Margazhi 2021: where does the season go from here?

Margazhi 2021: where does the season go from here?, the vie

Chennai’s December season is around the corner, and while in-person and digital performances are being explored, questions are being raised about how the two will shape the festival’s future

Rehearsals are in full swing at Alarmel Valli’s home in Kilpauk. The Bharatanatyam artiste is readying to record a performance that will premiere on January 2 (kicking off the 15th edition of The Music Academy’s Dance Festival under the umbrella of its 95th annual conference, which begins on December 20th).

In Chennai, across auditoriums and cultural institutions, artistes are either busy recording performances that will unfold online or organisers are applying the final coat of paint to spaces that have remained shut for over 18 months. For Valli, this recording is a first; transitioning from performing to a live gallery to audiences that will watch it online, whenever, wherever, on their devices. It also underlines how different this Margazhi feels — like the fading away of an era, of a certain magic.

The big question

  • With digital fatigue becoming a real concern, are organisers sure of recovering their costs? “We have the crème de la crème in dance performing for us and, with competitive pricing and a great social media strategy, I think our festival is going to be a sell-out,” says Natarajan Ramji, convenor of The Music Academy’s dance festival.

“There’s a sadness in me,” she says, reiterating how the calendar of her life, right up to the onset of Covid-19, was measured, in a sense, from December to December, one Margazhi to another. (Incidentally, she’d debuted at The Music Academy when she was 15, a space she says is charged with the collective energies of thousands of artistes and rasikas). “It [Margazhi] was an intense period of enrichment in my growth as an artiste.”

Though going digital has helped the arts and artistes sustain themselves over the last year, and amplified its reach across the globe, she observes, “In the process, I feel the intensity and uniqueness of the experience has been diluted.”

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A khichdi in December

After a year-long hiatus from all things live, the annual festival of music and dance is beginning to make its presence felt, in varied forms, sizes, formats and possibilities. Having tasted digital blood, and its dizzying possibilities in terms of reach and interaction — Yours Truly Margazhi, for instance, a month-long festival of music and dance, sold 3,500 subscriptions and had between 5,000 to 15,000 views per day from across the globe — Margazhi 2021 is trying to retain its core sensibilities while unfurling as a bespoke experience.

The question is: has it lost a bit of its sheen?

“The word that comes to mind is khichdi,” says Ramanathan Iyer, founder of the arts platform The ARTery. “I think the digital re-creation, with a smattering of half-baked in-person experiences, has exacerbated the many problems that already existed in the festival. Such as the same artistes performing at venues close to each other, resulting in a scattered audience and ticket sales. The online model was a great opportunity for reform, but it hasn’t been so [the same artiste is now popping up at the same time across two digital festivals]. What we need urgently is for artistes and organisations to come together and deliberate on the way forward.”

Beyond the sabhas

  • Taking a break from adding the final touches to the promo video of record label Sound Creed’s thematic online festival, Ezhisai – Reign of the Rasas, Sumesh Narayanan explains its premise: each artiste elucidates the notion of a swara as a “rasa and not just as a note”. Going digital gives one the freedom to play around with form and expression, says the co-founder and percussionist — like the abstract set design, conceived in collaboration with Victor Paulraj (which draws its inspiration from animals and their links to swara). “We believe that the arts need to be an unadulterated expression of the artiste and not one that is steered by external forces. The idea of Ezhisai arose from the potential of the art form to transcend media and its ability to be weaved into conceptual presentations beyond the realm of sabha stages.”

This season, while some organisations are sticking with the digital format, others are going the opposite direction, and a few are toying with both (a virtual festival combined with short, in-person experiences). “I’d say it’s a bit of a hotchpotch,” says N Murali, president, The Music Academy. “We made a decision in August that we’d stay digital this year as well. What we have done is expanded our festival’s contours. For instance, our music festival is spread across 12 days [as opposed to eight last time]. We have also included lec-dems and a three-day dance festival. In the shooting and recording of these performances, we have tried to re-create the live experience digitally as much as possible.”

Just back from Mumbai, Anita Ratnam says over a phone call, “As a dancer, I hope organisations that are curating digital festivals have re-imagined it and ensured they have raised the bar in terms of the camera and editing work. I hope the camera person has spent some time watching the dancer in rehearsal, attempting to understand the dance before capturing it.”

