In the winter—well, when the temperature dips to 24 degrees Celsius, at any rate—a Madrasi’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of music.
December brings with it an immediate and intense hankering to sit in refrigerated sabha auditoriums, morning through night, gulpingstraight from the firehose of Carnatic music that is the famed Margazhi season. (We just call it the Season. “Are you coming down for the Season?” That way.) The wise heads that first organised the Season nine decades ago knew their city well—knew how the Tamil month of Margazhi holds clement mornings, balmy afternoons and soft evenings, a rare stretch of time when it’s possible to be out of the house all day without a twinge of heat stroke or a monsoonal downpour. For the purposes of springing from concert to concert to concert on a daily basis, there is no better segment of the year.
Everything that the Season’s critics say about it is true. It revolves only around a high-caste art, attracts mostly elite audiences, and is concentrated within an adamantly small radius in south Chennai. Everything that the Season’s supporters say about it is also true. It has flourished because of the energies and passions of enthusiasts, its features are eccentric but captivating, and it still presents concerts full of beautiful music. Many things are capable of being true at the same time.
What if, Dear Reader, you had precisely one day in Chennai during Margazhi—if you were merely passing through on your way to the Maldives or Bali or other destinations that are mystifyingly not Chennai during Margazhi, and you wanted to make the very (very) most of your 24 hours here? What if you had boundless stamina to expend upon that day, aided or otherwise by caffeine and less family-friendly chemical stimulants? What should you do? Where should you go?
We won’t pretend that we have the answer. We will be like the parents of Chennai, who insist it’s up to you whether you take science group or not, you will only regret it later in life. Do whatever you please. We only suggest.
They rise early here, the natives; when dawn cracks, many are already neck-deep in their second cup of coffee. You could head straight to Besant Nagar beach for your daily constitutional along the promenade, but if you’re determined to go for a walk, sign up for one of V. Sriram’s tours on foot. The tours wend through old Madras neighbourhoods, and inevitably end with breakfast. Sriram is a fount of anecdotes about the history of both Chennai and Carnatic music, and he never shies away from—indeed, positively lunges towards—the tone of the tabloid: which musician stabbed a colleague in the back, who was in love with whom. Follow his Twitter feed and his blog for updates on his talks and tours this Season.
Break away from the group just before breakfast; we have you pencilled in for a seat at the canteen of the Madras Music Academy at 8:45 a.m. (Dress code: Smart casual, which in Chennai means you don’t even have to tuck your collar T-shirt into your cargo shorts. We’re easy-going that way.)
More eloquent lyricists than us have waxed on about these canteens, these emporia of all that is good and right about this world, these purveyors of pongal in the morning and lunch in the afternoon and dosais at every time of the day. We need give you no further guidance on this front, except perhaps to say: if you’re ever in two minds about ordering one more idli, always order it. Otherwise, you will only regret it later in life.
There are temporary canteens attached to every auditorium during the Season, but you’re at the Academy for a reason. On most days, the best time to attend a concert at the Academy is the morning slot: 9 a.m., when the so-called super-seniors perform, musicians who have been there and done that and have nothing left to prove, performing to an audience committed enough to be there that early. Stroll right in; only the last two concerts of the day in every auditorium are ticketed. If you’re lucky enough to be at the Academy on December 25, you’ll catch the violin wizard T. N. Krishnan, who plays on that date every year, and who sometimes impishly slips snatches of Christmas carols into his alapanas.
Patience: There’s still time for lunch—you just ate. The really hardened Margazhites will, at this point, amble right from their morning concert to a mid-morning one, beginning at noon or half-past. They know that the truest joy of the Season is to sit in a near-empty Narada Gana Sabha and discover a tyro who will be the next big thing. (The pleasures of taking the opportunity to work on The Hindu’s crossword or snooze intermittently also cannot be overstated.) But if you’d like a break from the music, you might take an auto-rickshaw to Amethyst, the gallery set in a rambling bungalow on Whites Road, not far from the Music Academy. It nearly always has a line-up of events and an ongoing exhibition; most immediately, The Saree Festival, a salute to the six-to-nine yards that drape India.
