Lalithambika Sangeeta Natya Koodam presents ‘mini-Margazhi’ festival in Thiruvananthapuram

From December 17 till date, Lalithambika has organised about 20 performances
Members of Lalithambika Sangeeta Natya Koodam collective
Members of Lalithambika Sangeeta Natya Koodam collective

'Of the months in a year, I am Marghazi,' says Lord Krishna in Bhagavad Gita. In one of his evergreen lyricals, musical genius Kannadasa called his lover the Margazhi among months. Andal, the female bard from Srivilliputhur who filled her poetry with ecstatic, amorous love for Krishna, penned and sang the Tamil classic Tiruppavai during this month. Mythology calls Marghazi the dawn of the celestial beings. Saints feel the month is a celebration of austerity. Musicians agree and employ their notes and tunes to worship.

The dewy, misty Margazhi has thus always been as lilting as the word sounds. Probably why, across Tamil Nadu, the month celebrates art and tradition. Chennai notched it up further and made it a fiesta where artists and rasikas could perform and relish art in all its classical glory.

Over the years, the festival moved to sabhas (stages) from shrines and is now a chance for homecoming too with the non-resident natives planning their visits to Chennai around December-January from as far as the US to enjoy what they call ‘the kutcheri buzz’. The Margazhi visitors to Chennai also includes dance and music lovers and artists from Kerala, for whom the magnificence of music reaches its zenith only with the arrival of the Margazhi, and where to feel it best other than in the Mecca of Music—Chennai.

Unnikrishnan and his team of graduates from the renowned Swathi Thirunal College of Music felt otherwise. Why can not Margazhi come to Thiruvananthapuram, they wondered during one of the meetings of the Lalithambika Sangeeta Natya Koodam, a collective that Unnikrishnan helms. The group had wound up the Navratri festivities just a month ago with the collective’s performing area, bearing an understated elegance, was stage to some of the talents of Thiruvananthapuram, mostly teachers and students of the Swathi Thirunal college.

The plans of some of the artists and aficionados to travel to Chennai to attend the Margazhi music circuits prompted them to consider the idea further, and the group decided to launch itself into organising the first-ever Margazhi festival in Thiruvananthapuram. Lalithambika festival is also one of the first in Kerala during the Margazhi month, the other being the festival organised by a Palakkad-based group, Nadadhara, on the premises of the Pirayiri Sree Kannukottukavu Bhagavathi temple.

Supporting such ventures is Syam Dev, a Swathi Thirunal college alumnus, artist who performs extensively, and runs the ‘Sri Ganesha Vidyapeetham’ school of music and dance. “We as artists have to spend a lot of money to perform in places like Chennai and hence providing opportunities here this way is always welcome,” he says.

From December 17 till date, Lalithambika has organised about 20 performances. “The first among them was by our own members and the teachers of the college. We live-streamed them on social media, and thus started the influx of calls from people as far as Thrissur, Malappuram, Ernakulam, Bengaluru and Chennai who wanted to perform here,” Jayadev Subash and Sreelakshmi M. Nair, members of the art collective, say.

One such artist is Bengaluru-based Mamata Vasantkumar, a disciple of Mohiniyattom exponent Dr Sunanda Nair. “The chance to perform during the season usually comes from Chennai. From Kerala, it was a new,” she says. On offer for the performers was a stage during Margazhi, dreamlike and alluring, culled out from the residential block that forms the ancestral home of Unnikrishnan. His is a life devoted to art, with no ancestry in art to claim. A yearning for knowledge in classical art forms led him to graduate in instrumental music from the Swathi Thirunal college and then to start bharatanatyam lessons when 33 years old.

“The idea of the collective sprang when I had accommodated some outstation students of the college in part of my home. The atmosphere of music and dance they created here was soul-stirring leading to the group’s formation. Now, my parents and I stay in a one-room section of the facility and the rest is all given for art,” he says. Workshops are held in the performing space split into three parts that also include a small workshop hall. 

“Eminent dancers of the day like Parshwanath Upadhyaye and Adithya P V regularly organise workshops here and the practice space is often utilised by school youth festival participants to perfect their moves. But the stage is where the performances are held regularly, and especially during the Navratri, and now as part of the Margazhi,” he says. The setting which opens as a miniature world of traditional imagery with stone lamps lining the entrance and the performing area that may not accommodate many but has a cosy ambience with ornate idols and sophisticated Carnatic music recreating a nostalgic aura of traditional elegance.

To Mamata, her January 6 recital here bore a different vibe. “The space was very intimate. The artist and the audience are not too separated. The mood created by that intimacy helps  convey bhakthi and shringara and such milder emotional hues that make up most of our repertoire.” Defining art in Kerala is its devotional element and this is the reason why the art scene here is mostly temple-centric, as per Carnatic musician Uma Maheshwaran. 

“While sabhas are the centres of classical art elsewhere, in Kerala, it is the temple festivals,” he says, citing Kalpathy National Music Festival held during the annual festival as an example. Lalithambika collective’s Margazhi event gains significance in this context. It could further ground Thiruvananthapuram, with its good count of music and dance sabhas that offer a regular line-up of performances during occasions such as the Navratri, as a cultural centre where art moves beyond the portals of shrines and enters a socially aesthetic space. 

Probably sensing this, the sabhas in Thiruvananthapuram are showing signs of waking up to the prospect of a Margazhi season here. The Swati Thirunal Sangita Sabha is contemplating organising the season in 2025, says an office-bearer. Sree Neelakandan Sangita Sabha Trust may consider the season next year if it gets prompt support from rasikas and media, says C V Krishnamoorthy, its secretary.

Margazhi ushers in the hope of a musical spring. And if indeed its music stays here, Thiruvananthapuram could hope for its days to rebloom as the art capital it was a few centuries ago when Chennai was probably just a traders’ stopover.

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