The Margazhi Maasam: An Experience to Retain or a Period going Commercial?

The Margazhi maasam ended last week bringing with it the festival of harvest – Pongal – and the beginning of yet another month. For the uninitiated, the Margazhi maasam, or the ‘month’ of Margazhi, is identified as the season of harvesting and also recognised for bringing about a cool [read: most-pleasant] climate across the city. The ninth month as per the Tamil calendar, Margazhi, when contrasted with the English calendar, is equivalent to the period between December 14 – January 14.

One of the notorious features of this month is the festival of music. Artistes of varying degrees of regards and talent perform across sabhas in India, conspicuously in the city of Chennai. Quintessentially seasoned in the fields of singing and dancing, the music performed in this month belongs to the Classical genre, particularly Carnatic, and indulges in solo, duet and group performances. Not only is it considered extremely auspicious for artistes to perform in the Margazhi maasam, what’s more, with the culture a city as Chennai imbibes in the local populace, the sabhas attract unimaginable mass of crowd during this one month – the numbers on weekends and weekdays all alike.

As I happened to be in the city during this period, added to it my interest in Carnatic music, I decided to give the experience a try. I chose to hop across sabhas for as many days as possible in this one month, in an attempt to listen to as many kacheris as I could. In fact, similar to the concepts of book hopping and pub hopping, this experience by a few is fondly referred to as sabha hopping. Twelve days, six sabhas and twenty-five plus concerts later, I could do no more; and well, that, in my eyes, was the end of my experience of the Margazhi maasam. No doubt, the experience is one of its kind, where you get to hop from one sabha to another, only to listen to one genre of music in widely flavoured styles and techniques. And the solitude one good kacheri can bring in can simply not be justified in words. Yet there were specific somethings in the name of nuances inducing me to raise my brows against certain practices, that seemed to dim the essence of Carnatic music.

Of the six sabhas I went to, one of the sojourns was this auditorium set in a theatre-style with a capacity to seat close to 1700 people. The programmes scheduled here were recorded about a week prior to be telecasted eventually on one of the most popular channels. This year, the schedule at this auditorium was packed to the neck for about a week, with performances starting at 9.00 in the morning and continuing until 9.30 late evening. Not that the performances that I witnessed here were a question mark, no doubt, they weren’t; in fact, each of the performances was either at or beyond par. However, long before the week came to an end, I was left in no doubt that the so-called ‘organisers’ had an apparent motive of becoming commercial.

To begin with, as soon as one entered the auditorium premises, it most likely left a mistaking impression of entering a food fest or an unsophisticated fair. Not only did the seemingly unending stalls display a variety of food items to choose from, but also there was the opportunity to taste pasta served from a live bar! The rates weren’t nominal either [surprise, surprise]. Once inside the auditorium, there was pandemonium over the seating – a self-created confusion by the ticket-providers. They chose to number select tickets while the other [read: majority] tickets were retained blank. Of course, this resulted in more than one screaming match, initiated by those whose tickets were stamped with a designated number already, to haggle their seats back. As ironical as it may sound, this was the condition in the VIP section.

Amidst all this chaos, there was so much more to grasp than the mere aura of the artiste and his/her performance that, at some point, one quite landed up forgetting the reason for being there. Irrespective of the number of performances lined up during the day, it barely took a second to dilute the momentary bliss awarded as an aftermath of a kacheri, what with the dispensable reinforcement of never-ending categories of sponsors’, on-spot prizes, be-the-lucky-one-to-click-a-selfie-with-the-artiste, and lucky-draw winners.

If the organisers felt that it was the prizes that retained the bulk of the listeners to stay back until the end of a kacheri, the essence of Margazhi may have been captured in a completely dissimilar spirit. If it isn’t the organisers but the listeners who came with a ‘motivational’ intention to stay back, then, to them – there may be a handful of other places apt enough to endlessly snack, munch or yap about the next-door-neighbour or what’s-for-dinner. Why purchase a ticket for it, when you may do the same thing at another place that may not only be a suitable choice, but also may come without any disturbance and that too, for free? In all this muddled dubiety, pray if I may ask, wherein comes the sanctity of Carnatic music? Or, are these just signs of shifting over to a money-making trade, subtly hinting at other sabhas to follow suite?

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