The Season of Melodies – Carnatic 101

The traditional South Indian musical artform is known for having a melody for every mood, time, and season. And the opportunity to become a discerning patron is once again upon us with Margazhi season just around the corner.

For example, Bilahari, a morning raga exudes refreshing happiness, while the raga Amruthavarshini is said to bring showers. Each raga is potent, weaving magic through a specific sequence of notes. Each engenders an experience that is intimate with nature, and the divine.

In a typical performance, a solo vocalist brings to life mythical tales of bhakthi, love, and salvation, supported by the graceful tunes of a veena or a violin, and set to resounding tala (complex beat cycles) emanating from hand drums such as mridanagam or ghatam. The singer, eyes drawn close in surrender, explores the emotive force of the raga to its fullest. With the Kalpana sangeetham every rendering arises from the imagination, allowing room for soulful improvisations.

A rendezvous with the grand ragas

Over the ages, many composers have crafted masterpieces, but a few have become the quintessential rendition of the raga in which they are composed.

Raga Sankarabharanam is considered the adornment of Lord Shiva himself; Kalyani, the queen of ragas ushers in auspiciousness, and is the melody often played in weddings; the deep and sombre raga Thodi inspires humility that leads to wisdom; Kamboji has given birth to devotional masterpieces such as ‘O Rangasayee’ – the song is an earnest appeal to the Brahman beseeching grace and union with godhead; ever rich Bhairavi is likened to a prayer booming forth to the supreme consciousness. These constitute the 5 grand ragas of Carnatic tradition, and have given birth to the most number of compositions.

In one of the lighter and playful songs composed in Chenchurutti, in a song addressed to Lord Krishna, mother Yashoda tries to coax him out of going out in the open to herd cows. The rest of the song is an endearing repartee between the mother-son duo. Does it come as a surprise that the son has the final word? Listen to this infectious, and heartening song vocalized by famed singer Aruna Sairam.

For a taste of the popular ragas all packed in one song, look to mainstream cinema where the song Oru Naal Podhuma, masterfully rendered by late singer Balamuralikrishna makes an appearance in the 1965 Tamil epic, Thiruvilayadal. Appreciate the genius as the song effortlessly meanders from Thodi to Darbar, Mohini, and Kaanada.

A one of a kind music festival

But, come Margazhi, it rains all kinds of melodies all over Chennai.

Every year, between Dec 15 and Jan 15, the city hosts around 1,500 to 2,000 carnatic music concerts with an assortment of panel discussions, themed performances, harikathas, and jugalbandis, all accompanied by delightful food from the sabha canteens. This sparkling event is a one of a kind celebration of classical music in all of Asia dating back to 1927.

If you are a music lover fortunate enough to be in Chennai this December, here is a roundup of all the happening places of the city. The top sabhas are located around the cultural centres of Mylapore, T Nagar, and Alwarpet.

The Music Academy: Chennai’s Margazhi kuctheri season took roots in the Music Academy. One of the biggest sabhas in the city, it is a reputed cultural landmark which has A-listers vying for a spot to perform. It needs no mention that the institution draws huge crowds every year. This year, stalwarts like Kunnakkudy M Balakrishna, Sudha Ragunathan, Dr S Sowmya, Ranjani and Gayathri, Aruna Sairam, Neyveli R Santhanagopalan, Bombay Jayashri Ramnath, and other artists of renown are set to captivate the audience with their enthralling musical renderings.

Naradha Gana Sabha: Located in TTK road, the sabha features both upcoming and established singers. This year, there are kutcheris by Unnikrishnan, Dr. K J Yesudas, Sid Sriram, Nithyashree Mahadevan, Shobana, and other lead singers.
Brahma Gana Sabha, and Kalakshetra foundation are other prominent institutions which curate interesting art, theatre, music, and dance performances.

Chennai truly comes alive every Margazhi. And, there is no better place to catch it live, and experience the divine music as it unfurls into the human realm.

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