Dance writer Isabel Putinja who has taken up residence in Bangalore via London and Brussels, writes from first-hand experience about five of the top festivals in India. She provides practical tips, particularly for first-timers.
Winter in India is a time when temperatures dip and tourist numbers peak. It’s also the season for music and dance festivals. From November to February, each corner of the country resonates to the sound of musical notes and dancers’ bells. Some of India’s most prominent and celebrated festivals of music and dance are highlighted in this guide.
Chennai December Season
Every winter, dance and music enthusiasts from all over the world flock to Chennai in Tamil Nadu, South India for its annual festival of music and dance. This is the biggest festival of South Indian music and dance in India – and the world. Over a four-month period, over 2,500 performances and concerts are staged by seventy-five sabhas. The festival also attracts music- and dance-lovers from all over India and the world, many of whom attend every year.
The festival started in December 1927 with the All-India Music Conference organised by the Indian National Congress Party. At this time, the prestigious Madras Music Academy was founded, and a music festival was subsequently held there every December. Since then, more and more sabhas (musical organisations) have hosted their own festivals, in parallel to that of the Music Academy.
To perform during the December Season is considered a great privilege for artists. Here you can see all the big names in carnatic music and dance, as well as young up-and-coming artists. Most of the concerts feature carnatic vocalists, but also carnatic flute, veena, violin and other ‘non-traditional’ instruments such as saxophone, mandolin, guitar and keyboard. Though most of the dance performances feature bharatanatyam, other dance styles such as mohiniattam, kuchipudi, kathak and odissi are also showcased.
Though it’s called the ‘December Season’ sabhas already start showcasing concerts and dance performances from November. The festival climaxes during the second half of December and then stretches through January and well into February.
There are over seventy-five sabhas across the city with most concentrated in and around the neighbourhoods of Mylapore and T Nagar. Each stages its own festival which runs from a few weeks to over a month. As new sabhas are formed, the festival is slowly spreading to other parts of Chennai. Some of the most prestigious include The Music Academy, Narada Gana Sabha and Krishna Gana Sabha.
- The Music Academy Music Festival during the second half of December presents day-long programmes of music featuring the biggest names in carnatic music.
- The Natya Kala Conference at Krishna Gana Sabha from the 26th to the 31st of December brings together dance-lovers, critics and academics for a week of lecture-demonstrations and discussions between artists and rasikas.
- The Kalakshetra Dance Festival during the second half of December presents a select and eclectic programme of performances of classical dance and music.
- The Music Academy Dance Festival from the 3rd to the 9th of January is the most prestigious dance festival showcasing India’s leading dancers from all dance styles.
- The food! Food is an integral part of the Season. Pre- and post-concert discussions take place over plates of idlis and cups of filter coffee in the sabha canteens.
Tickets are available at the respective sabhas. Prices can vary from Rs. 50 to Rs. 1000 (0.67 to 14 GBP) depending on where you choose to sit. It is usually not necessary to reserve in advance, but for some of the most popular artists it is a good idea to queue up early or buy your ticket a day or two before. Some sabhas offer season passes which are a good idea if you plan to attend their programmes on a daily basis. Some performances are free.
The daily events page in The Hindu newspaper provides a comprehensive list of everything going on.
Kutcheribuzz publishes a handy guide to the Season featuring the performance schedules of all the major artists.
Schedules start to appear from October on the following websites:
Conveniently located only a few steps away from The Music Academy, the New Woodlands Hotel is a favourite among Season regulars as well as musicians from out of town.
Sawai Gandharva Sangeet Mahotsav, Pune
For music-lovers in the city of Pune, Maharashtra, the Sawai Gandharva festival is the biggest musical event of the year. This prestigious festival of Indian classical music has been running for the past fifty-eight years. It draws huge crowds of up to 15,000 enthusiastic music-lovers.
It was founded in 1942 by the renowned classical singer Pandit Bhimsen Joshi to commemorate the first death anniversary of his guru, Sawai Gandharva. Each year, some of the most celebrated musicians of Indian classical music, as well as notable younger artists are invited to perform here. Most of the concerts feature hindustani music, with one or two carnatic concerts and occasionally a performance of Indian classical dance. The most sought-after musicians perform on the last day of the festival.
Usually during the second week of December for four days.
