The annual Chennai Music Season is a prime driver by which India’s sophisticated musical tradition influences culture on a global scale
By Sudarshan Ramabadran, Chennai
The chennai music season has positioned music as one of India’s major soft power assets. This annual two-month music festival begins in the Tamil month of Margazhi (mid December through mid January), when temperatures in the city are coolest and most pleasant. Nowhere else in Asia is classical music given such a grand forum: Chennai has historically hosted some 1,500 to 2,000 concerts over the six to nine weeks of the season (bit.ly/CSPPramod). The recently concluded season hosted nearly 3,800 concerts and performances at 90-plus locations in Chennai, with an estimated attendance of 50,000 across all venues (bit.ly/CSPLakshmi).
The Chennai Music Season is reputedly older than the Edinburgh International Festival and almost as old as the Salzburg Festival (both canceled for 2020 on account of the COVID-19 pandemic). Its origins are associated with freedom fighter and Indian National Congress leader S. Satyamurty and the formal establishment of The Music Academy in the city. Satyamurthy, who was well connected with the musical community, successfully proposed a music conference in conjunction with the India National Congress Party’s 1927 session in Madras. Largely due to his influential position, this became an annual event.
Noted historian and author V. Sriram writes, “S. Satyamurty was a famed lawyer, theatre actor, orator and freedom fighter. Given his friendship with the musical fraternity, he pressed for the organizing of an All India Music Conference to coincide with the party session. This was agreed, and the conference and exhibition of musical instruments were held at the Spur Tank, Madras, beginning from 24 December 1927. Concerts were held at a pandal erected in the Spur Tank, and conference deliberations were held at the Museum Theatre” (bit.ly/CSPSriram).
The Music Academy was set up in the following year, 1928; and in 1929, the annual Chennai Music Season was institutionalized. Countless organizations, artists and enthusiastic audiences have since participated to help make the Chennai Music Season what it is today. Artists and audiences converge on the city not only from all over India but from all over the world. Other music festivals are held elsewhere in India from time to time, but the magnitude of Chennai’s event has not been replicated in any other part of the country.
Sixty-plus full-time organizations and part-time participants help curate and organize the Music Season. Several temples in the city lend their premises for performances. Others with an integral role in shaping the Chennai Music Season, especially in times to come, are entrepreneurs, other private industry, civil society and the tourism and hospitality industries.
Notable among the numerous sabhas (music organizations) involved is the Tamil Isai Sangam, which has strengthened the Season and significantly ensured that Tamil music, culture and lyrics are not diluted. C. N. Annadurai, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, has urged Tamil singers, artists and musicians to propagate the music of the state in its native language and contemporize it with changing times. To accomplish this, he suggested the Sangam explore the idea of incorporating additional themes, possibly even including Tamil warriors (bit.ly/CSPAnnadurai).
The Season as India’s Soft Power Asset
The inaugural address for the recent Season was given by S. Iswaran, Singapore’s Minister for Communications and Information. Underlining the worldwide impact of this annual event, Iswaran mentioned particularly its enormous benefit to the Indian diaspora. He further pointed out the tremendous scope for strengthening this impact in the future (bit.ly/CSPArt).
Toward this end, in December 2019 the Center for Soft Power initiated a unique concept called the “Music Inspired by India Series.” In one event, CSP hosted Ahsan Niloy, a Dhrupad singer from Bangladesh, who has moved to India to learn from the Gundecha brothers in Bhopal. Niloy is committed to bringing India and Bangladesh closer through cultural relations.
Two gifted bass guitarists and musicians from France, Pascal Lovergne and Stefan Orins, consistently visit Chennai during the annual Music Season. In the recently concluded Season they performed in collaboration with some leading musicians. There are many cases of such reverse migration, where musicians from Western countries come to India to spend time during the Season and learn the art form. That is soft power in action—organic, without force or coercion.
To give a further sense of the impact of the Chennai Music Season, the Center for Soft Power is implementing a dream project called “Chennai Soft Power 30” to document the experiences of Indian artists while touring abroad and their success in proliferating Indian culture through their art. To date, almost twenty interviews have been completed as part of this project.
