Carnatic Instrumentalism

When Mint Lounge’s new editor, Sanjukta Sharma, contacted me with the idea of doing a cover story on the Chennai December Season, I had no hesitation about what I wanted to write: instrumentalists. My previous columns on singers had produced so much ire from instrumentalists for writing “vocal centric columns,” that I thought it was time.

Percussionists deserve a separate column– mridangam, tabla, dholak, damaru, and that wonderful Indian sound– morsing.

A source of conflict in writing this story was whether to include the salacious gossip about who was married to who and all the break-ups and make-ups that happen in the artistic world. I know as a reader that it is these pieces of information that will stick; that will make an artist memorable to global readers. But it is irrelevant to the story and not fair to the people in question. In the end, after thinking about it till the last day, I left all that out.

I have a personal link to carnatic instrumentalism
My late aunt, Vijayam Ramaswamy learned the violin from T.N.Krishnan. Her son, my cousin, Vinod Venkataraman learned the mridangam from Palghat Raghu-sir. Vinod’s daughter, Aishu Venkataraman is a violin prodigy who graduated from the Berklee School of Music; then went to Stanford for undergraduate and now is in medical school. I have seen her play a bhairavi ragam at home with effortless grace. Aishu’s music can be heard at http://www.divinestrings.com
I hope she continues to play in spite of becoming a doctor.

The online version of this story has great links– to music and the musician web sites. Interested readers should go to it.

Mandolin in city
Is Carnatic music’s overwhelming focus on vocalists letting down Chennai’s gifted instrumentalists? Ahead of the Margazhi season, we find out

