Beyond the Gates: The December Season


In this series of articles, T5E goes beyond the gates of insti to explore Chennai and present our readers with interesting and useful information about our beautiful city. In this article, Ranjani takes a look at the Chennai December season.


Come December, and Chennai gears up for its much-awaited festival – the Madras Music Season or December Season. This cultural extravaganza rates higher on the excitement scale than any conventional festival celebrated here. Hotel and taxi bookings peak to the zenith and crowds from Chennai and outside hop from one sabha to another to witness their favourite artistes perform.

There are many theories on how the season took off as the time for cultural union. The most common one says it dates back to 1927, when the All India Music Conference was held here, and the resolution for the Madras Music Academy was passed concurrently. The next year onwards, the academy started organising concerts around this time, which transformed into the Music Season. Also, the month of Margazhi (which coincides with December-January) is auspicious to the Gods, which makes it an obvious choice for Carnatic music; and the Chennai weather is best in December, when the chill in the air provides respite from the usual monstrous heat. Whatever its roots, the event has now morphed into a humongous, lavishly-celebrated cultural confluence, possibly one of the world’s largest, giving Chennai the informal epithet of “The Mecca of South Indian music and dance”.

Over the years, the festival began to include art forms like classical dance, harikatha (an art-form akin to story-telling but with touches of music in it) and drama. Today, there are a variety of events to cater to different tastes, including lecture-demonstrations, workshops, and bhajan sessions. What is remarkable about this festival is that it offers as much to aficionados as it does to laymen rasikas. The ability of musicians and other performing artists to mesmerize the audience, apart from recent improvisations to sometimes include commentary in English, has only made the large number of rasikas grow further.

A striking feature of any music concert in the festival is its structure. In most cases, irrespective of the artist, concerts follow a standard format that has evolved over the years. Although concerts in the past lasted very long (nearly five hours), the duration has dropped to about two and a half hours on average, with each sabha having at least three performers in the afternoon-evening sessions. There are usually around ten songs in a concert and the lion’s share of time (about three fourths of an hour) goes to the “main piece”, which is an opportunity for the performer to showcase his/her prowess at the art, knowledge of its nuances and creativity within the grammatical layout. This is displayed in the form of an alaapanai (the exposition of the raga with no rhythm, to bring out its unique flavour), kalpana-swaram (literally imaginative/creative swaras – involves raga improvisation using the notes) and a neraval (elaboration and improvisation of a particular line of a kriti). What adds to the excitement is that all of this is usually done extempore! Sometimes, the artist chooses to have a sub-main piece with a few of these aspects and delivers a ragam-tanam-pallavi as the main piece instead. This is an equally challenging endeavour, with the virtuosity of the artists reflecting in their ability to deliver extempore and possibly change the raga and tala during the course of the piece.

Lest the vocalist should eclipse the equally talented instrumentalists, there is a separate section (called tani-aavarthanam) specially for the percussionists, while the violinist usually gets his/her turn along with the vocalist. Towards the end of the concert, the audience is often treated with popular thukkadas (short catchy compositions). These, sometimes performed on request, give a feeling of familiarity and capture the attention of the scores of people who turn up without a formal knowledge of the art.

Unlike the music concerts, a large number of the dance (mostly Bharathanatyam) performances are themed. Dance schools come up with a variety of refreshing and interesting themes and either deliver a wholly classical piece or perform a dance-drama. There are several individual artists too, who either pick a variety of pieces to perform or select a particular theme. Pieces could be set in a variety of situations ranging from an Indian mythological script to a nayika (heroine) pining for her lover, or even a wife telling off her husband for sharing a light moment with another woman!

For those readers who wish to be a part of this grand festivity, but have no clue where to start, here are some tips on what to look out for. Prominent vocalists are usually given the 6 pm slots. It’s not uncommon to find the names* of Sudha Raghunathan, Sowmya, Ranjani-Gayathri, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Sikkil Gurucharan, Aruna Sairam, Unnikrishnan, T.M. Krishna(all vocal), Ganesh-Kumaresh (violin duo) and the like in these slots as they form the senior brigade of artists. One may also choose to attend concerts for the accompanying artists who, despite their extraordinary skill, do not usually give solo performances. Some names to look out for would be Embar Kannan and Shriramkumar (violin), Ghatam Karthik, Purushotham and Shreesundarkumar (kanjira), Srimushnam Raja Rao, Karaikudi Mani and Umayalpuram Sivaraman on the mridangam. 4 pm slots are also occasionally offered to senior artistes, apart from up-and-coming performers, who are typically given the 2 pm slots. While it is possible to avail free entry to a lot of sabha concerts, the prime-time ones are usually ticketed and the tickets run out pretty early. For very prominent artists, one may even have to book a week or two in advance. The morning and early-evening performances are usually free-entry ones.

With scores of sabhas located in prominent and obscure locations of the city alike, one is spoilt for choice. Says Vidya Muthukumar, a musician and music-lover from insti, “The venues to look out for, in my opinion, are the Music Academy and Narada Gana Sabha (the most famous, one can book all day or all season passes here!), which both have a very commercialized setting, huge halls and great acoustics. You can shop at the stalls and eat at the canteens here as well. Apart from this, two other venues I like very much are the Krishna Gana Sabha and Rani Seethai Hall. Krishna Gana Sabha is a beautiful enclosure made of thatched jute, and with jute chairs inside and lots of festive lights at night. Rani Seethai Hall is an absolute gem of a venue, because the concerts here last three or a little more hours (one of the rare venues for this), and the acoustics are excellent. One gets the highest value for money here. Some other venues that are well-known are Mudra, Indian Fine Arts Society, Mylapore Fine Arts Club, Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, Hamsadhvani Sabha, etc. I’ve been told that Kalakshetra, the Carnatic music college, hosts an interesting medley of concerts. It is also a good experience to check out open-air temple concerts – the venue has extra devotional appeal as well.”

And there is more to the season than just halls and concerts and artists – food, authentic South Indian food. Many venues serve hot tiffin and beverages right outside. Says Jayadev Bhaskaran, a student of IITM and a performer at the season, “I have friends who don’t particularly enjoy Carnatic music but still hop from sabha to sabha in search of the best Masala Dosa or Vada or Kesari. Any sabha worth its salt has a canteen during the season, and there are rumours that there’s more money to be made through grub than through tickets.”

In recent years, the festival has also come to be identified with not just music and dance but also a temporary cultural metamorphosis of the population. Look around and you’d find young girls, chic in their beautiful, flowing pattu paavadais (traditional long skirts made of silk) and women draped in their finest silk sarees. The traditional jewellery and accessories are conspicuous and a treat to the eyes. The men are not to be left far behind in their flawless kurtas and, sometimes, even pattu veshtis (traditional South Indian men’s garment, draped around the waist). The performers too are dressed in their finest attires, adding to the gloss and grandeur.

And yes, there’s a special insti connect to the season too. There are quite a few students and campus residents who perform at the festival, including Mrs. Lakshmi Sriram (vocalist), Arundhati Krishnan (Math postgraduate, vocalist), Giridhari (violinist, graduated last year), Srivatsan (Integrated MS, mridangist) and Jayadev Bhaskaran (B.Tech, mridangist).

Being part of the festival is an experience, one of its kind. If you are in town and want to experience the season, visit a website or grab a brochure that lists the venues for various concerts sprawled across the city, (a sample’s here) and soak up the sounds of the season.

(*The names taken here are based on typical public response to concerts, and are very subjective.)

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