For the avid enthusiast of music and dance, Chennai is the place to be in December.

During the auspicious Tamil month of Margazhi, which begins on December 16, the city hosts an annual cultural festival at nearly 50 venues, which now also include railway stations and buses. Classical dancers, drama troupes and Carnatic musicians – including several new artists aiming to make impressive debuts on stage – have already begun gathering in the city. Music rasikas, or connoisseurs, are queuing up outside the music halls, vying for a prime seat at the concert of their favourite artist. Equally long queues have formed outside the sabha canteens, known for their crisp bajjis and dosas as well as full-course South Indian rice meals served on a banana leaf.

But amidst the latest designer saris and the inviting smell of fresh vadas wafting down the hallway, some of the serious Carnatic music rasikas, can often be found poring over a thin booklet – Reckoner for Chennai Music Season.

For 31 years now, a new edition of the booklet has been published each year in the first week of December, with a schedule of almost all concerts or kutcheris set to take place over the Margazhi season in December and January. In neat tabular columns, the booklet lists the date, time, venue and performing artist, making it an indispensable database for the rasika who wants to plan each day of kutcheri-hopping and pack the month with concerts of preferred musicians. “This is very useful because there are just so many concerts at different venues,” said Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, a musician and rasika. “I will be completely lost without it.”

A comprehensive guide

The 280-page booklet is designed each year by S Kannan, a retired employee of the Bank of Baroda who lives in Mylapore. Around 5,500 copies are distributed at sabhas, free of cost. “Some rasikas even find my address and come home to pick it up,” said the 68-year-old, who always has a stack of copies ready by his door. Others, like Vijayaraghavan, collect half-a-dozen copies to distribute among their relatives and neighbours. “There’s just so much demand,” she said.

The booklet – which was earlier known as the Comprehensive Programme for the Chennai Music Season – was the idea of industrialist T Chari, whom Kannan regards as a mentor. While Chari funded the printing of the booklet, it was Kannan who would set out to collect schedules. Over a month, he would visit around 15 sabhas, meet the programme coordinators and take copies of their itineraries. Over phone and email, he would collect lists from around 50 other music organisations.

Kannan with the Reckoner. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Kannan would then sit down at his desk to reorganise the individual sabha schedules into a comprehensive date-wise programme sheet of all events in the city. The final section of the booklet would be dedicated to the individual schedules of popular artists. To key the details into a spreadsheet, Kannan took the help of another music enthusiast.

Kannan is neither from a musically-inclined family, nor was he formally trained in music or dance. It is his passion for Carnatic music, developed over the years of listening, that led him to take up the task of painstakingly compiling the programme schedule each year. Each year he tries to expand his ambit to cover more events and art forms. After his mentor distanced himself from the initiative in 1992, Kannan was left to find other sources of funding the booklet. This was when Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti, the textile industrialist who owns the popular brand Nalli Silks, showed interest in Kannan’s yearly project and offered to bear the cost of printing. “After that, there was no looking back,” said Kannan, adding that Nalli Chettiar had continued to be the Reckoner’s biggest patron for 25 years.

An uphill task

While the Reckoner is the loyalists’ favourite guidebook to the season, another little booklet moves off the sabha shelves quickly too. This is the Raga Identification Guide, which alphabetically lists the ragas and composer of 6,000 kritis or songs. When the artist begins to sing, several enthusiastic members in the audience immediate shuffle through the pages of the guide searching for the song details. “When an artist sings a kriti [song] that I have not heard before, I immediately want to know its raagam and composer,” said NP Narayanan, a 93-year-old music enthusiast. “It is a part of enjoying the song.”

Yet another popular annual publication is the Paalam-Mudhra Music Planner cum Directory, which contains the phone numbers, addresses and email IDs of Carnatic musicians, dance and drama troupes, music organisations, instrument shops and even music critics. Part of the book is also a planner for musicians to note their schedule and organise their performances through the year. Several noted artists always have the book in their kit, wherever they go.

Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

It was 18 years ago that Mudhra Bhaskar, a mridangam artist, felt the need for a music directory to connect artists and art lovers. “There is no profitability in this business, we just break even,” said Bhaskar, who compiles the phone numbers and addresses and updates them each year himself. “This is a thankless job, a painful job. For the effort you put in, the returns are hardly anything.” Even so, the musician does not intend to stop publishing the planner – “Many musicians and rasikas carry these books everywhere and depend on them heavily. They just don’t realise it.”

Carrying on traditions

The institution of the music season began in 1927, when the Indian National Congress held the All India Music Conference in Madras. To develop interest in South Indian culture and art forms, the Madras Music Academy was formed, which held a music festival every December. Soon, other sabhas, some even older than the Academy, began holding Carnatic music concerts and lecture demonstrations in various venues across the city. Over the years, as the number of venues increased, more art forms such as classical dance, drama and what is considered light music got included in the cultural season.

Even today, for the music sabhas, organising the events is no easy task. As per the Reckoner, more than 50 organisations together conduct more than 2,000 events spread over two months. The bigger sabhas begin planning for the season in June, contacting scores of artists to note their availability in advance. At the same time, the sabhas process requests from many upcoming artists, who desire a slot to showcase their talent. So when well-known artists are unsure about their schedule or cancel dates, delays are bound to happen and sabhas are unable to finalise their programme sheet well in advance.

“Since many sabhas were not forthcoming in sharing information, I realised it is not really comprehensive,” said Kannan. “So I changed the name to Reckoner, a few years ago.” Every now and then, he considers giving up the task due to the stress. The music field is not organised, there is very little prior planning of the events. “Only in November, it suddenly it dawns upon them that there is just one month left for the season.” It is always a race to complete the booklet. But the satisfaction he receives after the booklets are distributed is worth the effort, he said. “I feel happy that in some small way I helped the music rasikas. Not really the sabhas,” he added with a grin.