An insider’s guide to the Margazhi festival in Chennai

Travel and Places

How you can experience the unique annual festival of Carnatic music and classical dance.

This story first appeared in Conde Nast Traveller on December 16, 2016.



Bombay Jayshri

Bombay Jayshri (aka Bombay Jayshri Ramnath) (center) sings with her ensemble during a Carnatic music concert. 


The joke goes that Chennai (earlier known as Madras) has three seasons in the year: hot, hotter and hottest. It never fails to elicit a chuckle. But truth be told, there is a sliver of time – from November to January – during which the city cools down to ‘pleasant’. The temperature hovers in the high twenties and there is a mildness in the air that brings out smiles all round.

Perhaps in an attempt to make the most of this brief respite from torrid heat, the city hosts a unique celebration of Carnatic music and classical dance. Through December and a good part of January every year, the city’s performance venues (known as ‘sabhas’ in Tamil) come alive to the ragas and rhythms of music as vocalists, instrumentalists and dancers invoke Gods, Goddesses and Saints through myriad compositions. And thousands of people turn out in their ethnic best to partake of the superb fare being dished out.

Photo: Dennis Cox / Alamy Stock Photo

Over the years, the festival has grown in scale and influence, and has come to be known as the ‘December season.’


Nine decades and counting

The genesis of this festival of the arts was decidedly peculiar. It was launched in 1927 as an adjunct to the conference of the Indian National Congress held in Madras (as Chennai was called back then). The inaugural edition in 1929, though small in scale, featured the leading musicians of the time. Subsequently, the festival severed all political ties and emerged as a stand-alone fixture on Chennai’s cultural calendar. Over the years, it has grown in scale and influence, and has come to be known as the ‘December season’ by the locals. The earliest sabhas sprung up in the areas of George Town, Triplicane and Mylapore. Today, it is estimated that more than a thousand concerts and dance performances take place during this fest, across a couple of hundred venues. To many, the Madras music and dance festival is like a pilgrimage—it’s no coincidence that it is held in the Tamil month of Margazhi, which has been traditionally dedicated to spirituality and contemplation.

Who is it for?

For seasoned as well as emerging artists, the December season is the high point of the year. Attracting diverse audiences from all age groups—scholars, students of the arts and other passionate folks, the Madras music festival is not one to be missed.

Where should I go?

Though sabhas are spread out all over the city, here is the pick of the lot. These venues are rich in atmosphere and attract the best artists. And, they serve the best food too.

The Music Academy, website, 44 28112231/28115162. Mylapore Fine Arts Club, 44 24997755. Indian Fine Arts Society, website, 44 28154360. Krishna Gana Sabha, website, 44 28140806. Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, 44 24997269/24991248. Narada Gana Sabha. Phone: +91 44 24993201/24990850. Kalakshetra Foundation, website, 44 24520836.

What should I attend?

The fest witnesses hundreds of artists in action, so if you’re stumped, see our list of recommendations. While the dates and venues of their concerts are mentioned in parenthesis, please call the respective sabhas for the timings of the performances. Detailed concert schedules of various sabhas and other information about the December season are available here.

Photo: Chinju@digipix / Alamy Stock Photo
For seasoned as well as emerging artists, the December season is the high point of the year. Photo: Chinju@digipix / Alamy Stock Photo


Bombay Jayashri: An extremely talented musician, Jayashri’s mellifluous voice and meditative approach to music transport the listener. (Mylapore Fine Arts Club on Dec 24)

Sanjay Subrahmanyam: his booming and throaty voice ensures that his concerts are vibrant affairs. The audience also likes the fact that he interacts with them during his concerts. (Indian Fine Arts Society on Dec 20 and Krishna Gana Sabha on Dec 25)

Vijay Siva: he is well-respected for his adherence to classicism and a deep sense of bhakti (devotion) and bhava (emotion). (Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha on Dec 16)

T.N. Krishnan: one of the finest violinists in the Carnatic tradition, this octogenarian is known for his superb bowing technique and tonality of music. During his concerts, he often treats the audience to golden memories from the past, when he used to play the violin for legends like Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer on stage. (Music Academy on Dec 25)

Seshampatti Sivalingam: the Nadaswaram is an instrument of the temple, representing all things auspicious. Sivalingam has been playing this instrument for decades and is a virtuoso performer. (Music Academy on Dec 16).

Vishaka Hari: she is an exponent of the Harikatha, a traditional form of discourse that explores spiritual themes using a combination of storytelling and Carnatic music. (Krishna Gana Sabha on Dec 17 and 18; Parthasarathy Swami Sabha on Dec 25)

Ravikiran: a child prodigy, Ravikiran is synonymous with the Chitravina, the fretless, lute-like instrument that he plays. (Music Academy on Dec 18)

Shashank: another child prodigy, Shashank is known for his mastery of the flute. He is famous for his ability to make improvisations, while staying within the traditional framework of Carnatic music. (Narada Gana Sabha on Dec 28 and Mylapore Fine Arts Club on Dec 30)



Shanta and V.P. Dhananjayan: by far the senior-most of Bharatanatyam dancers, their nimbleness on stage belies their age. One of the few couples that perform together, they adhere to the tenets of chaste classicism. (Krishna Gana Sabha on Dec 27)

Malavika Sarukkai: Malavika has been dancing since the age of seven. Even today, she brings a sense of wonder and discovery to her performances. Her dance is a wonderful blend of feminine grace and linear geometry in technique. (Music Academy on Jan 6)

What should I eat?

