Chennai, as is locally joked about, has only three types of weather – hot, hotter and hottest. So, while Chennai is not acquainted with thick quilts and jumper jackets, there is a golden window, between November and January, when there is a nip in the air and the weather becomes pleasant. It is during this time that Chennai gets into a cultural fervour. A celebration of its very own Carnatic music fills the air with festivity and bonhomie. The dance and music festivals, collectively known as the ‘Margazhi Festival of Dance and Music,’ celebrates the spirit of Carnatic music and traditional dance forms in all its glory.
The festival dates back to 1927 when it was first celebrated to commemorate the first anniversary of Madras Music Academy. During the freedom movement, it counteracted the elite Christmas and New Year celebrations of the British. In fact the cultural imperialism was widely challenged by this cultural tradition. Subramania Bharathi, a prominent Tamil writer, poet and journalist, among others, developed a socio-political movement surrounding this festival which has its relevance even today.
The concept was soon picked up by other organisations and similar art festivals started happening in and around Chennai. This festival falls in the Margazhi month of Tamil calendar which coincides with the period between mid-December and mid-January. The month-long festival is also called ‘December Season’, particularly by the expatriate Indians and scholars, who attend the festival from across the globe.
Various festivals are held all over the city at different venues, organized by varied sabhas. Bharat Kalachar, Brahma Gana Sabha, Dance Festival, Sannidhiyil Sangeetham Music Festival, Kartik Fine Arts Festival, Vempati’s Marghazi Utsav, Natya Kala Conference, Thrimoorthi Sangeetha Sabha Music Festival, and South Indian Music Conference and Festival are some of the many prominent cultural galas. The Margazhi Festival packs in over 5,000 concerts, lecture demonstrations, expositions and deeply intellectual, knowledge-based discourses and debates. The festival is performed at religious and cultural venues like venerated temple complexes, heritage bungalows and renowned auditoriums.
With the finest blend of melody and divinity, the festival showcases befitting performances from vocal and instrumental musicians, solo and group dancers, belonging to the ranks of junior and senior artistes. The performances demonstrate the magic of the instruments like flute, veena, goottuvadyam, nagaswaram, thavil, mridangam, and ghatam.
Food for the Soul
You can sample delectable local food at the sabha canteens. The vegetarian options, mainly from the Tamil-Brahmin cuisine, will satiate your taste buds and leave you yearning for more. Make sure you try venn pongal, podi dosa and vendhaya dosai, kuzhi paniyaram, adai, sappadu, vazhai poo vadai and keerai vadai, Ashoka halwa, and obviously, filter coffee!
The Margazhi Festival has turned into a cottage economy with plenty of music shops, canteens selling South Indian cuisine, technological start-ups showcasing their innovations for the classical arts, and mainstream multiplexes showcasing Carnatic music and dance-based media products. Home-grown organically over decades, the festival has developed a life of its own. It is not just meant to entertain, it also characterizes Chennai as the ‘seat of culture’ and is a phenomenon that has stood the test of time.
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