Way back in the years I was researching and working towards a PhD in dance I was a regular visitor to Madras in every December.
If it is December it must be Chennai”, goes the saying. For past more than 40 years I have been visiting Chennai (Madras) during the Margazhi, Mrigashirsh, December month to savour classical dance and music. Chennai is city of classical Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam dance form. There is no other city in the world that has such vast following of classical Carnatic music and dance festivals continuously for the two moths of December and January. At last count I am told there will be more than 2,000 dance and music performances spread over two months! And there are nearly 7,000 Bharatanatyam dancers in Chennai!!
The weather in Chennai is excellent, conducive to relish these arts. The innumerable sabhas, organisations that host musicians and dancers in a series of festivals, have no parallel in any other part of the world. And most of these events are arranged on voluntary basis. No direct Government support financial or otherwise. With few corporate sector support and also from few art conscious, and individuals, this amazing “season” as its is known draws connoisseurs and lay alike to this metropolitan city, Mecca of Bharatanatyam dance and music.
Even before arriving in Chennai though the social media Facebook and WhatsApp one was bombarded with the announcements of the performances with photos of old time divas, up and coming dancers and the conferences. (See the posters) One advantage was that one could pick and choose. The information goes viral. Special booklets by Mudhra give hour-to-hour performances of each sabha and date, time, venue and dancer/musician. That helps also as a ready reckoner.
Way back in the years I was researching and working towards a PhD in dance I was a regular visitor to Madras in every December. There were legendary dancers like Balasaraswati and Rukminidevi Arundale. The two major institutions the Music Academy of Madras, more than 90 years old, and Kalakshetra of Rukmnidevi, established in 1936, almost 83 years old, holding its 66th Annual Arts Festival in its new auditorium, a gem of a theatre, where to watch Rukminidevi’s choreographed dance-dramas and in particular, Ramayana series, is a blessing.
And there is another equally important organisation Shri Krishna Gana Sabha, established in 1953, 66 years ago, that has been holding a unique Natya Kala Conference for the past 38 years, that brings connoisseurs, scholars, dancers, critics, musicians from all over the world, be it Boston or Bengaluru, Chicago or Coimbatore, Delhi or Dallas, Tokyo or Tanjore, Melbourne or Mangalore, people converge for scholarly discourse and lecture demonstrations in the morning from December 20 till December 26 with performances in the evenings. Each year the awardee of Nritya Choodamani from KGS is invited to convene a conference for two years known as NKC. This year the celebrated Bharatanatyam dancer from Delhi Rama Vadyanathan is convener and she has under the title Nirikshana (see the poster) arranged a sumptuous fare which will see participation of scores of dancers, musicians, organisers and choreographers. More about it in my next dispatch after a fortnight.
Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter and other social media are flooded with information about happenings from hour to hour! It is a miracle that performances are streamlined, posted with small duration videos, and one is at a loss as to what to select and attend!
The activities start right from 8 am for scholarly presentations of music at The Music Academy. During the tea break, the rasikas rush to the canteen for hot coffee and breakfasts, savor idlis, dosas, upamas and what have you. The canteens are full, do a thriving business, folks gather there to agree and disagree for their favorite musicians and dancers’ performances, and rush form one sabha to another to catch up with latest.
Over the past 40 years the profile of sabhas, performances, discussions, continue to change and try to catch up with the changing trends or set the trends. Unless you visit and be a part of this madness it is not possible to experience (through the written word and few images I am posting), the sheer joy of enjoying the season. Months in advance Hotels like Woodland, Savera, private houses offering accommodation are booked. Not knowing Tamil is frustrating when you try to bargain with autorikshaw drivers. They will fleece you and you better surrender to them if you do not want to spoil your mood. Book through Uber or Ola and avoid confrontations with auto drivers!
Few friends of mine are as good as institutions. Anita Ratnam is a diva. A Bharatanatyam dancer has moved to her contemporary neo-Bharatam and explores contemporary themes. A striking personality, brilliant organiser, orator, globe trotter, publisher, writer, editor of e-portal Narthaki.com which has completed 20 years and has worldwide reach, dancers across the world await the monthly Narthakionline.com for news, views, reviews. Yours truly is a regular dance critic of Narthaki.com from its very first edition. Anita’s editorials are pithy, provocative, frank and critical, newsy, sharing events, performances she sees abroad and full of constructive suggestions, often lamenting why Chennai does not “wake up”?
