Carnatic keys

Twelve of the most ludicrous rumours about Chennai’s famed music season

Ordinary mortals dress like their favourite Carnatic superstars. Really?

The Chennai music season in December and all that it entails has some fancy writers in a twist. Beyond the usual dose of mellifluous melodies and scintillating soirees, the alliterative descriptors make it seem as though the festival encompasses large masses of Chennai residents. There is indeed a surfeit of classical music concerts, some of them excellent. But the truth is that it concerns a small proportion of listeners, complemented in part by their ilk coming in from foreign nations for the holidays. Most of Chennai goes on as before. Like some heritage sites, which appear large and all-encompassing in images, but are underwhelming when encountered physically, the season, though special, is much smaller than it is made to seem.

I have put together the twelve most bizarre claims I have encountered in the media about the acclaimed music season in Chennai, and included a couple of music tracks that are in a lighter vein.

‘Tis indeed the season to be jolly, Carnatic style!

1. “Over 300 venues in Chennai produce almost 5000 concerts or more!”

In fact, about 30-odd venues are the sites for about a thousand concerts.

2. “All of Chennai breaks into music and dance.”

All of Chennai is certainly breaking into song and dance, but it is outside ATM machines. About a thousand performers (all included) cater to the classical music crowd. This is a large number, but given that Chennai is over 7 million residents, this claim is far from the truth.

3. “Even the taxi drivers and auto-rickshaw drivers of Chennai know which sabha is popular and which isn’t.”

Chennai’s taxi drivers are mostly people from the districts, who don’t know Chennai roads all that well, let alone what a sabha is. As with everywhere else, film star homes and politician addresses continue to be the best-known landmarks. As for auto-rickshaws, they continue to exist in a world of their own, one where meters seldom work.

4. “Ask any child and she will know the difference between TM Krishna and Sanjay Subrahmanyam.

As with most little children, the primary preoccupation of Chennai’s kids is school holidays. They have no idea who either of these individuals is, much less that the former has stopped singing during this season.

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5. “During the music season, the very air in Chennai has the scent of jasmine, and a great display of Kanjeevarams that tells you you have indeed arrived at the Mecca of classical music.

At the moment, the air is perfumed with the scent of decaying tree rot following Cyclone Vardah. Textile shopping continues as always, albeit dulled by the lack of cash. The display of overpriced jasmine and outmoded Kanjeevarams is mainly restricted to nostalgic NRIs, who treat some of the prime venues as the gentry treat Ascot in England.

6. “This is the heart of the Carnatic industry.

A short while ago, a friend of mine who works in policy research and I estimated that the size of the Carnatic music ecosystem in dollars (or rupees) makes it akin to a cottage industry, if industrial terms should be used at all. Of course, there is no monetary estimate to the intangible joy it brings to those fascinated by it, but to describe it thus may seem a trifle ambitious.

7. “The music season is the time when ordinary mortals like us look to Carnatic superstars to model our fashion sense and accessorise accordingly.”

This is a myth that extends from the aura of the late legendary MS Subbulakshmi, whose choice of a particular shade of saree was used effectively by a major retailer to boost his year-end sales. The average Chennai resident continues to be unaffected by the sartorial tastes of Carnatic musicians.

8. “Even a child in Chennai can tell if a singer goes off-key.”

As a music educator, I can only lament that this, though desirable, is far from true. More’s the pity!

9. “Even the local radio stations offer Carnatic fare.”

Like most media agencies, the local radio stations are revenue-dependent. Most of them continue to play film music and chat with popular film actors and personalities. The odd stations do, however, broadcast interviews with Carnatic musicians and play their music early in the morning.

10. “The season extends from mid-November to mid-January.

While this is certainly true of the concert calendar, the actual season, known as Margazhi, falls between December 15 to January 15 (in accordance with that particular month in the Tamil calendar).

11. “Major restaurants spruce up their interiors and serving Carnatic-themed food.”

This one was the hardest for me to crack, as I was unsure about what Carnatic-themed food even meant. Major restaurants (in terms of popularity or appeal) in the city mainly try to capitalise on the Christmas-New Year holiday season, and serve a variety of dishes that attract families, including a large variety of non-vegetarian food, which by definition couldn’t be Carnatic-themed, however hard we try.

12. “It is undoubtedly the best time to visit Chennai.”

This, without doubt, is actually true. With the weather being pleasant, and the gentle-paced city growing even gentler, it is a lovely season indeed. Despite all the false rumours, the music is quite wonderful.

Merry X’mas and best wishes for the New Year!

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Anil Srinivasan is a classical pianist and somewhat active in the Chennai December Music Season. His views are often contrarian, but he loves Chennai wholeheartedly.

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