Margazhi in the time of COVID-19: Here’s how you can enjoy the music

Online concerts, home-delivered canteen food - Chennai's much-anticipated December concerts have changed significantly this year. How do artists and fans feel about it?

“There is the fear of COVID-19 but you hear the music and you forget the pandemic,” says music aficionado Shreeya Jayaraman on her live concert experience this Margazhi.

Having attended one of the few live events in the city, a T M Krishna concert in Kilpauk, Shreeya adds that nothing can beat an in-person concert as the fans get to enjoy the full kutcheri experience. When it rained unexpectedly mid-concert, the audience had to be moved indoors. While social distancing norms were still followed indoors, Shreeya chose to remain on the periphery and listen to the rest of the show.

Her experience could well be a metaphor for how this Margazhi season pans out, as sabhas in the city find ways for fans to enjoy the music, while also keeping in mind the safety of the performers and attendees.

A fast response

The Tamil Nadu government has imposed a cap on the number of attendees who can be present at in-person concerts, limiting the audience at halls to 200 persons. However, thanks to some quick-thinking and collective effort by all involved, the famous December season concerts have found online and offline platforms to regale the audience who eagerly wait for the season through the year.

As the pandemic showed no signs of abatement, those on the city’s Carnatic music scene foresaw some of the implications of it for the upcoming concert season. The Federation of City Sabhas, comprised of the Brahma Gana Sabha, Hamsadhwani, Karthik Fine Arts, Narada Gana Sabha, Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha and Sri Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha decided to go virtual.

In a video message, Harishankar Krishnaswami, the Secretary of the Federation of City Sabhas, announced the decision to go virtual through “Yours Truly Margazhi,” inviting music aficionados to enjoy concerts from the safety and comfort of their homes. The concerts can be watched virtually by purchasing tickets for individual shows or a season ticket. The concerts are also uploaded on Youtube.

The famed Music Academy too will take the virtual route with two concerts a day, starting December 24th to 31st. The tickets can be purchased online and the concerts are free for viewing if you are a member of the Music Academy.

Some of the sabhas have opted to offer the live experience, with necessary precautions as a majority of the concert-goers are elderly and highly vulnerable. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan hosted live concerts at the open grounds of Bhavan’s Rajaji Vidyashram in Kilpauk. It also offered fans the novel option of drive-in concerts with space to park cars in the open-air grounds.

“I attended the open-air concert by my favourite artist S Sowmya at BVB. Since this is one of the few venues doing live concerts, I didn’t want to miss out on the experience. The arrangements were meticulous, right from social distancing and checking of temperature and ensuring all attendees wore masks,” says Vidya K.

Embracing virtual concerts

With a majority of the city’s sabhas going virtual, these concerts have created a unique experience for the fans. “I have always tried to get tickets to a concert by Sanjay Subrahmanyan but was unable to do so. But this time around, I signed up to watch a virtual concert and was blown away. It was a very enjoyable performance. I was also relieved not to have to worry about health and safety”, says Kanchana R.

A screengrab from a virtual concert by Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Pic: Kanchana R

Singers too have embraced the virtual medium with ease. Vocalist Saketharaman has been keeping busy during the lockdown with projects such as Divya Desa Sangeetha Yatrai and Crossover with Saketh and also started virtual music classes in schools. 

Saketh was one of the early adopters of virtual concerts during the lockdown. “I did my first virtual concert in April. The interesting thing about virtual concerts is that while a show in a hall can reach 1000 people, we have had close to 30000 views for the concert. You can reach out to a larger audience, some of whom may be first time listeners. There is also no limitation by geography as anyone in the world can enjoy the concert.”

Singer Saketharaman began performing virtually in April.

While virtual concerts do pose some constraints, such as the absemce of real time feedback from listeners, Saketharaman feels that the live chat feature provides an option to engage with the audience.

“When close to 700 fans use the live chat feature during the concert to share their feedback and show appreciation, it is heartening. It isn’t possible in an in-person concert to see such interaction amongst the attendees.”

However, Saketharaman adds that there is no equivalent of seeing the audience and deriving energy from them as he believes that music is a co-created experience of performers and rasikas.

Both fans and performers are of the view that virtual concerts have opened up new possibilities and are here to stay. 

“I hope that even during off season we can hear star musicians perform virtually. My mom is a huge fan, but is old and unable to travel. These concerts have given her an opportunity to listen to her favourite musicians once again,” says Swaminathan R.

“Going forward, both virtual and in-person concerts will happen. This pandemic has shown that shows can be performed virtually and reach a large audience and expand the base of listeners,” feels Saketharaman.

The switch to virtual concerts has also eased the issue of ticket procurement and democratised access to some of the concerts that were restricted to members of the respective sabhas. “Earlier if you were not a member, you could not have obtained tickets to certain concerts. I’d have to go to different sabhas at designated days to get tickets. But now it is possible to buy them online. I hope that this opportunity will remain even post-COVID as it helps the music reach a wider audience,” says Shreeya. 

Behind the scenes

While the music is the main draw during Margazhi, there’s no denying the special place that the sabha canteens hold among concert-goers. For those who long for strong filter coffee, ghee-soaked pongal or some hot bajjis during cold December evenings, the canteen experience, too, can now be delivered to your homes.

Sasthalaya catering services, one of the premiere caterers attached to the Brahma Gana Sabha have a home delivery option for their huge spread through Dunzo. Patrons can also grab a quick meal at their walk-in canteen set up in the premises of The Mylapore Fine Arts Club. Other caterers including the famed Mountbatten Mani Iyer Catering Services too could set up shop in a similar manner. 

The open-air canteen offers dine-in and takeaway. Orders can also be placed on food delivery apps. Pic: Sastha Catering

But with all the changes, those who work behind the scenes to make the concert experience a hit feel the pinch. 

“We are operating with very limited staff, maybe 1/4ths of the number we normally hire, so many have lost out on the income they make during this season,” said the proprietor of a catering service.

Stage decorators and sound operators, too, have felt the pinch with the concerts going virtual, eliminating the need for their services. With few live shows, most of them have lost a source of income during Margazhi.

Established artistes have come to the aid of technicians who make the shows an enjoyable and seamless experience. ‘Abhai—Artistes for Artistes Welfare Fund’ was created to collect funds to disburse to those in need, with the proceeds helping individuals who have been affected by the pandemic and job loss. 

The disruption to the regular concert experience has brought about some changes to the traditional ways in which the concert season has operated all these years. Tiding over the fall in revenues and consequent economic hardships would be the next challenge that will have to be addressed. Meanwhile, the city has shown that the show must go on.


  1. Raman Muthuswamy says:

    While Aruna has brought out Her own experiences with the Virtual Music Concerts in the city, My own Recollections of the Past : In the biting Margazhi chill weather in the mornings, the Ace Lyricist and Singer PAPANASAM SIVAN used to go round the Mylapore Mada Streets with His Bhajan Party with a dozen singers/percussion artists to back Him Up !! It was also the Month when each Sabha used to vie with one another to bring up the Stalwarts on the stage such as Semmangudi, Chembai, Lalgudi, MSG Brors, TN Krishnan, MLV, Namagiripettai, Ponnusamy Bros, Madurai Somu, GNB, etc, and it used to be a great dilemma for the Fans to choose which one to attend .. as ALL OF THEM WERE FREE !! Gone are those golden days !!

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