Chennai Floods

Music in the time of misery: Chennai festival faces a moral dilemma

The city's music and dance season is likely to go ahead despite the floods, spurring a heated debate as leading performers such as Bombay Jayashri pull out.

The Margazhi season, an annual winter festival in Chennai of classical music concerts and dance performances named after the Tamil month, is likely to go ahead despite floods that have devastated the city following torrential rain in the first week of December.

N Murali, president of the Music Academy – the prestigious and influential organisation whose programme of concerts and lectures over a fortnight is scheduled to begin on December 15 – said the decision was made after weighing the pros and cons.

“Instead of keeping quiet in an emotional way, we have decided to go on with the season because it provides a source of livelihood for accompanists, smaller artistes and others, such as sound technicians,” he said over the phone from Chennai. “The big artistes have other opportunities, but this season is crucial for many others. Things [the flood situation] should improve by December 15. We hope to run the programmes as effectively as possible and contribute constructively. I don’t think many want to cancel.”

On Monday, the Music Academy had put out a press statement endorsed by nine leading organisations, including the Narada Gana Sabha and the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, hinting that they would all proceed with their programmes. “Our sincere thanks are due to the artistes who have already expressed their intention to donate a portion or their whole remuneration to relief funds,” the statement read. “Some…amongst us, depending on their circumstances and ability, will be able to contribute meaningfully to relief and rehabilitation.”

Highlight of the season

Chennai and its surrounding areas have been particularly badly hit after the northeast monsoon ravaged parts of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry. More than 300 people have died and nearly 20 lakh have been displaced in the massive flooding caused by the unusually high rainfall.

The flood coincides with Chennai’s annual music and dance season, which runs for almost two months, from mid-November to mid-January, with the Music Academy’s two-week programme in the second half of December being the highlight. In all, more than 3,000 concerts and performances take place, involving more than 200 performers, making it possibly the biggest classical music festival in the world, in terms of the number of events.

The season is the highlight of the music calendar, showcasing top and upcoming artistes not only from Chennai, but from other southern states, other parts of India, and abroad. It correspondingly attracts listeners from all over India and the world.

Reflecting the fate of the city, some performers have been badly affected by the floods, losing their instruments along with other possessions. Simultaneously, mirroring the spirit of the population at large, many artistes have also been heavily involved in relief work.

Murali of the Music Academy said that among the artistes who have announced they will donate all their concert fees to flood relief are the violinists GJR Viji and GJR Krishnan, whose late father was the legendary violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman, and the vocalist duo Gayathri-Ranjani. Other artistes are also likely to make similar donations but may not want this to be made public, according to those familiar with the situation.

Some performers pull out

Some performers, however, have pulled out of the season following the floods, including a couple who are urging others to also stay away. They cited their own state of mind, concerns about the added burden on Chennai’s infrastructure if people from outside descend on the city, and the higher risk of disease spreading at crowded venues. In the days ahead, their public cancellations could present a dilemma to the many artistes who have not yet officially announced what they plan to do.

Among those who have cancelled is singer Bombay Jayashri, one of the top attractions, who made the announcement on her Facebook page. “Dear friends and rasikas [connoisseurs of classical music],” her post of December 7 read. “I have cancelled my concerts this Margazhi season. Chennai, which has always supported art, is now battling the aftermath of torrential rains. Rescue teams and volunteers are working day and night! With so many people homeless and struggling for basic needs, I feel it is not the time for festivals. I sincerely hope the resources and energies used to back the December festival are channelised to help Chennai get back to normalcy.”

Vijay Siva, another leading singer, whose house was damaged, has also said he would not perform at least until the new year. “With…the rains creating…havoc, our West Mambalam residence is wrecked,” a December 6 post on his Facebook page read.“However, we are safe in Ramapuram. I feel this is not the moment for happy singing. Hence, calling off Dec season concerts. I plan to resume on 1st Jan 2016. Well-wishers may help in informing concerned organisers and accompanying artistes.”

Sangeetha Sivakumar, another noted singer, also said she was not in the frame of mind to perform. “I cannot think of going on stage and singing a Bhairavi or Thodi,” she said over the phone from her Chennai home, which mercifully escaped damage. “Art is very necessary in our lives, and music can be healing. But this is not the time for it. The festival can be postponed. Instead of singing at a kutcheri, the need of the hour is more practical. We need to help people in a concrete way.”

Violinist VVS Murari has also cancelled all his concerts. “When the entire city is in such a turmoil, neither the atmosphere nor the mindset of people…(are) conducive for any form of performing art or entertainment…,” he said on his Facebook page. “This is definitely not the time to entertain anyone…If the argument is that we have to raise funds and give, then we should just give what we can and not thru performances at this hour (sic).”