No really, that’s a very important question. Because, the food served at sabha canteens during the season is as famous as the performances themselves. The season sees some of the best caterers in town ladle out delectable vegetarian food from the Tamil-Brahmin cuisine. Ask for these specialties at the sabhas mentioned below:

Venn pongal

A fluffy rice-and-dal dish, served with a generous dollop of ghee on top. Best had with chutney and kotsu (a gravy dish that has a mish-mash of several vegetables).

Podi dosa & Vendhaya dosai

While the former (pictured) is dosa with a rich sprinkling of podi (chilli-dal powder) on it, the latter has fenugreek seeds mixed to the dosa batter, giving it a distinctive taste.

Kuzhi paniyaram

Salty balls made of dosa batter, but tempered with shallots, green chillies and mustard. Crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, this is a Chettinadu specialty that is served with coconut chutney.


A spicy pancake made from a mixture of lentils and rice, adaiis a favourite in Tamil Brahmin households. It is usually served with avial, which is a thick mixture of vegetables in a curd-based gravy. It is seasoned with coconut oil and curry leaves.


A traditional Tamil meal, usually served on a plantain leaf. It consists of nearly 15 items, including vegetables, dal, sambar, rasam, morukoottan, rice, papad, pickle and a dessert.

Vazhai poo vadai & Keerai vadai

These are spicy, deep-fried patties. While the former (pictured) is made from a batter of plantain flower along with lentils, the latter is made from lentils and spinach.

Ashoka halwa & Badam halwa

Variants of the popular Indian sweet halwa, the former is made from moong dal and the latter (pictured), from badam (almonds).

Filter coffee

This traditional South Indian concoction is an excellent pep-me-up. It can be had just by itself or after a snack.

And, if you have the time…

  • At the digital archives of The Music Academy, you can listen to audio recordings of concerts of past masters like Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, M.S. Subbalakshmi and others.
  • Lecture-demonstrations are held at The Music Academy and a few other sabhas every morning during the season. These academic sessions explore various aspects of music and dance, and are led by renowned artists.

















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The man behind the Mohan Veena

Travel and Places


When Vishwa Mohan Bhatt plays his instrument – the Mohan Veena, a Hindustani slide guitar – he sends us all into raptures. We praise him and his music, and bestow honours upon him. Rightly so. But, do we ever ask who made the instrument with which the musician makes such divine music?

A musician and the music he/she produces is only as good as the instrument he/she plays: a single string not tuned properly, a single piece of material chosen wrong, the size of the hollow not exactly right….and the game is over.

Making an instrument worthy of a master calls for a unique skill and a calibre of a very high order.

The Mohan Veena that Vishwa Mohan Bhatt plays is made by this man. He wears a singlet and a pair of white pajamas most of the time, and works out of a tiny shed in a crowded part of Calcutta. Sipping tiny cups of tea and smoking Navy Cut, he supervises and guides his team of four, and ensures that every instrument that comes out of the shed is a work of art.

He has been at it for 46 years now. If anything, his passion for his art and his appreciation of music have only grown in all these years.

Meeting Bhabasindhu dada recently was a high point for me.



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10 must-dos in Colombo

Travel and Places

Like every great city, Colombo connotes different things to different people. Ex-colony of Portugal and The Netherlands, bustling metropolis, commercial capital of Sri Lanka, beachside city….Colombo is actually many worlds rolled into one. A blend of heritage and modernity, the city is a good introduction to Sri Lanka. Here is a list of compelling experiences you should sample in this beautiful city.

Colombo National Museum

The true measure of a country can be had from a look at its past.  In other words, its history, evolution and heritage. And there’s no better way to do that, than by visiting a museum. The Colombo National Museum is the main centre of the National Museum – the other two being in Kandy and Anuradhapura. Housed in a very well-preserved building with sprawling lawns around it, the museum’s artifacts trace Lanka’s history right from the time of ancient Ceylon. Episodes of valour, intrigue, romance come alive in these artifacts, which have been maintained well. My favourite section is the one devoted to Ceylon’s maritime history, which is long and chequered.

You will need a half day to cover the museum in leisurely fashion, though a quick tour can be done in two hours. Try to avoid visiting it on holidays, since it gets really crowded.  A great way to get started in Colombo.

