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Global recognition could bring invasive tourism to culture hub Chennai

Waltzing into UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network has been no cakewalk and comes with its own unique challenges. But the city isn’t fazed by attention so easily.

analysis Updated: Nov 20, 2017 19:25 IST
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after a dance programme at Kalakshetra, Chennai. The city can boast more than 350 cultural institutions, 25 large institutional performance spaces and several neighbourhood, grassroots venues (HT File)

Following Unesco’s imprimatur on October 31, 2017, Chennai, famed for its rich musical heritage, has joined Unesco’s Creative Cities Network as the Creative City of Music. This network created in 2004 is at the forefront of Unesco’s mandate to foster innovation and creativity as key drivers for sustainable and inclusive urban ecosystems.

The city has been an irresistible force in music since the earliest period of recorded Tamil history. One of the most virtuosic early exponents of Carnatic music was Purandara Das (1484-1564). He laid the foundation of the classificatory systems of raga and tala and of kritis, compositions at the core of the orally transmitted Carnatic repertoire. The immortal kritis of saint-composers from Thanjavur, Thyagaraja, Muttuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri have inspired generations of musicians and continue to be part of the living repertoire of Carnatic music celebrated in festivals such as the Vaggeyakara held in April in different venues in the city.

Music was institutionalised not only within temple precincts but also in gurukulams as part of the guru-shishya tradition. The charm of the classical repertoire still manages to attract Tamil teens brought up with a strong sense of their cultural heritage. Music lives in every home and that’s where they first cut their teeth. Consider young vocalists Anahita and Apoorva, who started their training with their grandmother, Shanti Jayaraman. Srivastha, a flautist who learnt the flute from his father P V Ramana and Ambi Subramaniam, son of Dr L Subramaniam, who proudly traces his musical lineage back to the trinity of singer, saint-composers. Also, Usha Uthup’s granddaughter Ayesha Elizabeth John, AR Rahman’s son Ameen, Akshay Hariharan, Shivam Mahadevan and many others budding musicians.

A fine musical sense is embedded deep into the city’s DNA. There are more than 350 cultural institutions, 25 large institutional performance spaces and several neighbourhood, grassroots venues. The Madras Music Academy, the Narada Gana Sabha, Brahma Gana Sabha, Sri Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha, Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Sir Venkatasubba Rao concert hall, Tamil Isai Sangam and the Kalakshetra Foundation are iconic venues with a distinct old-world charm. Performances also happen in the magical setting of the Kapaleeswarar, Parthasarathy Marundeeswarar and other temples. The Thyagaraja Brahmotsavam is celebrated at the Kapaleeswarar temple for 10 days! Music is played at clubs and resto-bars, at places such as Blend, 10 Downing Street and the Unwind Center that has in the past hosted bands playing grunge, metal and indie and has now become the city’s favoured jam pad for rock musicians.

The city has a serious pedagogical approach to the classical arts to ensure that they remain part of a historically unbroken tradition. In addition to degree and diploma courses available at the Music Department of Madras University and the Kalakshetra Foundation, there are many additional options available at places such as the Madras Music Association, the Madras Music Academy, the Brhaddvani Music Centre and in the home of maestros. Musicians such as T Krishna have been reaching out to tribal, rural and fringe groups, especially groups like the Jogappas, a transgender community of devotional folk performers.

Musically, the season kicks off with a big festival in November, which features a plurality of genres in intimate settings. It works as a preamble to the month-long festival held in December, the Tamil month of Margazhy, traditionally dedicated to spirituality and contemplation. Nurtured by ‘sabhas’ that sprang up in the areas of George Town, Triplicane and Mylapore in its salad days, the festival saw its genesis in 1927 as an adjunct to an Indian National Congress conference. At this time the entire city seems to transform into concert stages with hundreds of performances and epic queues to each one of them.

The city has also been warming up to movements seeking to equalise art and dismantle its caste-aligned history by moving art, audiences and performances venues away from the largesse of deep-seated privilege. Carnatic singer, T M Krishna, the poster-boy of this movement, provocatively announced that he would boycott the December festival because it has reached an ‘anaesthetic tipping point’. He has been supporting performances being organised in fishing hamlets and at the Chennai Central railway station. The Urur Olcott Kuppam fishing village in South Chennai has been hosting a multi-genre festival since 2015, creating space not only for Carnatic performances but also Silambattam, a martial art and dance form, folk dances and Bharatanatyam danced to the beat of ‘parai’ drums, an instrument associated with Dalit communities.

Waltzing into Unesco’s Creative Cities Network has been no cakewalk and comes with its own unique challenges. The city will have to work within the framework of United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and effectively demonstrate culture’s role as an enabler for building sustainable ecosystems. Chennai has a rich legacy of music, dance, theatre, folk and traditional arts. Unesco’s validation is bound to lead to a tide of invasive tourism, in what is playfully called ‘Unesco-cide’ but Chennai is also not a city that gets easily fazed by attention. It has been splaying itself open, but in a guarded way. Technology has changed the biochemistry of performances and iPhones have begun working as studios. The younger lot of musicians are getting experimental, but many of them continue to find their cool quotient in classical music and dance. Ghatam, khanjira, Thavil, Mugaveenai and other traditional instruments are still in vogue and organisations such as the Kalakshetra have begun restoring their traditional performance spaces. It is evident that Chennai will continue to retain the charm of its classical repertoire even as it dabbles with technology, multiplicity of genres, the quirky and even the implausible.

Sujata Prasad is additional secretary, ministry of culture

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 20, 2017 16:17 IST