My article for the December Season Supplement of The Hindu. The views expressed here pertain to music and not to dance.

Starting them young


The December Music Season may be full of the ageing and elderly going from Sabha to Sabha but one of its most important functions has been the showcasing of young talent. That by itself makes its continuance a worthwhile initiative.

Historically, aspiring artistes have always found getting their initial breaks to be tough. True, a few such as Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and GN Balasubramaniam had a smooth debut. In the former’s case, the opportunity came when at the end of his guru Poochi Iyengar’s concert the patron desired that the disciple be allowed to sing for a while with the same accompanists. GNB had his break when Musiri Subramania Iyer cancelled his performance at the Mylapore Kapaliswarar Temple. Compare this with what Chembai went through – arriving at the Skanda Shashti festival organised by Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar at Karur, he was told that there were no slots available for youngsters. It was only when the stock violinist for the celebrated jalatarangam player Krishnarajapuram Dhanam did not turn up that people looked at young Chembai with renewed interest. After all he had a violin with him and claimed to play well on it. And so it came about – his accompaniment pleased Dhanam no end and she made sure he was given a slot to sing. A star was born.

Getting a performance opportunity was so tough that when called to accompany someone at the same Karur festival, Kumbhakonam Rajamanikkam Pillai rushed over, overlooking the fact that his wife was in the throes of labour back home! At the end of the concert, the pun-loving Muthiah Bhagavatar presented him with his fee on a tray on which nestled a fresh set of violin strings and a telegram, both known as thanthi in Tamil. The latter conveyed the news of the birth of a baby girl!


Things have been more streamlined post the inception of the December music season. Almost from the start, the established Sabhas have taken a leaf out of the Music Academy’s book and organised competitions under various categories, open to all. Youngsters flock to these, perform, are adjudged and are awarded prizes. The very process of competition has several benefits – aspirants get to see what is the prevalent standard. They also get to perform before veterans and that not only removes stage fear but also becomes an opportunity to get some sage advice. The history of Carnatic music is replete with reminiscences of stars who were nervous during competitions and were helped out by seniors.

The competition in turn becomes a step to getting a performance slot in the December music season. This is a rather unique practice in the world of performing arts – a youngster actually gets paid to perform in a fairly prestigious venue. The audience is not charged anything and gets to hear and judge a performance. True, many venues are basic in infrastructure but some organiser has taken the pains to put it all together, get sponsors and the rest of the act that makes for a music season. The cynics may have a number of counters to this – it is all done for making money through the ticketed concerts of the stars; many venues have a nil audience during the afternoon slot; and what is paid to debutants is peanuts. But looking at it from the other side – youngsters are put through a selection process; the deserving get to perform at a prestigious venue (one that will look good on the performer’s CV) and a discerning audience evaluates them. Aspirants, parents and teachers have come to realise this. How else do you explain the fact that some of the larger music organisations of Chennai have registrations in excess of 300 year after year for the competitions they conduct? Yes, the numbers may appear miniscule when compared with figures in other competitive arenas but then, how big is the Carnatic music world?

Bhavani Swaminathan, Veena competition prize winner at Music Academy, 1930

It is perhaps because of this procedure that has been around for a century and more that Carnatic music remains a merit-oriented art. The first push may come from an influential family background or a powerful guru but once a performer gets to a competition or later on to a concert platform, he/she is all on his or her own. It is up to them to sing or play an instrument, grab the audience’s attention and ensure that the crowds come back repeatedly; all this to be done without sacrificing the core values of the art! It is in this that the competitive process of the December music season packs in a lot of value. This process of selection is what has kept Carnatic music going as an art. Even the proliferation of the talent shows on TV has not been able to blunt the edge of a Sabha competition.