For past five years she has been arranging “Awakening” morning music recitals by the one and only pianist Anil Srinivasan and other musician, a vocalist or instrumentalist, at 7.30 am at Chandralekha, Dashrath Patel and Sadanand Menon’s Spaces theatre on 1, Eliot Beach Road, Besant Nagar in loving memory of her mother Lily Ratnam and Anil Srinivasan in his father T.M. Srinivasan’s memory. There is hot morning coffee served in an unparalleled ambience of a small theatre, trees, birds chirping and gentle morning sunrays lighting up, the sweet melody filling the air from a small piano which is carefully tuned by an 80 year old gentleman, if the flutist is Praveen Ghorkhinde, then he mesmerises us all, along with Anil’s piano, and with Ahir Bhairav raga, we are transported to another world, the magic of flute making us conscious why Krishna enchants gopis and all mortals with his playing divine melodies on flute!
I have just returned from that world of music and am writing all this to share with readers the Marghzhi madness. From Kuala Lumpur, Bharatanatyam dancer Kandaswamy, posts on Facebook: “Off to Chennai for Margazhi-cum-Thaimaasam season! Teaching, workshops, Natya Kala Conference, performances, and catching up with all dancer friends. It is the time of year again!! Margazhi early mornings with Andal and Manikavachagar!! Divine mornings soaking up dance and music all day. Lord Krishna says in Gita: ‘Amongst months I am Margashirsha!’”
By December 20, the real “season” starts. One has to go to Kalakshetra, that tapovan-like institution with its aesthetic ambience, the kolams on the floor, the colourful hangings of marigold flowers, the young dancers holding plates with sugar, chandan, kumkum and flowers, welcoming you. They apply chandan on your forehead; you take flower petals and place before the statue of Rukminidevi. A young dancer takes you to the bookstall where your photobiography of Rukminidevi is displayed and sold. She takes your photo with your book and you feel like a celebrity! And then the young usher guides you to your seat. You leave your shoes at a place reserved for them and enter the auditorium and marvel at its traditional Kutambalam architecture, the two entrances on the side of the stage, designed as wings, from where characters enter, the exquisite curtain studded with small mirrors, like Saurashtra abhalas (mirrors), in front on chattais children sit, you are seated on a cane chair and the melody of Nagarswaram fills
the air. You greet old timers, the “regulars”, devotees of Kalakshetra and you are all ears when musicians take their seats on one side of the stage and render shlokas in praise of the four-armed, Chaturbhuja Vishnu. On either side there are screens for subtitles in English which you read quickly if you do not know the story of Kalidasa’s Kumar Sambhavam, which Rukmini Devi choreographed way back in September 1947 with music by that great stalwart Tiger Vardachari. It is revived with the help of old time Kalakshetra dancers. The costumes with their exquisite colours and crowns, backdrop showing Himalayas, and dancers performing in excellent technique impress you and you wonder and admire at Rukminidevi’s vision of translating Kalidasa’s poem into dance-drama.
I can go on and on. I am a great devotee of Rukminidevi and her aesthetics. On contemporary stage for classical Bharatanatyam dance-dramas she has set high standards which young generation attempts to emulate! It is a heartening sign of carrying on great traditions.
I catch up with NatyaDarshan’s 19th edition at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan at Mylapoe. Moderating the discourse on Bhakti and Rasa I am surprised at the scholarship of participants. Evening performance by Vaibhav Arekar and troupe further enhance the speculative and philosophical thoughts of Upanishad in Bharatanatyam dance. I suggest him that instead English spoken words let there be Sanskrit and give audience choreographer’s note and synopsis. Off to T. Nagar at Krishna Gana Sabha to feast eyes on my favourite Nrityagram dancers Surupa Sen and Pavitra Reddy. They are excellent dancers and you cannot guild the lily. From New York their great admirer internationally renowned choreographer Mark Morris has flown down specially to watch their performances. They lived up to their reputation and when I returned home their exquisite Odissi dance and melodious music haunted me. Such is the Marghazhi madness!
The writer is an eminent dance historian