Can the December music festival sustain its current size?

Every year, the Chennai Music season starts as early as November and ends in January. The peak period of the festival is from 15 December to 3 January. I was in Chennai briefly and attended the festival after a gap of four years, and I was keen to experience any innovations that may have been made. One of the hot topics of discussion (especially post-COVID) among Carnatic music enthusiasts is the dwindling response to concerts in the Margazhi season.


The current size of the festival

The Chennai December Festival is largely about Carnatic Music, and some dance performances feature in some sabhas. Dance performances are plenty post 3 January and that needs a separate analysis. This article only focuses on the music side of the festival.

Typically, there are vocal concerts and some instrumental (mainly violin, veena, and flute). Is this the largest music festival in the world? If you go by the number of attendees, perhaps the largest is Donauinselfest in Austria, which is attended by more than three million people over three days. No official statistic is available on the number of attendees of the Chennai Festival, but it can't be anywhere close to this number. However, let us see the scale of the just concluded season (2023-24)  on other parameters.

I have taken this data from a brochure of 248 pages done by Shreya Nagarajan Singh Arts Development Consultancy for this season. The festival's duration was well over 60 days, though the peak was 16 December 2023 to 1 January 2024, where there were over 1200 concerts, translating to about 70 concerts a day.

The total estimated number of concerts from 1 December to 31 January was about 2200. It is difficult to estimate the number of attendees. Auditoriums where the concerts are held vary in capacity from 50 to 1700: TTK auditorium in The Music Academy perhaps being the largest.

It is not known how many performing artists take part. Considering the number of concerts, I would estimate there must be over 200 of them from across the country and even the US/Singapore. How does this compare with the statistics of past years? I looked at an analysis presented in Sruti on the 1994 and 2004 seasons, along with the figures I compiled for 2023. Data is for the period 1 December to 31 January.


Number of organisations











Note: These figures are from previously published articles in Sruti for 1994 and 2004. Figures for 2023 is from Margazhi Guide by Shreya Nagarajan Singh Arts Development Consultancy. The numbers include dance concerts, though most are Carnatic Music concerts.

Interestingly, though there is a reduction in the number of sabhas organising Margazhi concerts, the total number of concerts has only increased. Many organisations that conducted concerts in 2004 have either closed down or stopped doing Margazhi concerts. I could talk to some of them. Kalarasana said that they have not conducted concerts after the pandemic. Some others said that their organisations are barely able to survive and cannot hold concerts because of a substantial drop in audience interest. One of the reasons cited for this is the Covid interruption in 2020-21.

I asked the secretary of a struggling sabha what could possibly be done to revive interest. She said, "Only God can help". In the last few years, many new organisers have also come up. I attended a few concerts this year. Apart from wanting to enjoy some good music, I always try to attend concerts by emerging artists.

Dwindling audience numbers

Most sabhas have a problem with audience strength. Sometimes, there are more people on stage than in the audience. "This year, we have almost 20% less audience than last year", is what the canteen supervisor of one of the leading sabhas told me. If the canteen had 20% less, concerts may have had a more significant reduction, considering that many visit only the canteens. In the afternoon slot, I was at a concert by a young vocalist at Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha. I had read good reviews of this young vocalist. Blessed with a melodious voice, she gave an impressive performance to about ten audience members. Later, I met her father and asked him how she motivates herself after seeing such a low turnout. He said, "We are used to it" was his one-line response. The tone was one of resignation. The violinist who accompanied her comes from Delhi every year for the season. That noon, since it was 1 January, there was an elaborate lunch in the canteen, priced at INR 900. There was a long queue. And in the concert, I saw just about 10 people, some of them also taking a nap.

I attended two concerts at The Music Academy, one ticketed and another in the non-ticketed slot. The artists were Ananya Ashok and Amrutha Venkatesh. Ananya is an experienced artist and trains under the maestro T.N. Seshagopalan. She has performed in India, the US and many other countries. Thanks to a less-than-half-full TTK hall at The Music Academy, I could sit in the first row. Amrutha Venkatesh is a vocalist who has made rapid strides in the last few years. A student of Prince Rama Varma, she can read and write Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, the three main languages in which there are compositions. For her concert (ticketed), I was in the balcony seat at The Music Academy – only 30% full. The downstairs was also not occupied to full capacity.

