Although she has been living in Chennai for many years now, Tanuja S had never been to the city’s iconic December music festival. But this year she did. “I have heard a lot about the delicious spread of south Indian food at sabha canteens. So, this year I went along with my friend, especially, to experience that,” she says. 

For J Akash, an engineering student, it’s the lecture demonstration by music experts that hooked him to this year’s music festival. “I was able to meet some great teachers and clarify my doubts,” the Carnatic music learner said. 

Margazhi music festival is no longer only about music. It’s this wholesome experience of people, ambience, stalls, great food and networking, says K Harishankar, Secretary of the Narada Gana Sabha and Federation of City Sabhas.

An annual celebration of classical music and dance, the December Music Festival is held in the Tamil month of Margazhi, from mid-December to the first half of January. During this time, sabhas across the city come alive with a festive spirit as Carnatic singers and classical dancers across the country and abroad descend in Chennai to take part in the cultural extravaganza. The top 10-12 sabhas alone see over 1,000 concerts being held during this period. 

In the last two years, the music festival was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and consequent travel bans in many parts of the world forcing the organisers to go online.  

“After a two-year break, it’s great to see so many musicians and rasikas (music lovers) coming back to sabhas for live performance,” Carnatic vocalist Akshay Padmanabhan said. Padmanabhan, who performed in ten concerts this season, says it’s even more heartening to see youngsters flocking to sabhas and then engaging through social media platforms like Instagram. 

Youthful note

M Krishnamurthy, Secretary, Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha agrees. He said participation of youngsters, both artists and patrons, has been pretty good this year. “Lecture demonstration at our sabha starts at 8 am and every day we see about 50-100 youngsters attending these lectures and taking notes religiously.” 

But some observers also say the audience at sabhas this year has drastically thinned. While concerts of leading vocalists such as Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Ranjani and Gayatri sisters and carnatic-cum-film singer Sid Sriram got housefull response, several new or less popular singers are performing to empty galleries. 

Harishankar of Narada Gana Sabha agrees that the patronage for Carnatic music at sabhas has been on the decline for some years now. He, however, attributed this year’s low attendance to the sharp drop in the number of non-resident Indian (NRI) visitors. “The number of NRI visitors this year has dropped by 40-50 per cent.”

Both as artistes and listeners, NRIs are a significant chunk of participants at the Margazhi music festival every year. Harishankar says the fear of the new variant of coronavirus and exorbitant flight costs have kept these visitors away this year.