By
Shoba Narayan

carnatic-kbLB--621x414@LiveMint

The romantic view of music is that it is divine, soul-stirring and above shallow commercialism. Wrong. In today’s Carnatic music world, lots of things that have nothing to do with music matter.
Pedigree counts and with good reason: Genetics does have something to do with musical talent. Style, or bani, matters. The fast-paced “GNB bani”, popularized by the late, great (and good-looking—M.S. Subbulakshmi was an admirer) singer and composer, G.N. Balasubramaniam, is no longer popular.
Looks matter. Today’s musicians, particularly the women, have embraced their stage personas and carried them to lengths that would make a Punjabi wedding planner proud. Singer Sudha Ragunathan flashes rings on all 10 fingers. Saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath wears bespoke brocade kurtas. The Priya Sisters wear matching Kanjeevarams. Sisters Ranjani and Gayatri match the body colour of one sari to the border colour of the other.
All this is a great and pleasant contrast to Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar appearing on stage with an otha-mundu or single-dhoti. In my view, visual overkill doesn’t detract from the music. Indeed, it provides a pleasant diversion when the musician falters. Today’s Carnatic musicians are savvy about image, the media, and know how to court controversy as a way of drawing attention to their art. That is not the focus of this piece, however. In this season in Chennai when singers reign supreme, I would like to talk about instrumentalists.
If you are an instrumentalist in Chennai, you work doubly hard to get the same number of stage performances. You have to do everything the voice does and better. This is because you are functioning in a music genre that is entirely lyric-driven. Carnatic music is suffused with sahitya-bhava, or emotions that come from words. Kurai ondrum illai, sang M.S. Subbulakshmi, turning Rajaji’s words into a paean for contentment and acceptance: “I have no grievances.”
I know the song by heart. Everyone in Chennai does, or seems to. The minute any singer begins this song, the entire auditorium sighs in recognition. The minute S. Sowmya begins singing Papanasam Sivan’s Tamil song, Devi Neeye Thunai (Devi, you are my only companion/hope), the audience will shake their heads in devotional fervour. Thyagaraja’s Swara Raga Sudha? We know that one too, and can compare versions by different singers. This is the greatness of the Chennai audience.
For instrumentalists, it is their greatest challenge as well. Carnatic music is monophonic, suited therefore to verse and melody. How then does an instrumentalist deal with an audience that expects him to duplicate the pleasures of lyric-based songs?
One way is through collaborations. Pianist Anil Srinivasan interprets Carnatic music in fresh ways by performing with dancers (Anita Ratnam), singers (Sikkil Gurucharan), veena players (Jayanthi Kumaresh) and choral groups. His jugalbandi with Pandit Sanjeev Abhyankar can make today’s teenagers, used as they are to rock and pop music, stop in their tracks and listen. Making Carnatic music accessible to a broader population has become the de facto role of instrumentalists.
“Instrumentalists have to work extremely hard to connect to their music and the audience in a way that is both authentic and original,” says Srinivasan, who reads the stories behind the song before playing his piano, thus eliminating, or at least reducing, the need for lyrics.
During a performance in Australia, he told the story of Gajendra Moksham, or the “Saving of the Elephant Gajendra by Lord Vishnu”, as a prelude to Mirabai’s composition Hari Tuma Haro, which Mahatma Gandhi requested Subbulakshmi to sing at what would turn out to be his last birthday celebration. She couldn’t make it but sent a tape with a recording of the song.
Carnatic music is suffused with religious fervour. It has a context that is very specific to Chennai. Rasikas (aesthetes) still remember the song, Nagumomu, that Balamuralikrishna sang at the Narada Gana Sabha in 1978, or so I heard from my aunt; it stunned the audience into silence, unusual for a Chennai concert.
Instrumentalists therefore play second fiddle, quite literally, to singers. Even if audiences don’t understand the Telugu sahityam (lyrics) of Thyagaraja, or the Sanskrit ones of Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri, almost anyone who has grown up in the Carnatic music milieu knows the lyrics by heart. So singers get the most patronage.
This means that if you are a budding musician, you will most likely try to be a vocalist unless you have a parent or family member who insists that you choose an instrument. The market, perhaps more than passion, muse or mood, drives musical choices. Ranjani and Gayatri switched from being violinists to singers. Akkarai S. Subhalakshmi, a talented violinist, is also fashioning herself as a singer.
It wasn’t always this way. The late great Mandolin U. Shrinivas created a flutter by showing Chennai what he could do with this unusual instrument. Kadri Gopalnath coaxes kritis (compositions) from the saxophone in a way that would give American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz pause. The Lalgudi family produces musicians who reach into your marrow and then stir with their bows—beginning with Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, and now his children, G.J.R. Krishnan and Vijayalakshmi. T.N. Krishnan, my favourite instrumentalist, can move me to tears when he plays Mari Vere, in the Ananda Bhairavi ragam. Look for the Maestro’s Choice CD or search on iTunes. But the musician who has currently captured my imagination is Jayanthi Kumaresh, described by Srinivasan as a “genius”.