One CSP30 episode features Vikku Vinayakram, renowned master of the ghatam, a clay pot used as a percussion instrument (bit.ly/CPS30Vikku). On his first trip out of India, Vikku accompanied the legendary M. S. Subbulakshmi in a concert to promote world peace at the United Nations. He mentions that Zakir Hussain has become like a brother to him, even though the rhythm of their instruments is their only common language. Other artists documented in the CSP30 series include child piano legend Lydian Nadhaswaram and Dr. Narthaki Nataraj, the first transgender artist to be awarded the Padma Shri.
The Music Season Needs a Makeover
It is important that the Chennai Music Season keep up with the times to be even better. Toward this end, I offer four suggestions:
1) The Season must nurture social cohesion. The Chennai Music Season is commonly perceived to be steered and attended by the elite, and only accessible to certain sections of society. I think it imperative that this image and modus operandi change to foster and promote social cohesion. This is one of the main reasons that UNESCO has placed Chennai on the Creative Cities Network.
Existing efforts toward this goal include the Urur-Olcott Kuppam concerts and certain other events around the city coinciding with the Season as part of the Chennai Smart City project; but the organizations involved in steering the Season itself could well take a lead. For example, they could curate theme-based performances focused on social reformers such as Nandanar and Ayyankali. This could also be done for a particular week by a particular organization. We must also encourage the attendance of socially disadvantaged children so they may educate themselves in music and the performing arts. Some leading artists are already empowering children in this way, but more is needed.
2) Innovate to attract youth and millennials. Chennai can be proud of organizing the largest private Music Season in India, but innovation is needed in order to increase attendance by the youth, especially millennials.
3) Seek more private investment from entrepreneurs. Organizers must envisage a sustained long-term plan to convince the moneyed to invest in performing arts and music as potent soft power tools that will catapult the nation’s brand.
4) Work together on all levels to brand the Season as one of India’s major soft power assets. Every organization involved in the Season should join hands with the government at the central and state levels, and all relevant players must position the Chennai Music Season as one of India’s global soft power brands in the years to come. The media and film fraternity should also be enlisted to help in this effort.
In 2016 alone, the tourism industry supported close to 40 million jobs, according to the World Economic Forum. Transforming the Chennai Music Season into a global cultural brand will certainly strengthen the tourism industry and contribute to job opportunities. As a model, participants in this effort might explore the Indian government’s successful branding of the 2019 Kumbh Mela by taking ambassadors from various countries serving in Delhi to the event in Prayagraj.
Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, former president of India, once said, “Music can become a medium of national development, for great music not only acts as a pain-remover but also has a social responsibility” (bit.ly/CSPKalamMusic). Now is the time for India to step up her game and use music as a tool to enable greater social cohesion. And to the extent that this endeavor is successful, the strength of India’s music as a global soft power will be immeasurably enhanced.
Music Bridges the World’s Cultural Divides
S oft power is that unique aspect of a country’s foreign policy comprising elements of their culture that other countries and citizens want to learn from or adopt. Music and the other performing arts have always been embedded into India’s soft power story and narrative, not only because of those who wish to learn and perform, but equally those who sit, listen, watch and admire. It is evident in UNESCO’s rich description of the city of Chennai and its culture that music has always formed an intrinsic part of city life, and that one of its aims is to ensure social cohesion in the best possible way (bit.ly/CSPChennai).
The Chinese philosopher Hu Shih (1891-1962) famously said, “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border (bit.ly/CSPShih).”
Leading musicians and performing artists who have contributed significantly, not just to the Chennai music and performing arts scene but to the world of performing arts at large, include M. S. Subbulakshmi, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, T. M. Krishna, Padma Subrahmanyam, Trichur Brothers, Dr. Narthaki Nataraj, Nritya Pillai, Aruna Sairam, Bombay Jayashri, Abhishek Raghuram, Sid Sriram, Anita Ratnam and Anil Srinivasan, as well as countless other instrumentalists, dancers and vocalists.
To understand the power of music, consider the the famous 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, organized by Ravi Shankar and George Harrison at Madison Square Garden in New York. Music helped the international community understand the plight of the refugees of then East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) with a power that neither of the media platforms then available—TV and print—could match. Therein lies the power of music: its ability to speak and communicate.
