Cappuccino and zucchini happily co-exist with kaapi and keerai. Just like pop and rumba rub shoulders with Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. Gowri Ramnarayan on how this city has beautifully retained its age-old identities
A prodigal Madrasi returning to the city after say, 30 years of exile, may not even recognise the metro of traffic jam and shopping mall. Is this the town where girls in pavadai-davani were home by 5? And twilight saw streets timid and silent? Where little brown sparrows chirped incessantly? Where temples echoed to nadaswaram strains, not to deafening blasts of recorded bhajans? And the azaan, a soulful call in mosques innocent of mikes?
However, a few aspects are left unchanged. Flats have replaced gracious villas, but their front yards still sparkle with pulli kolam. For the new Chennai-ite, the day starts with jogging, but filter kaapi is a must. Air-conditioned supermarkets abound, spilling everything from apricot to zucchini, but thekeerai vendor’s singsong cry continues to signal brisk bargaining.
Chennai remains the indisputable haven of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. Yearlong performance festivals abound, though the frenzy peaks in the December season, as it did 70 years ago. Concerts are held everywhere — from Adyar to Anna Nagar, Tiruvanmiyur to Triplicane. Temple courtyards resound with Kedaragowlai and Kalyani, salangai and sollukattu.
The place to be!
Call yourself Bombay Brothers or Delhi Sisters but if you are a Carnatic musician, Chennai is the place to be. Unlike North Indian pandits and ustads who make fleeting trips to India from homes abroad, the Carnatic musician has to be a Chennai-ite to get world recognition.
More recently, we have witnessed the phenomenon of dancers from London and Paris, not just coming to train, but opting to live in Chennai, cycling through Adyar, shopping in Mylapore, haunting idli kadais in Abhiramapuram. In a T. Nagar sabha, the young singer in mayilkan veshti announces the raga in accents reminiscent of Comedy Central talk shows. He has deserted his Chicago home for a Chennai flat!
True, this exodus began in early 20th Century as artistes from temple towns and courts came to Madaras pattinam in search of fame and patronage. We also know how two Madras institutions launched in the pre-Independence era, played key roles in the cultural renaissance, which, in turn, fed nationalist aspirations.
How natural for the Music Academy to originate from the concert series held for the delegates of the Indian National Congress in the 1920s! As royal patronage dwindled, and State support stayed non-existent, musicians began to rely on the general public. The Music Academy became a pillar of that phenomenon so unique to Madras — the sabha. The Academy did not merely provide a kutcheriplatform. Its critical debates and theoretical analyses raised standards of artistic excellence, heightened audience awareness. Present day lec-dems by T.M. Krishna and R.K. Shriramkumar pack the morning hall just as T.L. Venkatarama Iyer and Professor Sambamurthy did with their titanic battles.
Punsters joking about the "Meccademy” know that for all its stodginess, the institution commands rapt veneration. To step on its dais — then as now — is every newcomer’s fantasy. From Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer to Sudha Ragunathan, winning the Academy’s Sangita Kalanidhi title is the veteran’s dream.
No prizes for guessing that Kalakshetra is the second great influence on the city’s cultural scene. Starting with a single teacher (Minakshisundaram Pillai), a singular student (Rukmini Devi Arundale) under a banyan tree in the tranquil Theosophical Society’s campus-by-the-sea (1936), Kalakshetra shaped a way of life, a world view, and values aesthetic and spiritual. From knee-length practice sari to sophisticated lighting design and elegant stage decor, Kalakshetra evolved its own stylistics in performance and presentation. No Indian dancer is exempt from the impact of this world renowned centre.
But the institution’s influence is not confined to evolving pedagogical structures and innovative choreography. It brought its own brand of emancipation, freeing housebound Madras women of every class to pursue an art form until then confined to the courtesan community, and turn professional artistes if they so wished. Adyar saw pyjama-clad girls cycling unescorted through the lonely avenues to study and perform with male classmates. For Rukmini Devi, gender equality had another side to it: she encouraged male dancers to take up a genre conventionally practised by women artistes.
Chennai claims to be the cultural capital of India. This can be justified not only by its plethora of resident artistes, but equally by its audience of connoisseurs. Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar once explained why: "Parents in Madras may want their children to become doctors and engineers, but they also make sure their sons and daughters learn to play the violin or mridangam, dance and sing.” Thepaattu vaadyaars and dance gurus of old Madras who went from home to home to instil some knowledge of the arts in the children they taught are no more. But music/dance schools, YouTube andrasika dotcoms, Skype, blog and Facebook, continue to develop a passionate love of the performing arts among Chennai dwellers; and in lovers of the arts rooted in Chennai, living in distant lands.