Inside the Music Academy auditorium

A live December Music Season again! After two years of uncertainties, the Carnatic Music-loving public, the artistes, and the organisers are gearing up to celebrate their art in the way they did pre-Covid. But is it back to business as usual? Unlikely – things rarely ever go back to being what they were after a catastrophic change, which Covid undoubtedly was. Perhaps the most affected is the organisation called the Sabha, which over a century had come to be identified closely with Carnatic Music and Bharata Natyam.

The Sabha itself was a product of colonial times. When the patronage of royalty and aristocracy was vital for the survival of the arts, a new city like Madras posed challenges – the ruling elite was English and had no intention to support artistes. The aristocracy, namely the dubashes or translators, provided the necessary support from the 17th century onwards. In the 19th century, new classes of wealthy professionals – lawyers, businessmen, doctors, and accountants – took over, with the support of Indians in Government who were the closest to what could be termed royalty in an egalitarian city. That saw the birth of the Sabhas – a group of wealthy patrons getting together to support the arts by way of providing venues and performing opportunities for artistes. Beginning with Madras city, the concept of the Sabha as a cultural patron spread to other towns in the Presidency. The Princely States and samasthanams were rather late in getting Sabhas. 

At one time, namely in the 19th century the Sabha suffix was adopted by any organisation wanting to promote group activity. The Madras Mahajana Sabha (founded 1884) was a political organisation, the Suguna Vilasa Sabha (1891) promoted theatre, the Chennapuri Andhra Maha Sabha (1916) espoused culture and sports, and the Sukruta Lakshmi Vilasa Sabha was a social club! Even the humble facilities where factory workers sought recreation were known as Sabhas. It was at one such, the Venkatesa Gunamritabhivarshini Sabha in Perambur, that the Madras Labour Union, India’s first, was born. Today we associate the Sabhas most closely with classical music and dance.

The decades immediately after Independence were the best for the Sabhas. Faced with the end of princely patronage and the simultaneous onslaught of cinema, musicians and dancers looked to the Sabhas for support. There were plenty of opportunities – the Sabhas did not operate just in December. Throughout the year there were events of some kind of the other – Rama Navami, Gokulashtami and Navaratri series and mid-year festivals. In fact, many of the older ones such as the Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha, the Tyagabrahma Gana Sabha, the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha and the Narada Gana Sabha did not even participate in the December Music season, leaving the field to the Music Academy, the Indian Fine Arts Society and the Tamil Isai Sangam. You need to just contrast it with the situation today. Very few offer events the year round and mostly focus on December. And then we have what the late R Krishnaswami of Narada Gana Sabha termed as ‘fly by night operators’ – those who suddenly appear every December, host a series somewhere, and then vanish. 

Ask the Sabhas and they blame poor audience response for this. Given the multiple channels of entertainment that exist today, going all the way to a Sabha for a concert probably ranks low in priority unless the artiste is a major crowd puller. And even if the performer is popular, there are YouTube and other online channels that offer the same person’s music. Then why go to a Sabha? Some have begun to work around this by going online themselves – but for some strange reason very few have felt the need to monetise this offering. It is of course understood that sponsorships probably cover the cost of the technology but to offer music/dance for free to an audience that can well afford it is nothing short of suicidal in the long run. The Sabhas need to ponder over this – given that we were always in an industry where ticket rates were at BPL, do we need to make Carnatic music a freebie? Most of the senior artistes are against their concerts being made available for free and some have begun their own exclusive paid channels. If that be so, where is the need for a Sabha?

Post Covid, there are two probable scenarios  – one, where audiences afflicted with online fatigue make a beeline to the Sabhas and two, where people increasingly used to free offerings online, stay at home. The latter would really mean the end of the Sabha as we know it. It is however up to the organisers to really come up with remedial measures. The art will survive, one way or the other, as did before the advent of Sabhas.

Have you registered for the forthcoming heritage walk on December 4th? If not please do so now:

My book on Chennai is out and can be purchased here –