Chennai’s Carnatic Music Festival at a Crossroads?

Controversies including allegations of gender bias and bias against non-Brahmin artistes have erupted in the past.

4 min read
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer (Left), Bharat Ratna MS Subbulakshmi (Centre), Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (Right). (Photo: <b>The Quint</b>)

Every New Year day begins for me and my wife with a sumptuous breakfast at the hallowed Madras Music Academy. Yesterday was no different.

The usual TamBrahm crowd was there to polish off the spread – idli, dosa, uthappam, vada etc – that Contractor Padmanabhan served on a tidy plantain leaf. This is tradition at its best that we, as members of the Academy, savour with relish year after year.

This is the quintessence of the music ‘season’ in good old Madras (now Chennai, a name that does not excite me).

A Long Tradition

December 2015 music festival photos. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Music Academy Madras</a>)
December 2015 music festival photos. (Photo Courtesy: Music Academy Madras)

There are at least 15 places where concerts go on simultaneously, beginning as early as mid-November, confusing the rasika and making it difficult for him or her to choose. Sabha (music club) hoppers resort to all kinds of stratagems to make sure that they don’t miss out on any outstanding performance, vocal or instrumental. One of these is to hire an auto rickshaw for the whole day at a modest price and scurry from place to place. Sometimes the choice of a concert depends on the excellence of the canteen at the venue!

Logistically, however, the hopping is not a great adventure or is cumbersome because most of the Sabhas are in south Chennai, within a radius of 3 to 4 kilometres from the Music Academy on Cathedral Road.

This phenomenon of the music festival goes back about eight decades. The three oldest organisations – Music Academy (1928), the Indian Fine Arts Society (1932), and the Tamil Isai Sangam (1943) – laid the foundation and the ‘season’ goes uninterrupted. (The Tamil Isai Sangam – Tamil Music Society – was an offshoot of the protest against the alleged Brahmin domination of the Academy and the latter’s ban on Tamil songs on its platform.)

There was a demand last month that the festival should be called off this time to show sympathy to the victims of the devastating floods in Chennai early December. This evoked only a partial response. According to the grapevine, this demand was inspired by some disgruntled musicians opposed to the Academy and to a set of formidable artistes who had risen in popularity. The majority view against this suggestion prevailed.

It must be admitted, however, that the event was low-key this year, with some artistes like Bombay Jaishree and Vijay Siva, declining to perform as they believed a music festival was discordant in the backdrop of the flood tragedy. The Music Academy’s stand was that giving up the concerts would hit the lesser artistes who depended heavily on the income from them. This stand found resonance in many other organisations which decided to go on with the usual schedule. In retrospect, this seemed like a rational decision.

The season attracts a large number of visitors from all over the world, especially NRIs from the US and Canada and foreigners, who have developed an affinity for Carnatic music over the years. One significant absentee this time was a Sardar – who stood out for his colourful turban – who used to come without fail from the US mid-West.

The SKN Award

Birudu Patra Sangeetha Kala Nidhi being presented to Sanjay Subrahmanyan. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Music Academy Madras</a>)
Birudu Patra Sangeetha Kala Nidhi being presented to Sanjay Subrahmanyan. (Photo Courtesy: Music Academy Madras)

An interesting feature of the latest festival was the conferment of the Sangeetha Kala Nidhi (SKN) by the Music Academy on 47-year-old Sanjay Subramaniam. He is the youngest person to be given this title in over four decades. The SKN is the highest award that a Carnatic musician can aspire for and is usually given to a veteran. (Bharat Ratna MS Subbulakshmi, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Madurai Mani Iyer are some of the others who had received this honour in the past.) The SKN presides over the sessions of the Academy during the year in which he receives the award and enters the Hall of Fame at the Academy.

There have been any number of controversies in the past on the choice, including allegations of a gender bias and a bias against instrumental exponents and non-Brahmin artistes. No one can, however, charge that a nonentity has ever been favoured. There are so many in the queue that the Academy cannot please every aspirant.

Undoubtedly, this year’s choice has been acclaimed as the best that the Academy has ever made. Sanjay Subramaniam is a Chartered Accountant who has made it big through sheer talent and incredibly hard work. I attended five of his concerts at various Sabhas this year, with the one at the Academy being the best. It is learnt that the attendance at his concert was the largest ever in the annals of the Academy.

Sanjay’s music is pure gold! No gimmickry or pandering to the cheap or vulgar sentiment. His voice has a stentorian touch that has never let him down. His repertoire is unbelievably large. He can draw from it with amazing ease without repeating himself. It is said that during one of his recent visits to North America, he gave more than 25 concerts, and didn’t repeat one kriti (song). His rendering of Tamil songs, especially those composed by the nationalist poet, Subramaniya Bharathi, will melt any heart. His enunciation is flawless, making listening to him all the more enjoyable.

Sanjay is a modest person and wears no chip on his young shoulders. I am especially proud of him because his father and I were classmates at the Vivekananda College in the late 1950s.

To be concluded...

(The writer is a former CBI Director and a music buff.)

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