Conveniently, Amethyst is also a café with very good sandwiches. A ten-minute drive away is Nair Mess, with banana leaves laid out on plywood-topped tables, and a fish fry so splendid they run out of it well before lunch concludes. The Season’s canteens serve banana-leaf lunches as well: full meals, as they say, with helping after helping of rice. Last year, we took to our hearts the canteen at Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, run by the vice-regally named Mountbatten Mani Iyer. If you head there this month, be absolutely sure not to over-indulge on the first course of sambhar, because in all likelihood there will follow one veththa kozhambu… and you know what they say about regret, and how you experience it later in life.
The evening concerts are the prestige ones: the most well-known singers, the biggest crowds, seats so scarce that audience members are sometimes invited to sit on the stage, flanking the performers. The old way of deciding which concert to attend—wake up in the morning; scan the day’s listings in the newspaper; toddle over in the evening—is no longer viable. If you want to hear Sanjay Subrahmanyan at the Music Academy, say, or Ranjani-Gayatri (India’s most proficient RaGa) at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club, a spot of queuing in the a.m., perhaps even well-placed connections, may be required to score tickets. Inside tip: Find a concert of Ramakrishnan Murthy, a singer perched on the cusp of the kind of fame that will soon be pulling them in by the throng. Murthy is young but old-school: staunchly classical in what he chooses to sing and the way he sings it, his voice clear and true, his music committed only to transiting from one moment of pure, unfussy beauty to the next.
Possibly, though, you attended that morning concert at the Music Academy and decided (rashly, but whatever, it’s up to you, do what you want) that Carnatic music is not your thing. Margazhi has more. The Prakriti Foundation is approaching the end of a two-week poetry festival. The Chettinad Sarvalokaa Performing Arts Festival features one evening of rock and jazz and another of dance by a Singaporean contemporary dance ensemble. Spaces, an open-air venue, hosts a duet by “Guitar” Prasanna and the pianist Anil Srinivasan on December 23. (They may play Carnatic music; on the other hand, they may lean heavily towards jazz, or dedicate themselves to A. R. Rahman and Ilayaraja. One never quite knows with these gents.)
The 15th Chennai International Film Festival runs from December 14-21. On December 17, Dr. Navin Jayakumar will conduct the 23rd edition of his much-beloved Landmark Quiz—shifted this year, mysteriously, from its standard date of August 15, but otherwise still the same celebration of nerdish knowledge, open to anyone who wishes to participate.
By now, if you’re still determined to leave town the next morning, you ought to head to a Season canteen for one final meal here: an adai with avial, maybe, or a dosai with pakoda curry (sounds odd, tastes magnificent). But if you’ve cancelled your trip to Bali after all to linger in Chennai for the remainder of Margazhi—wise choice—you can leave the canteens for the following day. The neighbourhoods around Mylapore bristle with restaurants: South Indian, naturally, but also ramen, teppanyaki, Italian, Korean, Maharashtrian, Ethiopian and Parsi—the latter three in the same bloomin’ building.
Unless they’re in hotels, restaurants in Chennai are not permitted to serve alcohol, but post-prandial refreshments are found elsewhere: snifters of Japanese whisky in a tiny basement bar called The Velveteen Rabbit or, better still, beers at Based On A True Story in Besant Nagar, overlooking the beach. That allows for a saunter by the water near midnight, the wind whipping off the sea so hard you’ll almost wish you had a pair of those leopard-print earmuffs that you saw a maami wearing earlier that afternoon. But you won’t stay out too late. You know you have to be up early the next day, to attend that 8:05 a.m. lecture-demonstration on “Aesthetic and Creative Excellence of Some Doyens of Carnatic Music.” And we don’t have to tell you what you will feel, later in life, if you sleep through your alarm and miss it.
Getting there: Check this year’s Season schedules at www.kutcheribuzz.com
Samanth Subramanian is the author of “This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War.”
Wake up to daily updates on what to eat/shop/do in your city