Yes, Chennai is an extraordinarily musical city. And no, it is not all Carnatic.

And so, Chennai joins a select band of metros across the world that have been labelled creative by UNESCO. We are recognised for our music. Yes, we are an extraordinarily musical city. The Carnatic music world is understandably jubilant. Which other city in the country has been conducting a music festival, no matter what its faults, for over 90 years and entirely funded by private initiative? The Margazhi festival began in 1927, with the Music Academy pioneering the December conference and concerts a year later. At least two great composers — Papanasam Sivan and Koteeswara Iyer were from here.

But then, Chennai’s music is not just Carnatic alone. The Sarva Deva Vilasa, a 19th century Sanskrit work on the city paints a picture of a thriving cultural metropolis with singers, dancers, pipers and drummers being active participants in processions, soirees and concerts. In Madras, it was customary for a man of status to be surrounded by musicians wherever he went in the city, noted the English. And they too joined in. Events of great importance to Madras, such as the granting of a charter for starting a Corporation (India’s oldest) in 1688, were occasions for much dancing and performing of country music. Devadasis and musicians accompanied the charter as it was taken around Fort St George. The English brought in Western classical music and we took to that too, ‘Carnaticising’ the violin and carrying on with the institutions they left behind such as the Madras Musical Association and Musee Musicals.

The lives of the common folk too appears to have been full of music. Memoirs of personalities such as Dr K.N. Kesari carry vivid descriptions of street performers, who excelled in music. A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s Songsters of the Crossroads deals with how in the early 20th century news was disseminated in Madras via chapbooks the contents of which were publicised by musicians singing them at street junctions. Songs on the Great Park Town Fire, the construction of the High Court, the Arubathu Moovar festival and the bombing of Madras by the Emden abound in these publications. For that matter, printing books on music began as early as 1859 in Madras and has continued ever since.

Theatre was an important source of music. The Parsi Theatre, chiefly the Balivala Troupe did a lot to popularise light classical North Indian tunes in Madras and these gradually entered Tamil theatre as Parsi varnamettus. Tamil theatre by itself was heavily musical with a whole lot of stars such as K.B. Sundarambal, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar, S.G. Kittappa and Golden Saradambal. The plays of Sankaradas Swamigal are embellished with wonderful songs.

Tamil Cinema began talking (and singing) in 1931 and Madras became a production capital not long after. The first woman sound recording engineer, Meenakshi Narayanan, was from here. Much experimentation with various types of music went on in the studios of the city and Saluri Rajeswara Rao of Gemini is generally credited with introducing western tunes into south Indian cinema. The contributions of composers such as Viswanathan-Ramamurthy, Ilaiyaraja and A.R. Rahman are renowned the world over. It is also significant that till the 1980s, songs in all South Indian languages were recorded here, the films being made here as well.

The gramophone industry flourished here for long and Madras was a major production centre. Formal recording began here in 1905, making some singers such as Coimbatore Thayi internationally recognised. The non-classical variety — songs of daily life were also an important genre that sold well, as did film songs.

Chennai always had its own folk idiom. The fishermen were the first residents here and their music was commented on by the British. Then came the songs of the oarsmen who plied rafts from shore to Madras Roads, the spot in the sea where the ships berthed before we got a harbour. Today we have Gana Pattu, unique to our city, in Madras bhashai, the city’s own lingo.

This was where Ramalinga Swamigal sang of ‘Dharmamigu Chennai.’ Above all, who can forget Subramania Bharati, perhaps the most musical among Indian poets? He and others like him gave us freedom music as a genre too.

Now, is Chennai unique among Indian cities to merit this UNESCO tag? Maybe not. And will this tag make any difference? Probably not. We will carry on the way we are. The reaction in Chennai has been twofold — claiming credit for it being the first, completely denying any qualification for such a recognition being the second. Why not acknowledge a compliment and accept it gracefully? Indian cities rarely make it to the news for anything good, and when that happens, let us celebrate it.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated November 17, 2017. The original can be read here.