Ask anyone in the music circle about Jayanthi and you get to know a few things within the first few minutes. She belongs to the Lalgudi family—her mother was Jayaraman’s sister. She deplores the media portrayal of veena as a dying art. She recently toured North America with tabla player Zakir Hussain. She created the Indian National Orchestra (INO) with a host of Hindustani and Carnatic musicians to present music in an ensemble format. She lives in Bengaluru, is married to the violinist Kumaresh Rajagopalan, and enjoys Kalidasa’s poetry. As I write this, I am listening to her Paras thillana from the album Jathiswara—compositions of Veene Sheshanna, himself a path-breaker. Before Sheshanna of the Mysore school, veena players held the instrument sideways, like sitar players. Sheshanna played, composed and brought the veena down to its current horizontal position on stage.
How are instrumentalists faring in today’s music world, I ask Jayanthi. “If by world you mean the entire universe, including all foreign countries and not including Chennai, I would say that instrumentalists are ruling the roost,” she says with a laugh. “If you ask anyone for a list of top Indian musicians, they will list Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussain, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Lalgudi mama (her uncle), instrumentalists all. Saraswati, the mother of all learning and creativity, plays the veena; Krishna plays the flute; Nandi plays the drums; Shiva plays the damaru. Instrumentalists are part of our music tradition.”
The veena is arguably the oldest and sweetest of instruments (my father was a veena player, as was Ravana, not that they are linked).
Earlier, every home had a veena and Balagopala, Dikshitar’s majestic composition in the Bhairavi ragam, talks about Carnatic musicians as vainika-gayakas, or “veena players and singers”.
In previous generations, every Carnatic musician, including singers, learnt to play the veena because its notes resembled the human voice. There are photographs of Subbulakshmi playing the veena. Playing the notes helped singers see and feel their music in a way that complemented their vocal riyaz (practice). You could watch your fingers go through the swaras or notes; practise the gamakas or vocal quivers that are Carnatic music’s signature; and internalize this instrument’s tactile feel into your repertoire. The veena, more than the voice, I would argue, is perfectly suited to the gamakas that differentiate Carnatic music from Hindustani.
Even if you know nothing of Carnatic music, listen to S. Balachander’s rendition of Raghupati Raghava on YouTube. It is a familiar song, and you will instantly get an idea of how Carnatic music approaches a melody. Jayanthi is S. Balachander’s student, but her main guru, she says, was her aunt and Lalgudi’s sister, Padmavathy Ananthagopalan, with whom she lived and learnt in the gurukula tradition.
Chennai remains a tough market however. “They want us to play like singers,” says Jayanthi. “That’s like going to Saravana Bhavan and asking for a pizza.” She recounts how her uncle, Lalgudi Jayaraman, played a fantastic Telugu composition, Brocheva by Thyagaraja, on his violin. After the song, an audience member asked him to play a Tamil song. Lalgudi, whose laser tongue was as sharp as his violin’s bow, replied, “Sir, in what language did I just play the violin?”
The gifted instrumentalist is still held hostage by an audience that hums Tamil or Telugu lyrics. Just ask Shashank Subramanyam, the flautist who was given the prime evening slot at the The Music Academy, Madras, when he was just 12, a record still unbeaten by any performer. Master Shashank, as he was called then, was a sensation in the late 1980s. Like Krishna (the God not the singer), his flute attracted droves of women who crowded into sabhas (concerts) just to hear the boy.
Shashank is now a senior artiste, married to a dancer. But he is still subject to the brutal calibrations that sabhas make during any music festival or season. “In any season, the sabha chooses 10-12 singers and one-two instrumentalists,” he says. “This means that if I get a slot at a certain sabha this year, I won’t get a chance there for another five or six years.”
It is easy to fault the sabhas for their patronage of singers. It is easy to say these sabhas are bowing to the market instead of promoting musical traditions. But this is a problem with no real villains; no real quick fix. The audience prefers singers, and as an audience member and listener of Carnatic music, I can see why. When a violinist plays a familiar Carnatic song like Dharma Samvardhini or Endaro Mahanubhavulu, our minds automatically fill in the words. For that reason, the future of Carnatic instrumental music may lie outside Chennai.
North Indians have no such baggage when it comes to Carnatic music. They can listen to Shashank’s jugalbandis with Rakesh Chaurasia and absorb Carnatic music subliminally, sans its lyrical baggage. They can listen to talented mridangist Patri Satish Kumar and learn about Carnatic rhythms. They can watch (on YouTube) the Mysore violinist brothers, Nagaraj and Manjunath, play Bantureethi in a restrained fashion, reminiscent of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, who popularized the song. They can listen to Ganesh and Kumaresh play a divine Vaishnava Janato on their violins and appreciate the Carnatic way of interpreting this national song.
Carnatic instrumentalists, more than its singers, operate in a global world. They believe that their future lies outside Chennai. “Carnatic instrumentalists are very popular in Europe,” says Ghatam Karthick. “You can play Kurai ondrum illai in Paris, but they won’t know that M.S. made it popular and that it is an ode to Perumal (the Hindu god Vishnu), or about Tirupati or its laddus or anything.” Carnatic music has to be de-religionized or de-contextualized for instrumentalists to hold equal sway. That’s not going to happen in Chennai for a while.
Instrumental music suits today’s world. When I listen to music while working, it is almost always without lyrics. Words intrude in a way that music doesn’t. So what is the future of Carnatic instrumental music?
