Come December and Chennai begins to hum with the start of the kutcheri (classical music concert) season, referred to in the city simply as the “Season.” It’s one of the largest music festivals in the world, with more than 1,500 concerts over six weeks at various locations.
The Season attracts not just aficionados of South India’s traditional Carnatic music (the genre of classical music mainly from Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh) from Chennai, but music lovers from all over the country, and overseas as well. It is one of the reasons why so many South Indians based in the United States, especially Tamil Brahmins, often referred to “TamBrams,” visit Chennai in December.
Prabha Bala and her husband, residents of Houston, Texas, since 1971, have been coming to Chennai for the Season for nearly 15 years.
“After my son grew up and I was not bound by vacation restrictions, I started timing my trips back home with the concert season,” said Ms. Bala, who is also a founding member of a Houston classical music society.
During the Season, it is not just the music that is discussed and debated incessantly. Everything from the silk saris worn by the women artists to the quality of evening “tiffin” at the concert hall makes news. And towards the end of the season, the Thyagaraja Aradhana, a musical homage to the 19th century saint-composer Thyagaraja, takes place in his hometown of Tiruvaiyyaru near Thanjavur municipality. (This year it is on Jan. 14).
The tradition of the Season began in 1927, to mark the inauguration of the oldest and grandest of all concert halls in Chennai, the Music Academy. Over the years, it has expanded to include non-musical performances, including drama and dance, workshops and lecture demonstrations, known here as the “lecdems.” The lecdems are part of the attraction for Ms. Bala. “It allows not just the artists to keep learning but is also an opportunity for audiences to interact and educate themselves about the classical arts,” she said.
The sheer volume of concerts allows audiences to listen to established artists, while also offering newcomers an opportunity to be seen and heard. And to those who lament the steady demise of traditional Indian performing arts, the Season brings solid reassurance that in Chennai, at least, there is still a big audience for the classics.
This year, the Season begins in early December, from the 2nd in some halls. A few not-to-miss veterans, singers all, this season are: Nithyasree Mahadevan, on Dec. 17 at the Mylapore Fine Arts Society; Aruna Sairam, who performs on Dec. 28 at the the Music Academy, and T.M. Krishna, on Dec. 19 at Bharat Kalachar. Emerging talents this year include Ramakrishnan Murthy, T.N.S. Krishna, Nisha Rajagopal and Gayathri Gireesh
Among the lecdems, some interesting highlights include: “Bhakti Poets and Indian Music’’ by Gowri Ramnarayan on Dec. 11 at the Arkay Convention Center, “Rhythmic Aspects of Carnatic Music Made Easy,’’ by Chitraveena N. Narasimhan and disciples on Dec. 20 at Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, and “The Art of Singing Niraval’’ by S. Sowmya on Dec. 31at Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha.
For more details on concert times and venues, check the Chennai December Season website.
My story on the December Music Season in the New York Times’ India Ink.