Come December, you can hear the sound of music wherever you go in southern Chennai. The cool air of the Tamil month of Margazhi is thick with it from the early hours of the day around the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore, with Margazhi bhajans. A group of devotees go round the temple singing devotional songs, a tradition started by the revered music composer Papanasam Sivan.

Temples reverberate with the choral singing of Thiruppavai and Thiruvembavai: devotional Tamil hymns of Aandal and Manikavasakar, saint poets of the 6th century. Senior citizens draped in woollen shawls can be heard discussing the previous day’s concert and the catering at the music venues. Newspapers bring out supplements with reviews, and the sale of music CDs and books peaks in the special stalls at the different venues.

Swaminathan, an 80-year-old retired company executive who lives with his NRI son in the US has come all the way to Chennai solely for the “season”: the annual extravaganza for lovers of music. People like Swaminathan—NRIs and other foreign nationals attracted by the music of the region—hop energetically from one sabha to another with a small book in hand that lists the performances at different places. It helps them choose their favourite artistes and attend their performances.

The numbers are impressive: more than 1,500 musical performances in a span of three weeks at various places, ranging from the august Music Academy to open-air concerts, morning to evening. On an average, each venue hosts four concerts a day, in addition to musical discourses and lecture demonstrations by eminent musicians and musicologists.

It was all so different 25 years ago. Only three organisations had special concerts in December: the Music Academy, the Tamil Isai Sangam, and the Indian Fine Arts Society. Unlike the other sabhas, these three offered performances only during what they called the music festival in December and had no monthly programmes for members. Musicians considered it a privilege to feature in these programmes.

The most prestigious of the three was, and still is, the Music Academy, now in its 86th year. Founded in 1928 with the sole objective of promoting music and culture, it was a follow-up to the music festival organised as part of the All India Congress Committee conference in Chennai in the previous year.

The Music Academy’s performances feature the most popular and senior artistes, but it also encourages younger talent. It conducts research on ragams, analyses musical forms, debates the different gharanas, and publishes the findings in its journal. It also conducts music workshops for aspiring musicians.

The annual music festival was once held in a school. Today, it is hosted in a hall of its own named after its great patron, former Union finance minister T. T. Krishnamachari. Its acoustics are among the best in the country with state-of-the-art sound systems. Connoisseurs believe an artiste gives his or her best only at the Academy.

Among its several awards, the Sangeetha Kalanidhi is the most coveted: like the Nobel Prize for a scientist. Carnatic musicians value it much more than the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, and the winner is decided by the Academy’s expert committee. So much deliberation goes into the process that the inevitable criticism is that recipients are always old, past their prime, and no longer able to perform.

The great Papanasam Sivan (1890-1973)—who had served music with such devotion and broken new ground with his Tamil compositions—was so old and frail that he had to be physically led to the stage to receive the award. At the end of the ceremony, he had to look for an auto rickshaw to take him home. The organisers, perhaps, felt the honour was enough and an elderly man’s comfort was of no importance.

The Academy’s attitude, the rigidity of its rules, and the haughtiness of its officials to whom the book was the only criterion, came under severe criticism for the cavalier treatment of such a towering icon.

Perhaps Papanasam should feel honoured, wherever he is now. He did get the award. The number of artistes who missed the award could form a roll of honour on their own.

They include vocalist-composer M. D. Ramanathan, violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman, veena maestro S. Balachander, the great flautist T. R. Mahalingam (Flute Mali), and vocalists Madurai Somasundaram and Seergazhi Govindarajan. The full list is a good deal longer.

The irony could not be greater. Back in the day, there were so many performers of note that it is hard to remember them all. These days, the Academy has to search with a lens to find a suitable person for the award. Madurai Somu and Seergazhi Govindarajan—two very popular artistes—were not even invited to perform regularly. Some critics attribute this to the domination of Brahmins in the expert committee. But maybe it is learning something because this year, the relatively young Sudha Raghunathan has been selected for the award in a welcome departure from tradition.

An organisation like the Academy is bound to attract criticism as it is so central to Chennai’s music scene, but its bias for vocalists cannot be denied. Instrumentalists always get late evening slots while the singers get prime time. The late S. Balachander, or “Veena” Balachander, refused to perform at the Academy in protest, while the late Lalgudi Jayaraman declined its awards. The Academy made amends with an award for life-time achievement two years before Jayaraman’s death.

The late violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, who took Carnatic music to the masses and had a large fan following, was seldom invited to perform by the Academy. Its coterie of experts felt he diluted the sanctity of the music by making it lighter to attract the common man, though his work cannot be faulted as a deviation from the classical.

For a long time, women were passed over for the honour. M. S. Subbulakshmi was the first to receive the award as late as 1968. The late Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer told me in an interview that in the early days, at the concerts in the weddings of the rich, women from the family were not allowed to sit as part of the audience. For a long time, music and dance were the domain of the devadasis. With the exception of D. K. Pattammal, there were no Brahmin women musicians as late as the 1980s. (It was Rukmini Arundale who brought respectability to music and Bharatanatyam in later years.)

