When I met an Austrian in Margazhi music festival in Chennai

Though I have been living in Chennai for the past five years, Margazhi music festival was not something I look forward to. After my father’s desperate attempts to train me in classical music failed, partly due to my disinterest and my inability to follow, I kept my distance from this music for the past 23 years.

But being a journalist, you can never really keep your distance from anything. So when the music festival began on December 18 this year, I was asked to do couple of stories about the festival just like last year. I went from one sabha to next in Chennai talking to caterers about the food and stuffing myself with all yummy South Indian delicacy.

Every sabha I go, I make it a point to sit for sometime and observe. Sabhas are crowded with elderly and some youngsters here and there. You will be able to spot foreigners as well. Whenever I see them it makes me think: What is it that they like about South Indian music? Will they even understand it? I never could.

There are all kinds of people, sure. But I never know why would someone want come all the way here to listen to a music they cannot even understand.

What is it that draws them? It is because the music comes from heart, one Michael said to me. Michael looked like Justin Long but with light brown hair and blue eyes in a six foot frame. He is an Austrian who has come to Chennai to be a part of the Margazhi music festival and to learn more about South Indian music. A self-taught guitarist and a mechanic by profession, Michael came across Carnatic music two years ago. “I love music and I wanted to learn about music across the world. So when I came across a recording of South Indian music I listened to it. Since then I could not help but be fascinated by the music,” he says.

When I asked him about why he thinks music from the South comes from the heart, he said,”Back home there is always sheet of notes flying around when an Austrian classical musician is playing. But that is not the case here.”

“You see musicians like Rajesh Vaidhya performing on Veena for hours without any notes. You know that it comes from his heart. There is love in the music and you can feel it. When you hear it, it is almost magical,” he said, with sort of fascination.

Being a lover of string musical instruments, the sound of Veena fascinates him. “The tone and quality of veena is so rich that I cannot find any instrument that could match it. I wanted to see for myself how it feels like and I wanted to learn all there is to about Veena. So I packed my bags to Chennai,” his tone was serious.

But it is not easy. Michael is a seasonal mechanic. He changes car tyres during summer and winter. The rest of the time he works odd jobs like a delivery boy for a Chinese restaurant. Basically he does anything that will help him save some money. “I worked really hard to save money for this trip,” he said.

“I want know more about world music and Chennai is where I’m starting my musical journey,” he said.

Michael first landed in Mumbai on December 8, 2016. He sourced information about Chennai Music festival, its schedule and resolved his accommodation issue. One Mala had been of great help to him. For, she not only gave information about the festival but gave him pointers and contacts of people who could teach him Veena.

A week later, he caught the train from Mumbai and came to Chennai on December 18, 2016.  Michael said, “When I landed, I could feel festivity in the air. You know I could feel there was something different about the city.” He is staying in a budget hotel in Besant Nagar, Chennai and commutes by bus and trains. “People are friendly here. They direct you to sabhas if you are lost,” he said, with a laugh.

If he found the city to his liking, music was whole another treat. “I just love it. Music and dance and instrumentals like flute, violin, mridangam and especially veena. I was here for Rajesh Vaidhya’s performance. It was mind blowing,” he said. I could see that he was enthralled by the whole concept.

“I will be here in Chennai till January 17. I’m going to buy veena and learn.  If I need to extend my stay, I will. But I at least want to learn the basics thoroughly before I leave. I’m planning to stay here until I accomplish that,” he says. And he does not want to stop just with Veena. Michael wants to go North and learn Sitar and Hindustani music.

“May be that is for a later date. But it sure is a part of my musical journey,” he said, before he rushed off for his 3 p.m. appointment with his first Veena tutor.


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