August was dedicated to dance; September will be dedicated to Carnatic music, while the next three months will feature Tamil drama, spiritual talks and Hindustani music, respectively. With a line up of over 50 events in these five months that is open to the public (for free), The Fine Arts Society in Chembur, hopes to continue its tradition of keeping cultural arts alive and encouraging more and more people to appreciate it.
This institution has been one of very few in the suburbs to be dedicated to the traditional arts, and the past five decades have featured innumerable, eminent artists. Catering mainly to the population in and around Chembur, Matunga and Sion, which is predominantly South Indian, their focus has veered towards Carnatic music. But, over the years, they have also featured other art forms; even Hindustani music recitals have become a regular feature at the venue.
In 1962, five to six people who were inspired by Carnatic music joined hands to start this institute. “We would go to Shanmukhananda (King’s Circle) for concerts but in those days, even travelling that far was difficult. We felt, why not start something of our own,” recalls GG Bharathan, Chairman of the board of trustees, who has been with the institute from inception. “It started with having concerts at Gandhi Maidan, with no mike or any other infrastructure. Great artists from Chennai would perform. But we had no money, so at the end of the concert everybody would shell out 30 to 40 rupees, which would be given to the artist,” he adds.
Soon, they decided that a dedicated venue was needed to host traditional arts. The group started undertaking membership drives to involve more people. “We started with 150 members, and the membership fees was just R 100 then. We felt that more people should get involved. So, we would get into cars and visit South Indian homes, to request them to become members. Within a month, we had close to 600 members,” reminisces Bharathan.
A wide field
“From the start, music classes have always been an integral part of the institute,” informs Ganesh Kumar, President of Fine Arts Society. Today, the institute offers classes in Carnatic vocal, violin, mrudamgam, flute, Hindustani vocal, tabla, harmonium, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. “ In 1986, there were 180 students; today we have 1,200 and this is only because we cannot accommodate more students in our classes,” adds Kumar. They have 2,500 members who can sign up or attend a range of activities. From concerts by experts in the field like Sudha Raghunathan and Umayalpuram Sivaraman to amateur performers, they host a wide range of programmes, every month. “Our programmes are free for members who need to pay an annual membership fee of just Rs 400. Members are an integral part of the institute and the programmes are geared towards their liking,” Kumar fills in. In fact, he is a popular abhang (Marathi bhajans) singer and has been conferred the Maharashtra Abhang Ratna.
Apart from the classes and regular performances, the society gives the auditorium on hire, for different events. They also conduct workshops and sessions by giants in the field of music. “We have started an initiative called Fast Track, where we identify talent and give them additional support to achieve up to their full potential. We are also trying to send students for concerts. When corporates want to organise concerts, we try giving our students a chance to showcase their talent,” he says.
They also held a one-day seminar on Hindustani and Carnatic music, which gave people in the field an opportunity to demystify what they didn’t know and the seminar was a huge success. Dramatics have also taken prominence at the institute, and many Tamil dramas have been staged here. “Jugalbandis create a lot of excitement. I am trying to get Adnan Sami and Umayalpuram Sivaraman to perform together, for a concert,” reveals Kumar, adding that there is a constant quest to introduce new events and activities.
In addition, they also have a range of community events that promote cultural events and festivals. “We are the only ones doing community events. During Navratri, we keep a six-step golu (a traditional step kept in South Indian homes during Navratri). We believe that our tradition is highly evolved and that such events are an excellent tool to learn about our tradition, mythology, culture and history,” emphasises Kumar. On September 2, the society has planned an Onam celebration, where apart from a concert, a traditional Onam Sadhya will also be served. They hold exclusive events for Tamil New Year, Pongal and Ganesh Chaturthi as well.
Stick to their identity
Though they have been encouraging Hindustani music as well, they prefer to focus on their Carnatic identity, primarily. “The philosophy has been maintained through the years. We concentrate on giving the best of Carnatic music and we would like to propagate it to the highest level,” says Bharathan. “We want Mumbai to sit up and take notice of our institution that is doing great work for the traditional arts. But we do not want to become heterogeneous. We don’t want to lose our Carnatic identity,” Kumar reminds us.
Their monthly programmes are a members-only affair. While some of the events do not have a provision for others to attend, many have tickets and the tickets are almost always priced between Rs 50 to Rs 100. “Our focus is not money. There are corporates who believe in our work and funds come in. We don’t want to charge music lovers to come and enjoy a concert,” asserts Kumar.
A new beginning
The Fine Arts Society has just completed building an additional three floors of 10,00 sq feet area. This will be used as the academy for music, dance and drama. Apart from classes there will be a mini auditorium, a digital library and a recording facility for the arts. The plan is to open up activities in this building by Dussehra.
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