My quest began with S. Gopalakrishnan, a music connoisseur who sends out a daily email with a song and an explanation—from both the Hindustani and Carnatic genres. Historian Ramachandra Guha introduced me to his mailing list and I’ve been on it since.
Gopalakrishnan lives in Sarojini Nagar, New Delhi, and is a project director for Sahapedia, an online encyclopaedia of Indian art, heritage and culture. One day, I phoned him to discuss songs versus instruments. We spent a pleasant hour discussing how singers used to absorb influences from the various instrumental schools in the past.
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who taught Subbulakshmi, was hugely influenced by the nadaswaram schools, he said. Today, nadaswarams have become the south Indian shehnai, generally played only at weddings. The same thing has happened to the harmonium, which once was an important instrument—both for accompanying and for practicing to get the shruti (tone) perfect. Today, it is used mostly in Harikatha (stories accompanied by music). “The supremacy of vocal khayalism limited the growth of instruments,” Gopalakrishnan said. “Instrumentalists became prisoners of the literary composition or sahitya.”
Shashank agrees. “I think instrumentalists should all get together and come up with a Carnatic music repertoire that is perfectly suited for instruments,” he says.
We don’t have to look very far. Western classical music is all about instrumental supremacy because the concertos are written for instruments, not the voice. In the West, voice (opera and choral singing) attracts a smaller crowd than a symphony. Instruments are king and singers are queens.
The future of Carnatic instrumental music requires both a stroke of genius and a paradigm shift. How do you end the supremacy of lyrics in what is being performed today? As a listener, even I know and love the lyrics. Why then would l listen to only instruments? For that, several things need to happen. A genius composer needs to write for instruments—either a concerto format with multiple instruments or a song with a long instrumental riff like in Hotel California, where the guitar becomes the melody at the end. The third way is to mimic a Western jazz or rock band, where a group of instrumentalists come together and create a new sort of music. The musician who has gone the farthest in this area is Chitravina Ravikiran with his melharmony (a convergence of melody and harmony).
Ravikiran is a prodigy. He identified 325 ragas as a two-year-old and has received praise from the doyens, including the late sitarist, Ravi Shankar, and Carnatic vocalist, T. Brinda. He performed as a vocalist from ages 5-10 and then switched to the chitravina, previously called gottuvadhyam, an older form of the veena. Since then, he has composed, created new ragas, written operas, and worked with symphonies in England, Europe and the US, to create melharmony.
It is a step in the right direction, but even for an amateur listener like me, it is not there yet. It sounds like a mishmash of Carnatic and Western traditions, without being fully evolved.
Ravikiran disagrees with the argument that a paradigm shift is needed to increase the popularity of instrumental Carnatic music. “I think a lot of instrumentalists are flopping because they are trying to do too many different things in an experimental way that borders on desperation,” he says. “Sometimes you chase the extras at the cost of the essentials. Whether you are a vocalist or instrumentalist, if you are playing under the banner of Carnatic music, the music should have some essentials. Lyrics are an essential part of Carnatic music. But lyrics have a joint supremacy, not a solo one. Melody and rhythm are equally important.”
Ravikiran believes any instrumentalist who tries to remove the lyricism of Carnatic music is playing “two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional music”. You have to play the instrument so that people can hear the words, he says. That is not easy.
As I see it, there are three ways that instrumentalists can gain ground. One, Carnatic music has to gain a global audience, and not just one comprising non-resident Indians. Once you have French or Latin listeners, then the lyrics cease to be important. “Vocal is local,” as Ravikiran says. The second method has to do with compositions, and this applies to Hindustani music as well.
Nobody in Carnatic music is composing for instruments. Violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman composed beautiful tillanas (or taraanas in Hindustani) but they included lyrics and have been co-opted by singers. Instrumental primacy requires the harmonic polyphonic focus of Western classical music. Should Carnatic music compositions imitate Western classical compositions just so its instrumentalists will have a bigger role as performers? And how does one even begin to compose a Carnatic symphony? Will that sound like Carnatic music?
So maybe the solution has to come from the same place as the problem: the audience. Ravikiran says the audience has to be taught how to appreciate instrumental music; how to appreciate T. N. Krishnan’s masterful restraint; how to enjoy M.S. Gopalakrishnan’s amazing aesthetics; and how to venerate the two game changers of Carnatic instrumentalism: Flute Mali, or T.R. Mahalingam, and Lalgudi Jayaraman. And instrumentalists have to perfect their craft to please a difficult audience.
As the singer Gayatri says: “Take it from me. I have played the violin and I have been a singer. To achieve a level of competence in an instrument is hard. To achieve brilliance and perfection is brahma prayatnam (“ridiculously hard” is a poor translation). The audience patronage for an average vocalist is far more generous than (for) a brilliant instrumentalist.”
That is the charm and the challenge of instrumentalism. You can listen to truly brilliant instrumentalists if you aren’t hung up on the lyrics. So perhaps it is time for Mumbaikars and Delhiites to descend on Chennai and patronize its instrumentalists.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

