As several parts of Chennai emerged from the depths of floodwaters, Chennai-vasis were in for a pleasant surprise. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation had on October 31 included Chennai in its Creative Cities Network in recognition of its music tradition. The network lists 180 cities in 72 countries based on how they fare on one or more of seven creative fields: crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts and music.

Chennai’s inclusion elicited laudatory tweets from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

As one who considers Chennai home, I think the city deserves this recognition not only for music but also in the field of gastronomy. Perhaps, it should be recognised for its films as well.

Major newspapers and news websites immediately, and perhaps correctly, associated Chennai’s inclusion with Carnatic music and the Sabhas, organisations that support Carnatic music. The Hindu’s coverage of the news included a photograph of a Carnatic concert and interviews with two Carnatic musicians. India Today carried a photograph of The Music Academy’s TT Krishnamachari Auditorium with the caption “The Iconic Music Academy in Chennai”. To its credit, its commentary mentioned Chennai’s thriving music industry and how it is home to music composers and playback singers. Only the digital version of Tamil magazine Vikatan carried a quote of Opposition leader MK Stalin welcoming the recognition to Chennai on behalf of not just Carnatic music but also gaana and other Tamil musical traditions.

Not an award, a responsibility

While the recognition is being celebrated as if it were an award, the concept of Creative Cities is delightfully deceptive. Going by the intent of the listing, being included in the Creative Cities Network is an invitation to a challenge, an onerous responsibility, a terrific opportunity, anything but an award. The various fields of culture such as gastronomy, design, film or literature are relevant only as long as these help urban spaces evolve sustainably.

Here is what the Creative Cities website says under the link Why Creativity? Why Cities?:

“Urban areas are today’s principal breeding grounds for the development of new strategies, policies and initiatives aimed at making culture and creativity a driving force for sustainable development and urban regeneration through the stimulation of growth and innovation and the promotion of social cohesion, citizen well-being and inter-cultural dialogue. In this way cities respond to the major challenges with which they are confronted, such as the economic crisis, environmental impacts, demographic growth and social tensions.”

Unesco clearly sees art, food, literature or film not merely as aesthetics, but as agents of positive social change that erase inequalities, affirm diversity, celebrate public spaces, enhance resilience and facilitate inclusivity. Art solely as an aesthetic is a luxury few can afford. But even without losing its aesthetic appeal, art can and should be an agent for social change. Indeed, there are few things better equipped than art to bridge invisible, human-made boundaries, and even dismantle them.

Culture, as a singular noun, is a loaded word prone to hegemonic capture. The plural cultures is perhaps a more accurate word particularly for an urban setting or a diverse nation such as India. The singular “urban culture” can be healthy only if it affirms and celebrates the various constituent cultures that occupy and evolve out of urban spaces.

Chennai has several musical traditions – Carnatic, gaana, Tamil rock, rap and adult contemporary music, not to mention the pervasive film music that borrows from all the above. Barring film music though, each of the other genres is isolated from each other along class and caste lines. Each either chooses to or is forced to occupy a ghettoised space.

Chennai’s Carnatic tradition has rich patrons and an elaborate network of performance spaces. Most prominent Carnatic musicians are upper caste, their patrons and audiences are upper caste, and the venues exclusive. Carnatic’s challenge is to open up its performance spaces and its patrons to other musical forms, and to cultivate performers and audiences from other sections of society.

Bringing music to the masses

This is already happening. The Hindu November Fest, while still out of the reach of most Chennai-vasis, brings a healthy mix of genres to historically conservative stages in Chennai. And in January, Raga Sudha Hall, a well-known venue for Carnatic and Bharatanatyam performances and part of Chennai’s Sabha culture, opened up its stage to the ancient Tamil martial arts form of silambattam, gaana music and a devotional music performance by Jogappas – a transgender community from Karnataka. This was part of the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha whose intentions are squarely in tune with Unesco’s Creative Cities concept. Contrary to popular perception that the Vizha (Tamil for festival) is a means to take lofty Carnatic music to the masses, its actual intent is to equalise art, artists, audiences and spaces.

After multi-genre performances in public places, including railway stations and on public buses, the main Vizha is held over two evenings in the temple square of the Urur Olcott Kuppam fishing village in Chennai, with the Bay of Bengal as its backdrop.