The distribution of number of concerts over the period 1 December to 31 January is also skewed.


Some concerts that attracted a larger audience were Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Ranjani-Gayatri, Ramakrishnan Murthy, Trichur Brothers, Abhishek Raghuram. There were also excellent artists who saw a thin audience – Nisha Rajagopalan, Sumithra vasudev, amongst others.


A concert at Dakshinamurthy Auditorium featuring Sikkil Gurcharan, Anil Srinivasan and Sumesh Narayanan had a packed hall, and the audience was not all grey-haired! These are all young artists willing to experiment and, at the same time, adept at traditional Carnatic Music formats. For example, Sumesh has also been performing with his Indo-Fusion music band called the "Sparsh Quartet". From the moment we entered the auditorium, it was magical. The concert's theme was Krishnam. All elements that make listening a blissful experience seemed to have come together in utmost harmony.

 A Carnatic Quartet

The team brought together two distinct instrumental art forms and uniquely explored their range and melody. Nagaswaram and violin are played in very different contexts generally: one at weddings and temple festivals, and the other in closed door venues and yet gel seamlessly at a concert by artists -Shreya Devnath (violin), Mylai Karthikeyan (nagasawaram), Praveen Sparsh (mridangam) and Adyar Silambarasan (tavil). Their concert was in a beautiful little garden setting. The venue was filled to capacity.

These two concert experiences showed that it is possible to draw larger audiences, provided artists cater to a wider range of age groups, without compromising on tradition.

In pure-play traditional concerts, the average age tends to be 60 or more, and these concerts have a smaller rasika segment that draws interest. The people who come often spend more time in canteens than inside the hall. "The canteens are always full, but bringing the crowds inside the music hall is a challenge", says K. Harishankar of Narada Gana Sabha.

Further, many elders are still weary to be in crowded auditoriums post-Covid. If concerts are made appealing to a larger age segment of rasikas, including the young, audiences come in higher numbers. Then, there is another aspect: the ambience, stage, background, lighting, and acoustics. All these contribute to the experience. Take the example of MadRasana, founded in 2016 by Mahesh Venkateswaran, former Executive Vice President at Cognizant. This is now his full-time passion, moving from "delivering" software applications globally to "delivering" great Indian classical music. Their website says: "Our format of shows and presentations are usually not the usual ones you will experience. We give a lot of importance to overall production aesthetics, and the focus will be on the art form. Our focus on audio has won us a lot of praise from the rasikas and the media." This season, MadRasana had Generative AI generated posters of artists on Instagram to promote the lineup of artists before the concerts. This created considerable interest among the young. They used dynamic LED screens in the backdrop of the stage and paid greater attention to acoustics, all resulting in a better holistic experience and most of the concerts were sold out.

Future of the Margazhi season

I would think that some further consolidation in the number of venues and concerts is bound to happen. Attention is needed on the infrastructure of many of the venues. Most importantly, concerts have to be refashioned to appeal to a wider audience and age group. Innovation is possible in style, as done by the Trichur Brothers. There are also interesting team combinations possible. A better distribution throughout December may also help attract a bigger audience.

Effort has to be made by artists and organisers to consciously appeal to younger audiences without compromising the essential elements and structure of a Carnatic concert. There is also a need for a broader set of sponsors to have bigger budgets in the hands of sabhas for spending on ambience, acoustics, seating and promotion. Sponsors support only registered sabhas. Therefore, the smaller ones may not survive. Let us hope that the December Chennai festival grows in appeal and thousands more gather to enjoy this unique celebration of a great form of music. It can happen if steps are taken beyond providing the "best dosas" in the canteens. The focus should shift back to the music.


Founder and Chairman of a Technology company and loves attending Carnatic music concerts and writes about travel and music