BOX
Guides to the right ‘sabha’
These websites can help you plan which concerts you want to attend

Four websites will help you plan your concert- viewing. The top musicians sing at different ‘sabhas’ every night, so you’ll catch them somewhere; for instance, the Narada Gana Sabha, Rasika Ranjani Sabha (RR Sabha), Mylapore Fine Arts Club, and Sri Krishna Gana Sabha.
Or just go to The Music Academy, Madras, because anyone who has been given a slot there, particularly the 7pm one, has to be really good.
If you have four days to visit Chennai, go around New Year’s Day so you can catch the dance festival which begins 3 January.
The websites to visit:

http://www.chennaidecemberseason.com
http://www.musicacademymadras.in
http://www.kutcheribuzz.com
http://www.indian-heritage.org/musicseason/sch.html

Shoba Narayan

Raga Connection show

I will be doing a workshop “The Raga Connection” along with a friend and fabulous singer, Chitra Srikrishna, at the Times of India literary festival this Sunday on the 7th of December (details below) If you have kids who would be interested in attending the workshop or other friends in Mumbai, please let them know.

Details here

http://timeslitfest.com/schedule-7-dec.php

HumRaag

Chitra Srikrishna is a classical carnatic singer. She spent many years in the Bay area, which is why you haven’t heard of her. She is a fantastic concert-level performer.

Chitra and I collaborate on a show/performance called Hum Raag. The basic concept is “From film songs to classical music.”

What’s it about? Okay, let me describe the scene.

Chitra is sitting on the stage with a violinist and mridangist (drummer) on either side. I am the sutradhar– standing on the side with my laptop. There is a projector and screen behind Chitra for my Powerpoint presentation.

We start with a film clip from a popular film song. “Yeh dosti,” from Sholay. I play the film clip for one minute. Chitra hums the song, and segues into a Kabir bhajan; or a Hindustani song; or a Carnatic composition. She doesn’t sing the whole song– just for a couple of minutes. While she sings, I am explaining the raga and concepts of classical Indian music in the background. As a slide show. So the audience is listening to music and watching it being explained in the slide show at the back. At the end of Chitra’s singing, I come out in front and do my storytelling bit. I link poetry, music, and drama and do a 30-second monologue. Then we play another film clip. Say it is “Ek tha cholo re,” in Bengali. Chitra sings a song based on that raga, which happens to be Shankarabharanam. I explain the raga, and Tagore and his composition in my slide show. Then I walk up and do my storytelling. And so it goes. We pick songs from different parts of India, in different languages: a lot of Hindi songs, but also Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, Malayalam and Telegu.

The show is fast paced and multi-sensory. Music, slide show, storytelling, film clips…… We do this for an hour and it flies by. Organizations have actually come to us and said “One hour is too short. Make it longer.”

So we do this as a one-hour OR a 1.5 hour presentation.

Our Facebook page is here

If you “like” us, you can get updates of our gigs. No pressure!!