Rejecting media reports that the Vizha was an initiative to take classical music to slum children, village leaders wrote in last year:

“The village found the idea of featuring Carnatic and Bharatanatyam performances appealing as we saw it as a way to welcome audiences who would not normally come here, because of a lack of cause to visit and/or the various negative stereotypes that have been created about places such as ours. So it was not a matter of taking ‘Carnatic music to slum children’. Rather, it was a means of inviting those who see us merely as a handful of slum children to visit us and experience our hospitality. That said, we do not see Carnatic and Bharatanatyam merely as baits to lure people. We too want our children to be exposed to these art forms, just as we encourage them to learn silambattam, a martial art and dance form from Tamil Nadu, oyilattam, a folk dance, and parai-attam. We are exposing our children to new experiences without belittling our own heritage and identity and instilling in them a pride of belonging and a sense of who they are as fisherfolk, as hunters of the sea and as a community where people still look out for one another.”

The Vizha’s resident poet, Veronica, has coined a slogan that captures the spirit of the festival: “We will dance the Bharatam [Bharatanatyam] to the beat of the Parai drum.” The Bharatanatyam dance has long been seen as a Brahmin tradition while the parai drum is associated with Dalit communities. There is an effort within both cultures to de-caste the art forms. The Friends Kalai Kuzhu – whose founder Dileepan was once a bonded child labourer – now teaches Parai to children in various Chennai schools as part of the Vizha.

There have been other laudable initiatives too. Chennai Sangamam – a city-wide cultural extravaganza featuring folk arts, performances, food and drinks – was conducted for two years starting 2007. With the support of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led government, this initiative turned public spaces into venues for colourful performances. Folk artists, a neglected working community in Tamil Nadu, found recognition and wages through it. But the festival was abandoned after the regime changed.

Much work to be done

If Carnatic is a victim of its privilege, other genres are struggling to evolve and thrive because of their lack of privilege and patronage. Kaber Vasuki and Tibu, alias Tenma, are prominent musicians with the Tamil rock band Kurangan (Monkey Man). Vasuki is a prodigious singer song-writer who wrote Chennai Poromboke Paadal, whose music video featuring Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna went viral. Both Vasuki and Tibu now nurture young artists and ease their entry into the city’s music scene.

Vasuki hopes Chennai’s inclusion in the Creative Cities Network is not just about Carnatic. “I don’t know much Carnatic music,” he said. “I am sure it is great. But there is a lot else going on here. There is great diversity, but there are hardly any stages, very few venues for non-cinema music.”

Tibu has started the Madras Indie Collective, a community by and for artists on the lines of Artists Anonymous, which is an art group based in Berlin and London. He said he was overjoyed by Chennai’s inclusion in the Unesco list. “I think this can go a long way to expand spaces for local artists,” he explained. “While it is true that Chennai has a rich variety of genres, each is stuck in its own space. There is no ecosystem.”

A Unesco press release notes that “all Creative Cities commit to develop and exchange innovative best practices to promote creative industries, strengthen participation in cultural life, and integrate culture into sustainable urban development policies”.

Chennai certainly has a lot to offer to other cities, and a lot to learn from them. Consider Auckland, New Zealand, which has also been included in this year’s list as a musical city. The Auckland City Council runs an annual festival called “Music in Parks” where city parks are turned into venues for performances sponsored by the city. Putting aside the fact that Chennai has not had a Corporation Council for more than a year, the local body sees the use of public spaces for music and dance as a nuisance. Rather than welcome and facilitate artists’ access to public spaces, corporation officials put up barriers in the form of red tape and exorbitant and arbitrary fees. Railway and bus transport corporation officials, on the other hand, have been eager to accommodate public performances.

Auckland, which joined Chennai in the Creative Cities Network, has a Music in Parks festival that turns parks into venues for performances sponsored by the city. (Credit: @MusicinParks / Facebook)

It is easy enough to be given a badge of creativity. But living up to that reputation requires hard work, commitment and a deep understanding of the power of art and creativity.

For that, the citadels built around certain art forms have to be brought down. The social purpose of art needs to be acknowledged and encouraged, the neglect of other genres and their practitioners ended. New venues for multi-genre performances have to be created. Existing public spaces – bus depots, buses, trains, train stations, beaches, parks, Amma Canteens, government offices – have to double up as performance spaces. City officials need to be sensitised on the positive power of music and art, and encouraged to facilitate and deploy art and artists to help build the cultural ethos of the city. Freedom of expression must be celebrated and a culture of listening to diverse voices and criticism cultivated.

A truly creative city is thus possible, one that is really worth living in.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist, and a volunteer organiser of the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha