(First published in the Bengal Post, 7 August 2010)
The December ‘season’ of Madras has been a unique event in the city’s cultural calendar for decades starting from 1927, when it debuted as an adjunct to the Indian National Congress’s annual meet. Exclusively focused on Carnatic or south Indian classical music, it grew from a festival of sorts into a major annual conference featuring not only concerts but also lecture-demonstrations of great quality and variety. It heralded the birth of the Madras Music Academy, now in existence for over 80 years and considered the Mecca of Carnatic music. Its annual award, the Sangita Kalanidhi, is a coveted honour, something every musician will die for—in fact, some greats have died before the august body could honour them. The magnificent bharatanatyam exponent T Balasaraswati has been the only artist other than a musician or musicologist to receive the award, but after some tentative attempts to feature dance alongside music in its annual conference, the Academy has in recent years added a separate dance festival to its schedule, held in January every year. Dance is celebrated annually by such major institutions as Kalakshetra—founded by Rukmini Devi Arundale—and Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, with the latter’s Nritya Chudamani regarded as probably the highest award in dance.
Neither music nor dance is any more the preserve of any of these institutions. Hundreds of sabhas—institutions supported by membership and sponsorship and headed by their sometimes all-powerful secretaries, the Tamil Nadu version of the impresario of the west—have sprung up everywhere. These conduct music, dance and theatre festivals galore during the annual ‘season’ often described as the Margazhi (the Tamil month from mid-December to mid-January) festival, but now expanded both forward and backward to include November and end-January.
Modern Tamil theatre peaked in the 1940s and 1950s, but gradually lost out to cinema and eventually to television, only comedies of the lightest variety that frequently offer no more than strings of jokes surviving the onslaught. Recent efforts to revive serious Tamil theatre seem to be succeeding, though it is still early days. Unfortunately, not many serious plays are being written in Tamil because of lack of performance opportunities and vice versa.
English theatre, in contrast, is alive and kicking. The Madras Players, among India’s oldest amateur English theatre groups, have been in existence for over 50 years, and have constantly reinvented themselves to stay relevant. It is the arrival less than a decade ago of Evam, a young team of theatre professionals, that galvanised the English theatre scenario in Chennai. Though their plays may not always belong to the highest class, the group have marketed themselves expertly and brought young audiences back to the stage. Amateur groups like Masquerade, JustUs Repertory, Theatre Nisha, The Boardwalkers, Perch, Stagefright, and ASAP have managed to transform a hitherto somnolent theatre space into a happening, exciting movement, even if not always producing high quality fare. The more than 100-years-old Museum Theatre, once an acoustic marvel and still a fine theatre despite the depredations of progress is no longer an oasis of excellence, with new facilities in the city like the Sivagami Pethachi auditorium and the Chinmaya Heritage hall offering excellent choices to theatre addicts.
Though there is year-round activity, the serious theatre action in Chennai nowadays starts in August with the Hindu Metroplus Theatre Festival. In its sixth year now, the festival has been a roaring success in the city, drawing sizable audiences who pay very respectable sums of money for their tickets. The festival has in the past two or three years assumed an international complexion, with participation from the US, Europe, Korea and Singapore. This year the festival is being staged at one of the finest theatre spaces anywhere, the Mutha Venkata Subba Rao auditorium inside the Lady Andal School premises. Seating a little over a thousand people, the hall is beautifully appointed and boasts excellent acoustics. It is state-of-the-art in every respect and makes theatregoing an enjoyable experience. It is the place to be seen at for young and old theatre enthusiasts.
The Hindu has also added a new dimension to the music scene of Chennai with its Friday Review November Fest, in which it showcases classical and folk music from all over the subcontinent as well as the west. Drawing an eclectic crowd, the festival carefully avoids treading on the toes of those occupying the traditional space in music and dance, thereby offering entertainment that is very different from ‘season’ fare.
August is also the month when Madras Week—increasingly threatening to turn into Madras Month—is celebrated with several city experts producing interesting programmes on a variety of aspects of the city’s life since its founding more than four hundred years ago. Add the New Festival—earlier the Other Festival—an alternative package of music and dance from all over the whole world, a host of arts and crafts exhibitions, film festivals of a dizzying number of nationalities, and that hardy perennial The Madras Book Fair in January, and the once month-long Madras season has well and truly entrenched itself as a 6-month long celebration of the best Chennai has to offer.