We did two shows for ISB’s Executive Education events. One in Bangalore and one in Hyderabad. Photos here

If you know of a cultural space, corporate group, or event management company that would be interested in a music-storytelling-slide presentation, please point them to us. Email:chitrasrikrishna@gmail.com or me.

Here are some photos from the event.

Chitra and the accompanists below, with my slide presentation in the background
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Posing for photos with Heemanshu Ashar, the curator of the event, in Hyderabad
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Chitra created this nifty photo for our FB page
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With the director of the Center for Executive Education and the team
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Me doing my storytelling at the show
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Reinventing Carnatic Music

For those who want to delve deeper, here are some books and papers that I read. The delight of research is discovery. You sift through reams of stuff and come upon some gems that make your hair stand on edge.

If you must read one, just read this. From the Master himself: Ariyakudi on the katcheri format here

Pantula Rama’s book on shaping of an ideal musician–excellent. Among the many things she touches on are the Divine Trinity. And details such as a list of the 25 types of bad singing– nasal sounding, sounding like a crow (kaki), singing with teeth clenched, singing as if there is a gourd in your throat. And so on.

Todd McComb’s article here. It reflects many of my ideas.

My friend, Kamini Dandapani’s blog has a nice essay on this topic.

A bulletpointed reference of the cutcheri format

TM Krishna’s white paper on how gamakas are a hallmark of karnatik music.

Carnatic music: the need for reinvention

Sruti– of course. Pick any section and enjoy.

How do you make classical music relevant to a global audience? How can you expand its reach?
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How do you make classical music relevant to a global audience? Should you even try? Today’s audience for Carnatic music ranges from Cleveland in the US to Chennai, and these are the hard-core ones. How can you expand its reach? Is it by removing the bhakti-rasa or devotional tone that some believe to be its core? Is it by changing the concert format, as some are doing? Or is it by developing a smartphone app?

In a wonderful piece published in the India International Centre Quarterly, Autumn 2006 edition, titled From Court to Academy: Karnatik Music, history professor Lakshmi Subramanian explains how “Karnatik music” attained its present format. It was a confluence of events that could serve as a blueprint for the future. In the piece, Prof. Subramanian traces how Carnatic music went from the courts of the Maratha rulers of Tanjore to the sabhas of Chennai.
Traditional Indian music, be it Hindustani or Carnatic, was sung in three arenas—communal group singing such as bhajans; court singing by experts; and ritual singing by devadasis or courtesans inside temples. The Maratha ruler, Serfoji II, who ruled over Tanjore, then the seat of Carnatic music, was a cultured “Europeanized Indian”, who wanted music to be notated and standardized. Until then, our music was not written down but orally transmitted.

Given this situation, it is easy to make a case that some would consider heretical. The reason we still continue to sing songs by the Trinity—Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri and Thyagaraja—is not only because they were musical geniuses but also because they lived at a time when musical notation was coming into being. Theirs were the first songs to be written down. This gave their compositions a historical specialness that later composers did not enjoy. The founding of Pune’s Gayan Samaj in 1874, and the Chennai branch a couple of years later, made the focus of musical standardization and notation a project that the cultured elite took on. It was a way for them to forge a cultural identity. As Prof. Subramanian says, “The aura and weight of the Tanjore tradition became the point of reference for cultural engineers as they embarked on the project of reinventing the classical tradition in the 20th century.”

Here are the things that caused Carnatic music to be reinvented in the way it exists today. Thyagaraja and other composers’ works were written down by their disciples. Many of these disciple-musicians moved from Tanjore to Madras to make a living. Royal patronage by the Maratha rulers of Tanjore was on its way out. Sabhas were being created. The ruling British elite was dismissive of Indian classical music, which it viewed as inferior. Indian musicians had to counter this charge somehow. They wanted to make their music “equal” to the Western classical music that the British were touting. They were in a new city: Chennai. They were caught in the throes of a movement to standardize and notate their, until-then unwritten, music. All these forces created the kutcheri format as it exists today.

