In Chennai Tamil month Margazhi is a season of classical music and everything traditional. You will find Mylapore mamis in colourful kanchivaram sarees, girls in pattu paavadai chattai and men in veshti and kurtha hopping from one sabha to next to listen to their favourite singer’s katcheri.
There is an undeniable air of festivity that hangs around the city as people from all over the world, NRIs and foreigners alike, come to Chennai to be a part of what I realise is a symphony of carnatic music, classical dance and musical instruments.
When I was a kid growing up in the Southern part of Tamil Nadu, I remember waking up to chants of auspicious Thiruppavai early in the morning. I remember liking the sound of them even though I did not know what they meant. I used to peer out of my bedroom window in the first floor to see where the sound was coming from and would see four or five bare-chested men in crisp veshti singing in misty Margazhi morning. They would go from one street to another singing daring the cold every day for the entire month. Even as a kid, I could realise that the month was special.
But unlike my hometown, Margazhi in Chennai is different. It is extravagant, vibrant and rich. Rather than an event, it is more like a festival that brings diverse crowd. You will find many non-resident Indians returning to Chennai for their arangetram (debut on stage performance) during Margazhi. I remember two of my cousins who lived in the US coming to Chennai this time around. Being trained Bharathanatyam dancers, for them this is an opportunity not to be missed. Foreigners who love South Indian music too will join the bandwagon. You could catch some of them playing violin or veena on stage. Though I’m not a connoisseur of Carnatic music, it is not very hard to appreciate a great art when you see it.
It is not just India, even in countries like the US where South Indian population is significant Margazhi festival is celebrated on a grand scale. So in a way, this is a festival that has transcended boundaries.
So what is the significance of Margazhi? I have wondered about it when I was a kid. My grandmother used to tell me the story of Andal, one of the 12 Alvars saints of South India. She wrote and sang Thiruppavai, which has 30 verses, during Margazhi with the goal to marry Lord Vishnu. It is said that she later became one with Him and hence the significance of singing Thiruppavai.
The festival started in Chennai in 1927 as a part of a conference held in then Madras by the Indian National Congress. After a small scale event in 1929 this particular event gained significance over the years and grew to be the festival as we see today. There are over 30 sabhas in Chennai and every year they compete to get best singers to perform. The craze with which people buy tickets listen to these singers is akin to the interest in star studded Tamil movies. Sometimes it is impossible to get tickets to star performer shows like Sudha Ragunathan or dancer Shobana’s. That is how much they value music and dance.
It is not just music, in the last decade or so even food these sabhas serve have started getting audience of their own. Each sabha tie-up with caterers to serve food throughout the day to rasikas. But what has happened is that these sabhas has become a gathering ground for lovers of South Indian food. From pongal vada to traditional food served in banana leaf even these catering houses compete to give the best food possible. So even if you are not a music lover, it is worth it to give these delicious meal a try.
Most of all it is a festival that has come to define the city. It is so culturally part of the city that it is difficult to see without.