The Music Academy’s Sadas

The December Music Season is one of the great cultural survivors of our time. It has been written off repeatedly– indeed many writers have made a good living out of predicting doomsday – and yet it has gone on. It never boasted of huge numbers – a handful of Sabhas with around 20,000 followers in the physical form at most. And yet at the same time, survival at that level is more or less assured – the attrition of patrons is more or less made up by new arrivals. What is important is that it has survived – a cultural statement of commitment by artistes, organisers, patrons and sponsors.

Looking back, the Season’s history is also a story of evolution in the arts – of changes in technology, audience tastes, performing venues and much else. It began at a time when concerts were still in open air venues – the 1927 All India Music Conference itself was held in tents at Congress Nagar -which impressive name masks the fact that this was a makeshift location on the dry bed of the Spur Tank in Chetpet. There was no amplification then, but the ambient noise levels were practically non-existent. After all that was an era when Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha, operating from the verandah of a house was the premier music organisation of the city. The Rasika Ranjani, with its new-fangled notions of chairs, proscenium arch and a balcony was still two years away. 

In 1936, we find the Music Academy’s souvenir announcing artificial amplification for a Veena Dhanam performance as also for a concert by Brinda/Mukta/Abhiramasundari. That is the first mention we read of microphones and speakers. The concept of public address systems for Carnatic Music had begun three years earlier, at the Kumbakonam Mahamakham. Concerts however were still open air – there were complaints of poor acoustics at closed-door settings such as the Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street. Artificial amplification in a pre-built venue was clearly not the taste of audiences. But this would increasingly become the norm till now we need artificial amplification no matter what be the size of the venue. Quite amazingly, the Asian College of Journalism’s mic-less auditorium has had no Sabha expressing interest. Maybe, in time to come, a venue like Artery at Balaji Nagar with its chamber experience, will take this forward. But at present, amplification is at more or less Kumbakonam Mahamakham levels.

Today, a closed-door venue for the December Season is taken for granted. And yet, at least till 1939 the Music Academy was experimenting with various outdoor locations. When the Rasika Ranjani Sabha remodelled its venue in the 1950s and the Annamalai Mandram threw open its doors at roughly the same time, non-airconditioned venues for performance were still the norm. While work on the Music Academy’s TTK Auditorium progressed, the debate on AC vs natural ventilation continued. Eventually, the AC won, as it did at the Annamalai Mandram. But it is interesting to see how several other well-known locations – Mylapore Fine Arts, Vani Mahal and Sastry Hall for instance, continued for long without air-conditioning. Eventually, they all toed the line – chiefly out of compulsions of ambient noise. By the time the Narada Gana Sabha was built, there was no debate. This rampant usage of the AC has led to several problems – a perennial cough among the audience, December throat for the musicians and the instruments constantly going out of pitch. Till date no Sabha has got its AC right – it is either freezing or sweltering. It is in this context that an experiment like Madrasana becomes interesting – it began with the possibility of outdoor venues but the city put paid to that. However, their virtual offerings are all recorded outdoor, with no changes in the editing room. The outdoor concert, minus ultra-powerful speakers still has its pluses, the pity is that most of us don’t realise it.

One of the key features of the December Season is the contribution of the Non-Resident Indians. There can be no denying that the Season went through a decline in the 1980s and revived only in the succeeding decade when international travel suddenly eased up, as did communication. The NRIs, with their music associations (they don’t call them Sabhas there) became the new patrons. The December Season became their evaluating ground, for identifying talents to be invited overseas, for concerts, lectures and teaching. Even with the virtual offerings, patronage of the NRIs remains key for the Sabhas of Chennai. There are special block offers, and the hope that large numbers of NRIs will buy tickets and log in to concerts remains eternal. But long before COVID, Lalitharam’s Parivadhini channel had already begun offering such a service. Even within India it, and other similar offerings have worked wonders for those with mobility issues and in particular the elderly, who form the bulk of the Carnatic audiences. Yet another shift has therefore been made. In future years, while the in-Sabha performance for a live audience remains a possibility, streaming to homes is the new reality. It will be interesting to see how Carnatic music overcomes the biggest challenge in the latter variant – short attention spans of not more than ten minutes. It makes you smile at the storm that broke out when the Music Academy reduced its concert duration from three hours to two-and-a-half, sometime in the 1970s.

The December Season has always survived more on sponsorship than ticket sales. There may be great challenges in future to this, particularly on the latter aspect. The present trend is to practically demand that a YouTube or Zoom link be provided, for free. It was bad enough for many rasikas to expect musicians to live on sweet air, but at least people landed at venues to listen. But now to expect as a matter of right for all performances to be beamed free into homes is expecting too much. Hopefully that trend will change. And all may yet be well. After all, the December Music Season is the great survivor.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated Friday, Dec 3, 2021

Chennai, A Biography

My book on Madras, titled Chennai A Biography, published by Aleph Book Company has just been released. If in Chennai you can buy it at Odyssey, Gandhi Nagar. Those wanting to buy online – either as book or kindle edition can do so at Amazon –