The festival is held in the grounds of the New English School in Ramanbaug, Pune under a huge covered tent. Concerts start at 4pm. The music used to go on through the night but this changed when the city authorities imposed restrictions on noise after 11pm.
Tickets and passes are available two weeks in advance from the festival office and selected shops across the city which are usually listed in the newspapers. Tickets for sofa and chair seating sell out in advance. Floor seating tickets are available in advance or each morning from the venue.
The schedule comes out a few weeks beforehand in local papers and the festival website.
Hotel Sapna is a comfortable hotel within walking distance of the festival venue.
Dover Lane Music Conference, Kolkata
Kolkata’s annual Dover Lane Music Conference is a veritable feast for music-lovers. It is India’s best-known music festival featuring all the great stalwarts of hindustani music. It has been showcasing the finest talent in hindustani music for the past fifty-eight years.
The festival had a humble beginning in 1952 as a small neighbourhood festival, which was held in and around Dover Lane, Kolkata. Since then it has grown and evolved to become the city’s premier musical event. This is an annual pilgrimage for Hindustani music-lovers from across India and the globe. The festival draws over 4,000 music-lovers each day.
The programme is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Indian classical music. All the greats have performed here: Hariprasad Chaurasia, Amjad Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Shivkumar Sharma, Ravi Shankar. The last day features the most impressive line-up and is the most attended. The past few editions have always closed with an early morning concert by sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan.
Four days from 22 to 25 January each year.
The festival is held at Nazrul Mancha, Rabindra Sarobar, Kolkata in a tented stadium. Concerts start at 8pm and continue until dawn.
Daily tickets and four-day passes are available. If you’re not a local, it’s difficult to get tickets in advance. Arrive at the venue early each evening to buy a ticket from one of the many re-sellers lingering near the gates.
The schedule is posted on the festival website a few weeks in advance:
There are many hotels and guest-houses in and around Hindustan Park Road in the nearby neighbourhood of Gariahat.
Dhrupad Mela, Varanasi
This annual music festival is dedicated exclusively to the dhrupad genre of Hindustani music. The festival has been running for the past thirty-five years and though smaller in scale, has a faithful following among dhrupad enthusiasts. Most concerts feature vocalists but also solo performances of rudra veena, surbahar and pakhawaj.
Over three nights during Shivaratri which usually falls in February/March. The festival concludes on the day of Shivaratri.
The venue is in the intimate and informal setting of an open-air temple courtyard overlooking the Ganges at Dhrupad Tirth, Tulsi Ghat, Varanasi. Concerts start after 6pm and go on until dawn.
All concerts are free.
The daily schedule is posted at the venue a few hours before the first performance.
The heritage property Hotel Ganges View on neighbouring Assi Ghat is a favourite.
Konark Dance and Music Festival
Founded by odissi guru Gangadhar Pradhan, the Konark Dance and Music Festival celebrated its twenty-fifth edition this year. The festival features an eclectic mix of performances of classical and folk dance, as well as concerts of Indian classical music by top performers from Orissa and other parts of India.
The open-air theatre features a stunning stage with a replica of the Sun Temple as a backdrop. The festival attracts a large audience of dance-lovers from Orissa, other parts of India and abroad.
Five days from 19 to 23 February each year.
Konark Natya Mandap, Arka Vihar, in the town of Konark, Orissa famous for its Sun Temple.
All performances are free.
The programme schedule is posted on the festival website a few weeks in advance:
Yathri Nivas Hotel Konark run by the Orissa Tourism Department is within walking distance of the festival venue.
- Elephanta Festival (Music & Dance), February, Elephanta Island, Mumbai
- Khajuraho Dance Festival, February, MP
- Nishagandhi Festival (Music & Dance), February, Kerala
- Natyanjali Dance Festival, during Shivaratri (February/March) in Chidambaram/Thanjavur/Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu
- Sankat Mochan (Music & Dance), April, Varanasi, UP
- Raindrops Festival of Indian Classical Dances, July, Mumbai
- Parampara Festival (Music & Dance), August, New Delhi
- Dharani Kalotsav (Music & Dance), November, Kochi, Kerala
- Mamallapuram Dance Festival in December/January, Tamil Nadu
- Swaralaya Dance & Music Festival, November, Palakkad, Kerala
- Bangalore Habba (Music & Dance), December, Bangalore