Chennai Music Academy | Photo credit: GANESAN V
December live music season again! After two years of uncertainty, Carnatic music, artists and organizers are gearing up to celebrate their art the way they did in pre-Covid times. But is it back to the way it was? Things rarely go back to the way they were after a disaster, which Covid undoubtedly was. Perhaps most affected is an organization called the Sabha, which has been closely identified with Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam for a century.
The Sabha is a product of colonial times. When the patronage of the royal family and aristocracy was essential to the survival of art, a new city like Madras presented challenges – the ruling elite were English and had no intention of supporting artists. The nobility, namely dubashes or translators, provided the necessary support from the 17th century. In the 19th century, a new class of wealthy professionals, including lawyers, businessmen, doctors and accountants, took power with the support of Indians in government, who were the closest thing to what might be called royalty in an egalitarian city. Thus were born the Sabhas – a group of wealthy patrons who came together to support the arts by providing venues and performance opportunities for artists. Beginning with the city of Madras, the concept of the Sabha as a cultural patron spread to other cities in the Presidency. Princely States and samasthanams they got the Sabha quite late.
Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai | Photo credit: K_V_SRINIVASAN
At one time, namely in the 19th century, the suffix Sabha was adopted by any organization that wanted to promote group activity. Madras Mahajana Sabha (founded 1884) was a political organization, Suguna Vilasa Sabha (1891) promoted theatre, Chennapuri Andhra Maha Sabha (1916) advocated culture and sports, and Sukruta Lakshmi Vilasa Sabha was a social club. Even the humble establishments where factory workers sought recreation were known as Sabhas. At one of them, the Venkatesa Gunamritabhivarshini Sabha in Perambur, the Madras Labor Union, the first in India, was born. Today, Sabhas are most closely associated with classical music and dance.
Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha Building in Triplicane | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives
The decades immediately after independence were the best for the Sabhas. Faced with the end of princely patronage and the simultaneous onslaught of cinema, musicians and dancers looked to the Sabhas for support. There were many opportunities – the Sabhas did not function only in December. Throughout the year there were events of a different kind — the Rama Navami, Gokulashtami and Navaratri series and the mid-year festivals. In fact, many elders like the Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha, Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha, Sri Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha and Narada Gana Sabha did not participate in the December music season at all, leaving the field to the Music Academy, the Indian Society of Fine Arts and the Tamil Isai Sangam. You just have to compare it with today’s situation. Very few offer year-round events; they focus most on December. And then we have what the late R. Krishnaswami of Narada Gana Sabha referred to as ‘night operators’ – those who suddenly appear every December, host a series somewhere and then disappear.
Tamil Isai Sangam in Chennai | Photo credit: VEDHAN M
Ask Sabha and they blame it on poor audience response. With the many entertainment channels that exist today, going all the way to Sabha for a concert is probably a lower priority unless the artist is the main crowd puller. And even if an artist is popular, there are YouTube and other online channels that offer the artist’s music. Some musicians started to solve this by going online themselves, and a few felt the need to monetize it. Sponsorships can probably cover the cost of the technology, but offering free concerts to audiences who can afford it won’t be good for art and artists in the long run. The Sabhas must consider this. Most older artists object to their concerts being available for free, and some have opened their own exclusive paid channels. Then where is the need for the Sabha?
Post-Covid, there are two likely scenarios – the first where the web-weary audience heads to Sabhas and the second where people increasingly accustomed to free online offerings stay at home. The latter would effectively spell the end of the Sabha as we know it. However, it is up to the organizers to really come up with corrective measures. One way or another, art will survive as it survived before the coming of the Sabha.
Author, historian based in Chennai, writes on music and culture.