Other prominent singers said to be thinking of pulling out are P Unnikrishnan and Nityashree Mahadevan, but this could not be confirmed.

Seeking a deferment

But with the biggest sabhas – the local name for the music organisations – not cancelling their programmes, it was unrealistic to expect a mass pullout, Sangeetha Sivakumar said. The decision is especially difficult for youngsters because they depend much more on the season than established performers, she said. “For every youngster who pulls out, there are a whole lot of others who can take his or her place,” she said. “What I am saying is that we should postpone the festival by at least a month.”

Dancers Anita Ratnam and Ananda Shankar Jayant have also urged on their Facebook page that the festival be cancelled or at least shortened. “I implore, each of you, captains of industry, leaders of various institutions and sabhas, gurus, veterans, stars, artists, art lovers, rasikas, media, let us set aside our ghungroos and tamburas, in aid of a greater need,” the Hyderabad-based Jayant wrote in one post.

Ratnam was more scathing, suggesting that performing during the season was in any case a loss-making proposition for dancers because of the high costs involved in mounting a production. “Dancers can actually save thousands of rupees by refusing to dance,” her December 6 post said. “If the season is a 100-year-old tradition, then this flood has come after 100 years. Artistes, choose. Your city or yourself!”

The Dhananjayans, a married dancer duo, have also expressed regret that their institution, Bharatkalanjali, would have to cancel all shows.

Even before the floods, two star singers, TM Krishna, who is married to Sivakumar, and Sudha Raghunathan, had pulled out of the festival. Krishna announced in June that he did not plan to ever perform during the peak season, offering a scathing critique of the festival in its current form. Raghunathan pulled out citing health reasons on her Facebook page.

Abbreviated festival

Given the pullouts, even if the season goes ahead, it is likely to be muted. Already, some of the initial concerts have been cancelled.

The Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, whose ground floor auditorium was flooded, has postponed the start of its programmes to December 20 from December 11. The Pettachi Auditorium in the central Alwarpet area of Chennai, the venue for concerts scheduled by the Brahma Gana Sabha, is also flooded, putting a question mark on its programmes. The Chennai Fine Arts has cancelled its concerts scheduled from December 11 to 22. “Artistes and rasikas might not be in a position to enjoy the music at this point of time. We propose to reschedule the concerts to a later date yet to be decided upon,” it said on its Facebook page.

“Obviously, this season, attendance will be far less than normal,” said Murali of the Music Academy. “It won’t be business as usual. But things are improving and the city has to come back to normal. And the music festival does not depend on the municipal corporation, so by and large, we are not a burden on the infrastructure.”

Pantula Rama, a singer from Andhra Pradesh, said that she urged organisers to curtail the festival. “Instead of going ahead with the gigantic Margazhi season, why not have one or two benefit shows, like group pancharatnakriti performance by all artists, and utilise the proceeds for this cause?” she asked on her Facebook page.

“The reality will be a diminished festival, which is fine,” said N Ravi Kiran, the great chitravina player and musician, over the phone. “I respect the fact that many people will not be in the mood to play or sing. I respect their sentiments. But if the concerts are on, I will play, and I would request the sabhas to donate my fees to flood relief. Every individual and organisation has to take a decision that suits them. For me, not performing is not the solution. The way to help is to do what one does best. I may actually mess up if I get involved in something technical.”

Rasikas weigh in

Audiences seem to be as divided as the artistes about whether the season should go on. Many are weighing in with their opinions on the site,

One listener praised the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for pressing on with concerts by the Trichur Brothers and OS Arun on December 7. “I attended OS Arun' s concert and it was very moving,” wrote one listener. "He asked all the rasikas….to chant Narayana.... Surprisingly, the hall was almost full and group chanting was a moving experience for me.”

Another connoisseur was peeved that musicians were pulling out. “I don't understand cancelling the concerts,” he wrote. “They can contribute the money received to relief fund, if they are really worried about the rain and its aftermath. In this process, they satisfy two sets of people, one the rasikas and the affected people. They also need to consider the loss for the sabhas by not giving the concerts.”

Yet another music lover quoted a Telugu kriti composed by Thyagaraja in raga Ravichandrika: Maakelaravicharamu? Why should we worry? “That is the spirit,” the rasika wrote, referring to the meaning of the composition’s first line, going on to calm the heated discussion. “Do our best, leave unto Him the rest. But I think each of our wonderful musicians is full of dedication, pragmatism and maturity. So some will perform and some will refrain. In each case, the maturity is the same.”

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