David Ludden, a psychology professor, has pointed out that musicians can communicate with music across cultural and linguistic boundaries in ways that one can’t possibly do with ordinary languages. He goes on to argue that with pitch and tempo, music can contribute to conveying basic emotions such as happiness or sadness (bit.ly/LuddenPT). Abhishek Raghuram, an accomplished and much-loved young singer from Chennai, seconded this view, saying Indian music can indeed converse with any form or system of music in the world (bit.ly/CSP30Abhishek).
Popular Chennai musicians are pioneering new programs to extend the reach of Indian music. Pianist Anil Srinivasan’s Rhapsody educational series reaches 60,000 children in South India. His approach integrates music into the school syllabus in innovative ways. For instance, one can learn both arithmetic and geography through music (bit.ly/CPS30Anil). This effort has been so successful that schools in London are adopting the same methodology.
The 2018 Soft Power 30 report by Portland Communications and the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy mentions the key role of music in advancing a nation’s brand: “A nation’s brand is much more credible when exported by athletes, musicians, artists and businesses, than by politicians” (bit.ly/CSPSP30).
In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2016 tour of Central Asian countries including Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, he was enthralled by encountering the popularity of Indian music during his meetings with most dignitaries of these countries (bit.ly/CSPAjay).
Though the impact of music in its various forms has been widely recognized, we should undertake a systematic study of its usefulness as an important facet or instrument of international relations. Some experts have described music as a tool of soft power diplomacy since the advent of the 17th century (bit.ly/CSPZawisa). And during the Cold War period, the US sent jazz bands on music tours to foster an understanding of societies founded on pluralistic values and identities.
Indian music, with its variety of forms, has had a rich history from a civilizational point of view. According to Bharatanatyam dancer Dr. Narthaki Nataraj (a holder of the coveted Padma Shri award), the ancient Tamil text Silapathikaram expounds in great detail the significance of a variety of art forms and their aesthetics.
Shashank Subramanyam, acclaimed flutist and Grammy nominee, underscored the power of music during an interview with the India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power: “This is the identity of India. It is a great asset we have that has been recognized. Indian art forms like music and dance have always fascinated people from outside India. And, the revenue that Indian musicians bring into the country is huge. Music is quite a power to reckon with” (bit.ly/CSP30ShashakSu).
Music as a Cultural Influencer
The chanting of om, drone of the tanpura, seven notes in Indian classical music and the melodies of Bollywood all have one thing in common: their ability to bypass the confines of language, ethnicity, age and other markers of individuality.
Music permeates through language and cultural barriers in a way that economic, technical or even military influence cannot. Eoin Hennessy notes, “America’s power over the music industry transcends language barriers. Americans held 71% of Germany’s top hits between 1965 and 2006, while they also held 78% of the Netherland’s.” Other examples of influence include sitar maestro Ravi Shankar’s effect on the Beatles and the Japanese craze for American jazz. When music captures the minds and hearts of listeners, it becomes a part of distant countries’ shared histories.
Performing artists are global ambassadors of music. Laden with powerful emotion, music impacts audiences at a core human level that transcends time and space. Indian classical music, as experienced in the Chennai Music Season, is devotional. The Carnatic compositions, filled with bhakti and technical genius, are a rich cultural treasure trove. A Hindustani classical concert similarly allows connoisseurs to enjoy the nuances of each raga.
Popular forms include film and folk music, as well as newer genres such as Carnatic rock or Bollywood devotional. These appeal to people of diverse cultural backgrounds, which can be experienced first-hand when taxi drivers from Iran or Indonesia sing a line from a famous Hindi film song, sharing that it was one of their childhood favorites.
Just as yoga and meditation bypassed all obstacles to become firmly entrenched in the US and Europe, music from India has become rooted in various parts of the globe. Indian music in the diaspora can be found not only in its traditional genres, but in ever-evolving forms. Recently, Hollywood’s remake of Disney’s Aladdin featured long, dramatic Bollywood song-and-dance sequences. Another example is the Indo-Caribbean genre of Chutney, a mixture of Bhojpuri and local Caribbean music.
By Lakshmi Chandrashekar Subramanian