The December Music Season has many markers – the enormous number of music and dance programmes, the multitude of Sabhas, many of which suddenly spring up in December and then vanish, the reviews and feature columns, the great weather, the canteens and the awards. One of the often-overlooked elements is the arrival of the Non Resident Indian (NRIs).

For years their numbers remained a mere trickle and then it slowly increased in volume, starting with the 1990s. That was when the December Music Season began growing as well. Is this a mere coincidence? Not really. It is time we recognised that the NRI plays a significant role in keeping the music season, and by extension the Carnatic music world, going.

The 1970s and 1980s were generally a dull period for this art form. Audiences were dwindling and a handful of stars ruled the firmament. It was considered an art that was losing its listener base to cinema. Then came the 1990s when a group of exciting youngsters took to performing and changed the dynamics completely. At the same time, the number of Carnatic music listeners abroad reached a critical mass. The IT boom saw many Indians settled abroad being able to travel back to India on a regular basis. What better season to do it than in December? “The North Wind doesn’t blow in Chennai,” says Rajee Krishnan who has been a regular at the Season for over 20 years. It is definitely a relief to escape snow-bound North America in December.

In the 1990s, the December Music Season was a talent hunting time for NRIs. Youngsters who performed well were invited to come over on concert tours. Musicologists travelled to lecture. Books and CDs found a new market. Even in Chennai city, CD sales peaked in December with venues such as AVM Sound Zone at Sankara Hall clocking up record sales. Most of the purchases were by NRIs who stocked up on enough music to last them for a year before they returned for the next season.

True, there are live concerts happening in the US. “But these are few and far between,” says Dr PN Aruna who adds that coming here in December is the only way she can “saturate and supersaturate her culturally craving soul”. Her husband G Jaishankar feels that the festive atmosphere the city wears is as much an attraction. Another plus he lists is the joy he feels at hearing US born Indian children coming here to perform. After all we have exclusive NRI festivals today and then there are fast rising performers such as Sandeep Narayan and Ramakrishnan Murthy who are both of US origin but have taken to Carnatic music careers. There are some who come to listen to just one idol. VK Shankar, a regular visitor, says that he began coming to India only to follow Sanjay Subrahmanyan on the concert circuit but over the years “developed a good network of friends sharing common interests and have discovered many more events pertinent to arts, religion and culture that are of deep interest to me”.

The coming of age of the Internet has meant further interactions between the NRIs and the musicians here. Lessons are taught over skype. December is when the NRI children come here and learn music directly from senior artistes who are not so busy with concerts. Even a month spent with a veteran makes for a big difference on the biodata. As for the academically inclined, a visit to the Karnatic Music Book Centre in Sripuram is a must. All the kindles of the world do not compensate for this. Hotels, serviced apartments and home-stays are also beneficiaries of the Music Season. The ones around Mylapore are in great demand. Many homes offer Bed & Breakfast facilities only in December.

What are the pain points? Almost all of NRIs agree that the ticketing policies of most Sabhas are highly irksome. “Why cannot we buy tickets off the internet?” they ask. Toilets in many places are another pet peeve. A third is the substandard acoustics.

Those who come each year are the ones who were born here and so have some roots here. Will their US born children also return and keep the Season going? Who knows, if webcasts become as close as possible to the real thing, may be people will pay to watch from the warmth of their homes in other continents. But can the canteen be ever replaced? Several admit to the South Indian fare being as much an attraction.

The thought that people travel several thousand miles for music when many in T Nagar do not want to go to Mylapore makes you admire their tenacity. That a conservative art can exert such a pull is a wonder.

This article appeared in the special season supplement of The Hindu dated December 1, 2014.