Today I would like to share with you the very interesting story behind our unique Margazhi festival and how the Sabha Culture developed in Chennai.
A long time ago, Carnatic musicians in Tamil Nadu used to live in Kumbakonam, Thanjavur, Trichy, Tirunelveli, and other such distant places. They would travel far and wide to perform, even the nadaswaram players.
They would perform at temple festivals, at weddings of families and at semi-private events hosted by the well-to-do and influential people. Usually, temples were the prime venues for Carnatic musicians to perform and people would come in hordes to listen to these musicians.
As Chennai expanded and became a metro, newspapers and magazines gained popularity. Artists performing in Chennai began to be written about and spoken about in the influential circles of Madras, as it was then called. The demand for the artist would increase manifold times. And since a metro is a congregation of a larger number of people (as opposed to smaller towns), musicians found a larger audience base of rasikas here in Chennai. So, they started migrating to Chennai. The early artists settled near George Town and Parry’s. Then Mylapore and Triplicane became the hub for musicians to live in. In fact, there is a saying that goes – “If you walk along the streets skirting Kapaleeshwarar Temple, every door houses a musician.“
Gradually, Sabhas started forming. Sabhas were organisations where groups of people would come together, hire a hall like the Museum Theatre, or have it at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, and sell tickets for shows. They would then use the proceeds to host concerts.
The Sabha Culture has been a great upholder of Carnatic Music – before a senior artist would perform, there would be a 1-hour performance by a junior artist who would get a platform and a rasika base to showcase their talents to. This way, Sabhas provided both a forum for the upcoming artists as well as a platform for established artists to gain more fame.
The first-ever December Season concert took place in Chennai (then Madras) in 1927 when along with the conference of the Indian National Congress, a Carnatic concert was held.
This event also laid the foundations of the Madras Music Academy. After being established, the Music Academy started organising concerts every December. For the first few years, there were no awards given but as it started to grow, the members decided to have awards for the discussions and debates that would take place and they also elected a President of the Music Academy who would lead and manage the growing organisation.
Later, the coveted award of Sangeetha Kalanidhi came into being. The person awarded this prestigious title is a senior musician and a leader who is thoroughly skilled in performance as well as highly knowledgeable in academics and theory.
So, friends, this is how our Margazhi festival and Sabha culture have taken shape over the years into how we know them today.