Asian Music and Dance

Chennai December Season – New Trends

The ‘Margazhi’ month in Chennai (formerly Madras), heralds the most profuse outpouring of music and dance in India. Scholar and critic Dr Sunil Kothari has observed the Season for forty years and comments on the dance elements of this hydra-headed manifestation.

It has been going on for the past eighty years, only the scale keeps getting bigger. The Music Academy of Madras, the original instigators of a week-long Season, has watched it proliferate into a three-month feast of a festival.

Over 1,500 performances of music and dance to the ratio of 70:30 predominantly of Carnatic music and bharatanatyam dance take place in auditoria and every available community hall.

Over the decades the Madras/Chennai Season has provided the platform for legendary dancers and musicians: the late Balasaraswathi, Dr Padma Subrahamanyam, Vyajanthimala Bali, Chitra Visweswaran, Sudharani Raghupathy, Lakshmi Viswanathan. The Season has also given space to scholarly debate and lecture-demonstrations of dance forms from other parts of India so that less well-known genres such as gotipua, chau and sattriya could be presented before a group of academics and professionals.


A unique institution called sabha rules in Chennai. A sabha is between a committee and an organisation that raises funds through membership fees, ticket sales and corporate sponsorship. It also selects the artists and promotes the performances.

Earlier there were fifteen sabhas, now there are more than seventy. Not all are registered. Some enjoy a great reputation: Krishna Gana Sabha, Narada Gana Sabha, Kartik Fine Arts, Bharata Kalachar and Brahma Gana Sabha to name a few.

Role of Krishna Gana Sabha

Krishna Gana Sabha has played a seminal role in developing the debate and discourse in dance through their annual Natya Kala Conference which started in 1979. The convenors have been synonymous with dance practitioner-scholars such as Dr Padma Subrahmanyam who undertook the responsibility for three years and aroused great enthusiasm for presenting and discussing technical aspects of the dance styles. The Conference also features presentations of other classical forms through lecture-demonstrations, giving a wider perspective to the dance sector. 

“NKC has become a benchmark for dance scholarship.”

Conference convenors have included Dr Kanak Rele, Dr Sonal Mansingh, Anita Ratnam, Bharati Shivaji, CV Chandrasekhar and VP Dhananjayan. The winners of the Nritya Choodamani award are invited to become the curators for a two-year term. NKC has become a benchmark for dance scholarship attracting serious practitioners and connoisseurs from across India and the world.

The quantity versus quality debate

The number of performances has mushroomed. There are hundreds of bharatanatyam dancers waiting in the wings. Even an audience of less than twenty does not seem to dampen the aspirant’s spirit. Thirty years ago, Balasaraswathi performed on 31 December at Music Academy. After that the slot went to Vyjayanthimala. There was never a problem about drawing a crowd to their shows. Today the top five bharatanatyam dancers still attract full houses: Alarmel Valli, Malavika Sarukkai, Priyadarshini Govind, Urmila Sathyanarayana (all from Chennai) and Rama Vaidyanthan (from New Delhi) are the ‘dancing divas’. All these five dancers have carved their own niche and are a part of the Season. The high level of their performances, technical virtuosity, creating new repertoire within the tradition is indicative of the young generation’s creativity, independence and confidence.

“All five ‘dancing divas’ … have carved their own niche.”

Sponsor Godfather of Dance

For the last three years Vital Springs, a private firm in Washington, with their Director Mr Sreedhar Potarazu has helped the Music Academy to mount a nine-day festival of classical dances at their excellent auditorium. The scale and high standards of the event have helped to draw other sponsorship such as The Hindu and audience figures have improved. Not only have the prominent local senior dancers from Chennai been presented, but also dancers from abroad such as Ramli Ibrahim (Malaysia) and Gauri Sharma Tripathi (UK).

Role of Sruti and The Hindu

A most hopeful thing happened during these thirty years – Sruti monthly magazine for dance and music appeared on the scene. It created quite an excitement. No other journal in recent memory has won over the dancers and musicians the way Sruti has. Even after the founder/editor Dr Pattabhiraman has passed away, it has survived and continues to provide excellent reading.

“No other journal … has won over the dancers and musicians the way Sruti has.”

One misses the acerbic criticism of Subbudu, who ‘ruled the roost’ during the Season. Now several critics from the young generation have sprung up, as The Hindu newspaper devotes a lot of space in additional supplements during the Season.

A loss

A sad thing is Anita Ratnam’s The Other Festival, which presented contemporary dances, has folded up. Her partner Ranvir Shah has expanded its scope with his Prakriti Foundation, embracing poetry, theatre, scholarly lectures and demonstrations. But one misses The Other Festival which had a distinct signature in a city where there is emphasis on bharatanatyam, bharatanatyam and bharatanatyam. Also it is sad that of late, kuchipudi is rarely featured in any sabha during the Season.

Impact of Kalakshetra

The Annual Arts Festival at Kalakshetra coincides with the Season gaining from the visitor inflow at this time of the year. The institution, under the dynamic leadership of Leela Samson during the past five years, has succeeded in reiterating faith in Rukmini Devi’s ideals. No institution in India has the excellent pedagogy of training with a holistic approach as Kalakshetra has. Leela has launched several welcome initiatives, including research projects and special programmes for children. The Annual Arts Festival now includes besides Rukmini Devi’s dance-dramas, choreographic works of artists like Priti Patel (Manipuri), Madhavi Mudgal, Aruna Mohanty (odissi), Aditi Mangaldas (kathak), Sadanam Balakrishnan (kathakali resident artist), Astad Deboo (contemporary), and Kalakshetra artist Srijith Krishna’s choreographic work Man in the Iron Mask, the first work ever with recorded music to be mounted at Kalakshetra.

The Non-Resident Indian Dancer

Practitioners living outside of India naturally want to be part of the biggest gathering of Indian dance in the world. Dancers like Rathna Kumar (kuchipudi) from Houston, Hema Rajagopalan (bharatanatyam) from Chicago, Mythili Prakash, daughter of bharatanatyam exponent Viji Prakash from Los Angeles (she divides her time between Chennai and Los Angeles), are now a part of the Chennai Season. Hamsdhwani sabha has specifically sprung up for NRI dancers. 

“Hamsdhwani sabha has specifically sprung up for NRI dancers.” 

From London, Mavin Khoo, Anusha Subramanyam and last year also Shobana Jeyasingh appeared at the Season. A steady stream of NRI dancers, from the USA, the UK, Australia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Singapore regularly perform in Chennai during the Season.


The Chennai Season shall, as I see from year to year, continue to enchant the rasikas, the connoisseurs. The Mayalapuri mamis in their conjeevaram colourful silks and flashing diamond nose rings will continue to cast a spell, reassuring that both classical bharatanatyam dance and Carnatic music are ‘gifts of the gods’ to lucky ‘Chennaiwalas’ and those visitors who make the journey.



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