Come December all kinds of statistics are usually bandied about regarding the music festival. The most common one is that “around 60 organisations put up around 2000 music performances”. That would really make the December Music Festival huge. But is it really that big? If we had that many performances ranging from mid-November to mid-January, it would mean we were hosting on an average 33 performances each day, morning to evening, across the city.

To see if this were even remotely possible, I studied the Mudhra Music Planner Cum Directory. Listing as it does artistes by specialisation, I discovered that it has around 800 people who can be termed main performers, the rest being accompanists. Not all of these performers would have concert opportunities during the season and as we all know, it is only the top 30 artistes who sing on an average around 15 concerts in December. Of the rest, around 200 have on an average five performances each. So taking 450 performances by the top rankers and 1000 by the others we come to a total of 1,450. Still impressive.

But performers need venues. So I took the list of music organisations next. There are around a 100 listed but out of this, I could not identify more than 30 that are active during the season. Of these, only around 15 can really be termed organisations that are seriously into music. The rest are what the late R Krishnaswami of Narada Gana Sabha would dismiss as ‘fly by night operators foolishly imagining that money could be made out of Carnatic Music.’ But for practical purposes I have taken them all as Sabhas. The average tenure of a season for a Sabha is 15 days. Around 8 Sabhas have 5 performances a day which makes it 40 concerts a day and that makes it 600 concerts. The rest have two concerts a day on an average and that makes it 660 concerts. The two together would mean 1,260 concerts in the season.

We next come to the audience and this is where the figure gets smaller. Let us assume that all 30 Sabhas have performances in an evening and that the average seating is 300 people (this is an average between the large seating capacity auditoriums and the small venues). Let us also assume that all the venues are packed to the rafters, which as is well known is probably the most erroneous premise possible. It would still mean just about 9,000 people. Let me double this on the grounds that I am being unduly pessimistic. That would still be just around 18,000 people.

And so what are we crowing about? We are a niche audience providing patronage to a classical art. By its very nature it appeals to very few. Even with the greatest publicity and democratisation efforts, it can never hope to gain the kind of popularity that film music gets. The season has not even spread out geographically. From its north Chennai base it has now moved to south Chennai.

But if you consider the larger impact, you have something. Take for instance the entire population of artistes – around 1,500 of them as per the same directory referred to earlier. This is when they get to be heard. And then you have the support economy – cars, valet parking services, canteens, mike and sound technicians, printers, advertising agents – no less than a 100,000 people would be involved in the activity. And there is the spill over – concerts heard here bring in wedding concert opportunities, caterers get booked for events and so on.

But above all it is the intangible. There is something in the atmosphere in December. What makes the NRI fly back with unfailing regularity? After all they get to hear most of these artistes back in the USA by way of recorded music. But still most do not hesitate in stating that to them listening to Carnatic music in Chennai is a different experience altogether. The same applies for local rasikas as well. The December magic is inexplicable. It helps that the rest of the world is caught up in the Christmas and New Year spirit and so business pressures too wind down thereby enabling more people to soak in the atmosphere. This probably explains why the same artiste performing in January gets half the crowd that comes in during a December performance. The founding fathers of the Music Season were clearly men of vision when they selected Christmas Week over Easter Week. Imagine having a Music Festival in March/April when we are plagued with end of the year/beginning of new financial year stresses!

Lastly, by indulging ourselves in music, we are only doing ourselves some good. Carnatic music is habit forming but it is a beneficial addiction.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated December 1, 2017. The original can be read here