The bazaars of Fort and Pettah

The bazaars (old-world markets) of any city are true barometers of the city’s culture and way of life. Pulsing and throbbing with life, bazaars offer a peek into the city’s psyche and tell you what makes the city tick. So too with the bazaars of Colombo. Situated around the Fort and Pettah areas near the Colombo railway station, they provide an interesting counterpoint to the modern high-rises located close by. Shops and stalls of all hues and shapes can be found peddling a mind-boggling variety of wares. The nerve centre of Colombo, this district is best covered on foot. The main idea is not to buy something here (though you can, if you want to. There is a lot on sale here. Just bargain hard.), but just to stroll around taking in the palpable vibes. And while you are at it, sample some local delicacies from a small eatery.

Wolvendaal Church

Just a hop, skip and jump away from the Pettah area of Colombo, this church is roughly 260 years old. It was considered to be the crown jewel of the Dutch Reform Church in Ceylon. Built by the VOC (The United Dutch East India Company), the Wolvendaal Church has probably been getting better with age. The age of the building and the props and artifacts of the church combine to give Wolvendaal an unmatched sense of history and atmosphere. On a quiet day, you could get the sexton of the church or the priest to show you around the place, and if you are interested, open up on the history of the Dutch Reformed Church. I did. Some trivia – look for the initials ‘IVSVG’ on the south-east gable of the church. They stand for the name of the Dutch Governor who built it.

 Gangaramaya Temple

A much-venerated place of worship for the Buddhists and Hindus, it’s main attractions are the relics of The Buddha that are stored here, and the gallery of Buddhist art. An interesting twist in the tale is that the relics preserved here were originally found in Bangladesh. They were released by Bangladesh at the special request of the Lankan Government. The art gallery in the temple complex traces the evolution of Buddhist art and counts among its possessions, murals, frescoes and other paintings of Ceylonian temples of yore. The spotlights illuminating the pieces create a superb effect.

The lake in the temple complex is a great place to sit in quiet contemplation. Except on festival days, the temple is cloaked in the soft quilt of silence.

Mount Lavinia Hotel

If you accept a popular legend, you would be tempted to exclaim that Mount Lavinia Hotel is to Colombo what Taj Mahal is to India. Built by a British Governor of Ceylon in 1806, the sprawling mansion is rumoured to be dedicated to the lass who stole the Governor’s heart (and hence named after her). Seeing how beautiful the mansion (which is today a luxury heritage hotel) is, you can’t help wondering at the beauty of the woman who fired the imagination of the Governor. With polished wooden floors, paneling in mahogany and calamander, large windows that open on to the sea and white columns, the hotel reminds us that good architecture is great art. Stop by to explore the nooks and crannies of this beautiful building and wade into a scrumptious meal by the sea.

The Talangama Wetlands

Sri Lanka is known for its wildlife sanctuaries, but not much for marshlands and birding spots. The Talangama Wetlands are therefore, a revelation! Definitely not on the radar of most tourists, this lush green area is a completely uncharted territory. According to estimates of ornithologists, this area teems with about 100 species of birds. Apart from some species that permanently live there, a lot of migratory birds home in on these wetlands with unfailing regularity every year. The Talangama Wetlands are a short drive from the city of Colombo. Plan to spend a few leisurely hours here, looking beautiful winged creatures in the eye. And oh! Don’t forget to take that pair of binoculars and a nice picnic lunch along.

Isipathanaramaya Buddhist Temple

Another hidden gem, this. Even many of the locals do not know about it. A small Buddhist temple near the intersection of Havelock Road and Dickman’s Road in Colombo 5, this one takes you back in time. The original look and feel of the structure has been maintained; man’s wanton hand has been stayed. The temple complex houses a museum too, where richly carved antiques have been displayed.

Spa Ceylon

Washed out after scouring Colombo from end to end? Then, head straight to a 100 year old tea warehouse in Park Street Mews. However, instead of asking for some of Ceylon’s best tea, ask for a full body massage. Because, Spa Ceylon offers probably the best relaxation therapies in Colombo. This swank spa offers a wide range of massages and other therapies to shoo your aches away and lull you into a sense of well being.  A good time to visit would be at the end of your tour of Sri Lanka.

Galle Face Hotel

Galle Face Green is the single most popular stretch of open space in Colombo. Young couples, families with screaming kids and executives after a hard day’s work can be seen enjoying all that this stretch offers. Just where the stretch ends, stands the Galle Face Hotel, one of Colombo’s most famous heritage landmarks. Built in 1864 by the British, it is today a luxury hotel with a beach-fronting al-fresco restaurant. Dinner at this restaurant is a great way of letting your body and senses relax. Catch the last rays of the sun and sit down to enjoy a sumptuous spread. And live music, did you say? The sea beats a five-piece band hands down-any day!

Odel and House of Fashions

For long, Sri Lanka has been the production house of several leading apparel brands across the world. As a result, Colombo boasts of a few stores where one can find high-quality apparel for a song (and a few bucks, that is). By far, the largest of these is the House of Fashions on Duplication Road. This three-storied store offers great deals on clothing for men, women and kids. However, if you are looking for high-fashion apparel and luxury brands, then Odel is the place to head to. Odel has three stores in Colombo. Any self-respecting taxi driver will know all these stores; so, getting there won’t be a problem.

Retail therapy is the best way to end a holiday and spend all your remaining foreign currency, what say?

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