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The joys of in-person shows

With the government giving a go-ahead for live performances a few days ago, a host of sabhas are curating truncated festivals, conscious of social distancing and other Covid-19 protocols. Hari Krishnaswami, secretary, Narada Gana Sabha is looking forward to welcoming audiences from December 17 to 31, for two programmes a day in his 1,200-seater auditorium (that will also house a canteen to dish out the much-awaited sabha saapaadu). “People are waiting to watch performances live,” he says, adding that he isn’t expecting NRIs; most of the audience will be locals and perhaps a few from across India.

Shoots are on

  • The Federation of City Sabhas has begun publicising the second edition of Yours Truly Margazhi, which unfolded on the Kalakendra platform last year. The camera and editing crew have already shot over 40 concerts for Kartik Fine Arts’ festival, Musically Margazhi, and over 100 for the Federation’s.

Saashwathi Prabhu, CEO, Krishna Gana Sabha (KGS), is readying to open the auditorium for its 65th Margazhi Mela, which will unfold as an in-person experience for 15 days (December 15 to January 1). Opening with a dance performance by Srinidhi Chidambaram and concluding with one by dancer-actor Shobana, and with competitive pricing (tickets between ₹200 and ₹2,000), KGS is looking to fill its nearly 800-seater auditorium. The festival will also have a new restaurant doling out ‘tiffin’ items. “Artistes and audiences revel in the synergy that occurs during a performance; this is the innate trait of the classical arts,” says Prabhu. “We are hoping to re-create that magic, in a smaller, more manageable format.”

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However, some young artistes are still undecided about how they’d like to engage with the festival. Amrit Ramnath, an upcoming musician and Bombay Jayashri’s son, feels this over abundance of content, especially during Margazhi, can lead to a saturation of sorts. “This will, I’m sure, push for a new kind of change. I’m looking forward to that paradigm shift in the way we consume a live concert. And the variables may include duration, format, number of elements, structure of a concert.”

The way forward

But digital is where much of the attention is focussed now. The hybrid model has undoubtedly nudged artistes and organisers to think out-of-the-box while filming concerts. Classical musician Sandeep Narayan tells me how his friends in the US were impressed by the photos he shared over WhatsApp from a recent recording for the Federation of City Sabhas. “With elaborate sets unlike what you’d find in a typical kutcheri, and high-quality microphones [Rover 121, Neumann KMS 105, and Sontronics Sigma], everything was top notch,” he says. “The Margazhi festival has a stigma of being too traditional, but with everything being curated consciously now, the visual aspect is more deliberate.”

Personal projects

  • “I missed the buzz of a live concert, so I’m looking forward to performing this season,” says classical musician G Ravikiran. “The last 12 months also allowed me an opportunity to reflect on what music means to me, and I embarked on an ambitious project to sing and document the compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar in the 72 Raganga Ragas. I released the first six under the name Raganga Malika, and the second season is in production [to be released in January 2022]. This gave me an opportunity to share content I’ve not had the opportunity to share before.”

In a sense, the recordings have meant that, at least for the artistes, Margazhi has arrived early. Does this potpourri, however, mean that there’s a threat of it becoming a mere milestone that just happens to coincide with a specific time of the year? “It’s the difference between something actually happening between December and January versus something that we create for a festival,” says classical musician Vignesh Ishwar, who has recorded five online concerts and has two live gigs for this season.

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All this leads me back to the point Valli had raised — about how the uniqueness of Margazhi is getting diluted. At her home by the sea in Valmiki Nagar, Malavika Sarukkai acknowledges the overall noise that pervades the world of the arts, but says she is excited to just dance. “Would I miss an audience when I record? Am I looking forward to performing to a live audience? Do I practise differently for each of these programmes? The answer is I wouldn’t change the way I do things; I am rehearsing with the same intensity,” says Sarukkai, who is recording for The Music Academy’s festival and will perform live at KGS. “These permutations and combinations we are attempting are all a part of the natural process of evolution. After we get through this, it is imperative to discuss what is important in dance and what we want to say through it, which will, in a sense, pave the way for the next 20 years.” Amen to that.

“Through the pandemic, I worked on a bunch of singles that I intend to put out as an album next year. I also intend to record a classical concert on my own, of myself, for the Margazhi season. It will be a shorter format because I don’t think that online consumption of classical music is possible beyond 20-30 minutes,” says Amrit Ramnath, musician.

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