misery and soothe the wounds that society inflicts upon itself. Were she around today, she would have done what she did all her life.

That is what Padma Bhushan Dr Padma Subrahmanyam too believes. Over a weak phone connection, the renowned dancer and scholar said:
“I just returned from London. If I was an hour late, I would have been one of the 4,000 stranded in the airport. My house and dance studio have been flooded. These are miserable times for all of us. I think artistes have a role to play in society. We cannot sit home and mourn. If you feel art is auspicious, this is the time to spread that auspiciousness. That is why it was a part of our ancient temple rituals too, despite all the wars and bloodshed in the land. I believe art can heal and cure… A bread factory owner who lost everything still managed to clean his machines and supply hundreds of loafs of bread. That way, everyone is trying to do something for the city in their own way. We as artistes must do it through our art… If you want to show your support to Chennai, like every year, come for this year’s Margazhi music and dance season.”

Like Padma, there are several musicians and dancers who are willing to perform and keep the Margazhi season going. Art, more than any other medium, has the power to touch the deepest instincts and evoke emotions. If you consider yourself an artiste, don’t underestimate your art. Every time a disaster has struck, artistes have found means to bring solace. They have seen suffering at close quarters and have believed that their art had the power to help others overcome helplessness. They took a leap of faith and trusted their art over their insecurities.

As the Margazhi month begins next week, some of Chennai’s prestigious organisations that have been in the service of arts for decades – like the Madras Music Academy, Narada Gana Sabha, Krishna Gana Sabha, Karthik Fine Arts, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Parthasarathyswami Sabha and Tamil Isai Sangham and Carnatica – have released a joint statement. They say they are conducting the Margazhi season this year as per schedule and have pledged to divert funds towards relief measures in Chennai and other affected parts of Tamil Nadu. Help them to help everyone. People like Aiyyelu and those Mridangam and Veena craftsmen need your help – and your art.

Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic.

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