Strangely, today there is no leading musician from the devadasi community. Vocalist duo Brinda and Muktha, who belonged to the family of the legendary Veena Dhanammal, were the last from that community. Singers Bombay Jayashri, Nithyasree Mahadevan, S. Sowmya, Sudha Raghunathan, Aruna Sairam, Ranjani-Gayatri, Gayathri Girish, Gayathri Venkataraghavan, and Vishaka Hari are the most popular among today’s women singers and all of them are Brahmins. It is also a fact that the majority of the audience comprises Brahmins. For this reason, music festivals take place only in Brahmin-dominated south Chennai and you see almost no such activity in north Chennai.

There is another fact worth noting. A cursory glance at the Music Academy’s schedule for this year reveals that out of 80 music concerts, only four feature non-Brahmin artistes. Vocalists like Yesudas, Dandapani Desikar, Madurai Somu and Unnikrishnan had to struggle to find acceptance in major sabhas. Yesudas and Unnikrishanan are as good as anyone, but to sabhas, their real value is the huge audiences they draw. Their fame as playback singers helps to fill the coffers.

In the Academy’s early days, there was stiff opposition to Tamil songs. It was also an indirect way of discouraging non-Brahmins from taking part. Ironically, it was Kalki Krishnamurthi and Rajaji—both Brahmins—who spearheaded the Tamil Isai movement. With M. S. Subbulakshmi in their company, they succeeded to some extent.

Several decades ago, during the annual aradhana at the samadhi of the saint-composer Thyagaraja in Thiruvaiyaru, the renowned Dandapani Desikar was pulled down from the dais as he sang a Tamil song. One cannot dispute that he violated the rule that only Thyagaraja keerthanas should be sung at the festival. But what followed was an outrage. After he left the dais, the organisers sprinkled water mixed with cow dung to “purify” the place!

Lecture demonstrations in the morning have become the fashion of the day. Though open to all, they seldom attract large audiences. Initially such intellectual exercises were organised only by the Music Academy and the Tamil Isai Sangam, but now almost all the sabhas follow the pattern. After all, they too must demonstrate that they care.

During the festival, there are at least four concerts a day. Leading musicians feature in the evening slots, entry for which is by ticket. The less popular and emerging artistes perform in the morning and afternoon. No entrance fee is charged for these concerts.

The sabhas claim the festival is intended to develop and spread Carnatic music. They charge heavily for entrance to concerts by leading musicians, denying a true but poor music-lover the chance of listening. T. M. Krishna, who invariably draws full houses, has demanded that no entry fee be charged for his concerts. Sabhas have to fall in line as they cannot afford to ignore an artiste of such prominence, so thank you, Krishna.

The Tamil Isai Sangam, started primarily to encourage Tamil songs in classical music, has its festival run concurrently, though it does not consider itself a rival to the Academy. It insists on Tamil songs only at its concerts, and the musicians participate willingly.

In the morning Pann Araichi (a research session on Tamil ragams), Tamil scholars and musicologists sit together to bring out the great heritage of literature and music especially pertaining to ThevaramThiruvasagam and Divya Prabandham, devotional hymns of the 6th century. It is here that the Odhuvars—who traditionally sing these hymns in the temples—get their due. Musicians who sing mostly Telugu and Sanskrit kritis at other venues, sing only Tamil keerthanas here.

There are a few organisations that hold Tamil music festivals separately, but the response is not encouraging. (While the Telugu and Sanskrit kritis of the Musical Trinity have been set to music by the composers themselves, Tamil songs—except those of Papanasam Sivan—are sung in different ragams by different singers. Classical pieces become popular only when often repeated in the same tune by all artistes.)

Starting with the Eighties, the sabhas have mushroomed in number. Apart from lecture-demonstrations and concerts, each also confers awards and titles with Sanskrit names: Sangeetha Kalanidhi, Sangeetha Kala Poorna, Sangeetha Choodamani, Sangeetha Kala Nipuna, and so on. Now they are finding it difficult to conjure up Sanskrit titles.

There is another problem as well, a shortage of eligible musicians. Eventually, it is possible that there will be an award for every performer at the festival.

It appears that the sabhas are more focussed on one-upmanship than development of music. At many concerts, especially morning and afternoon programmes, artistes sing to empty rows of seats. It is sad to see such tiny audience: hardly 20 people, mostly friends and relatives of the artistes.

Even in the evening slots at which renowned musicians perform to packed houses, the audience comprises mostly grey-haired Brahmins and, to a lesser extent, youngsters; mainly students of music. During the season, television channels organise music concerts for an invited audience, to be edited and telecast live.

Compared to musicians of the past, today’s artistes are educated and approach the art scientifically. They are technology-savvy, greeting each other with “hi” instead of “Namaskaram”, and know how to hold an audience.

But ardent lovers of music still feel they miss the bhava or feeling in the concerts of these days. They say the rasikas are confined to the elite and Brahmins and music has not reached the masses and the young. So there is a long way to go yet.