As the musicians tweaked their instruments and played a few chords, their eager audience settled down. It was a warm Saturday evening. The sun had dropped, and the rooftop in Nanganallur, a suburb in South Chennai, was bathed in a dull light. Slowly, as the performance began, the band just played the music – it was the audience of 350 that sang Tamil film songs with gusto.

The audience and the band were part of Motta Maadi Music, or music on the terrace, an initiative that calls on music lovers in Chennai to jam on a rooftop. The brainchild of sound engineer and musician Badhri and his bandmates, Motta Maadi Music “puts the limelight on the [audience]”, while “the musicians take a backseat”.

“In most performances, [we see] it is the musician who performs while the audience [largely] claps, shouts and hums,” said Badhri, who goes by his first name. “But everyone [should be part] of the music.”

At Motta Maadi Music, the onus of the singing lies on the audience. Badhri and his band Hrudhya only provide the music and vocal support. Each session – of non-stop singing and some occasional dancing – usually lasts around three hours. Eight such sessions have been organised since the initiative was launched in January.

The theme of each gig revolves around a Tamil film or music icon, such as Ilaiyaraaja, AR Rahman and Kamal Haasan. At the eighth gathering in December, Rajinikanth songs were sung to mark the Tamil screen icon’s birthday month. Posters of old Rajnikanth films, such as from Apoorva Raagangal and Bhairavi, decorated the terrace.

Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.

The idea of strangers getting together on a terrace and singing without inhibitions is what makes the concept attractive to so many people, says Badhri. “We wanted to get a space to create a bridge between musicians and the [audience], where people can just sing freely.”

Durga Ravishankar, who has been part of one such session, agrees. “This is just like jamming on our home terrace,” she said. “That’s what makes this so special.”

Badhri’s initial focus with Motta Maadi Music was to create a space where he could enjoy music with friends and family. But word spread and gradually the small group of 25 people grew to 350.

While the first three sessions did feature just family and friends, it was the Rahman theme night in July, followed by a Haasan night in November – which even got a shout-out from the star on Twitter – that raised interest levels. “The Kamal Haasan night was unimaginable – 250 people had come,” said Badhri. “And for the Rajinikanth night there were 350 people. The number constantly keeps increasing.”

According to a participant, Jhanse Rane, Motta Maadi Music provides a unique opportunity for non-singers to jam to instruments. “Generally, in a music event, the audience does not get to sing, but here we are the focus,” said Rane. “There is nobody to correct or criticise our singing.” And for many, these sessions help them unwind with some good music after a hard day’s work.

One of the thoughts behind starting Motta Maadi Music was to create a platform that would encourage independent musicians. “Jamming familiar songs apart, the aim for the future is to invite a few indie bands and give them the stage,” said the 24-year-old Badhri. “As a struggling musician, I know that [the audience] for [this sort of] music is not as huge as film songs. That is why I wanted to [generate some attention] and then push for indie music.”

The indie music scene in Chennai, says Badhri, is yet to gain much traction. “A musician like Guthrie Govan performs in Bengaluru, but he hasn’t come to Chennai yet,” said Badhri. “I want to bring about that change in Chennai through Motta Maadi. We do have the crowd for genres like Carnatic music. But we have not come to the point where people accept any kind of music here.”

Badhri says that Tamil musicians and singers such as Sean Rolden, Pradeep Kumar and TM Krishna have played a key role in encouraging various kinds of music in Chennai. Krishna is the brains behind Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha, an event that brings together diverse music and dance forms in a fishing village in South Chennai.

“Kumar and Rolden performed at Besant Nagar Beach in 2013 randomly with a guitar,” said Badhri. “At the end of the day music should be free and should be celebrated by everyone. When [different types of music] are being pushed by so many people I think I can play my own small part as well. I can [help] a suffering musician get the attention of 300 people.”

Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.