Although singer Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar is credited with its creation, it was actually a cohort of musicians; along with the Madras Music Academy, and scholars like Prof. P. Sambamoorthy, who came up with the concert format as a way of both attracting a mass audience; and standardizing Carnatic music so that even foreigners could appreciate it; or at least approve of it.
None of this is happening today. Indian classical music is not under foreign threat. We have no Britishers who are questioning our heritage and culture, somewhat like what the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is doing to the Congress and BJP, thus forcing them to examine and articulate their core principles. We have musicians who navigate the globe and are thus influenced by global music but they operate as individuals, not a cohort. There is no group of musicians who meet at cafés, like the impressionists did in Paris. It takes an informal but vibrant discourse to create a new form. Everyone has to buy in to new ideas. You need scholars like Prof. Sambamoorthy to help formalize free-wheeling ideas. Art critic Clement Greenberg did that for the free-wheeling norms that the abstract expressionist painters came up with.

Carnatic music is therefore missing every element of transformation. There is no sponsor or underwriter like the erstwhile kings who can nudge musicians to think outside the box. There is no collective, either formal or informal, where musicians can meet and cross-pollinate ideas. Conferences can help to some extent, but they don’t encourage conversation, only paper-presentation.
What today’s musicians need is an adda in Chennai where a group of like-minded musicians can meet with scholars, musicologists, and event planners on a regular basis. Rather than competing with each other for lucrative concerts, they need to collaborate and come up with new concepts. Lastly, you need publicists to disseminate the idea to the listening public; to encourage buy-in. Which other area has done this?

In terms of reinventing a nationally beloved icon, the thing that comes to mind is cricket and the Indian Premier League (IPL). Even the most rabid lovers of the sport rarely hark back to the days of five-day matches; which means that the IPL experiment has worked. The second Indian icon that has reinvented itself for a global audience is yoga, which is now practised in one form or another throughout the world. Pandit Ravi Shankar, whatever his flaws, helped popularize Hindustani music to a Western audience. Should Carnatic musicians bring foreign singers into the fold so that they can inject new ideas? Should Beyoncé and T-Pain collaborate with S. Sowmya and Sanjay Subrahmanyan?

What is the purpose of reinvention, if any? To expand the listener and rasika base without diluting the music. How can that be done? Through brain-storming with multiple stakeholders: musicians, visionary sabha secretaries, rasikas, musicologists, event planners. I think T.M. Krishna needs a Koshy’s: a place where he can formulate his new ideas with like-minded intellectuals, without agenda, without ego. This group can come up with ideas for innovation; one that fans will buy into. Younger singers who know their history and music have to be looped in to refine and adjust the blueprint. Publicists and scholars can spread the word.

How did Lalit Modi reinvent cricket? How did AAP reinvent politics?

Carnatic music needs a leader-musician; someone who can forge a consensus. As the recent Oscar ad for the winning film, 12 Years a Slave said, “It is time”.

Shoba Narayan watched and was underwhelmed by 12 Years a Slave. This is the last piece in a weekly, four-part series on the evolution of Carnatic music.

Evolution of Music 3

LOUNGE
FIRST PUBLISHED: SAT, MAR 22 2014. 12 08 AM ISTHOME» LEISURE» THE GOOD LIFE
Carnatic music: what’s the way ahead?
Can dramatic changes of the sort that happened in Western classical music in the 18th century happen in today’s Indian music?

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Vrinda Acharya believes Carnatic music is dynamic. Photo courtesy: Vrinda Acharya

The thing that stands out is the timeline. Across cultures, the timelines of innovation occurred during periods and places that nurtured ferment and creativity. Paris during the impressionist movement was one; 18th century Thanjavur, Vienna and Florence were other regions; Chennai and Varanasi in the 1920s were others. Are we living at such a time? Can dramatic changes of the sort that happened in Western classical music in the 18th century happen in today’s Indian music?

Western classical music traces its roots to Egyptian and Greek music. The medieval period lasted the longest, from about 500-1400. This was also the time when Indian music was being formalized. The Sangita Ratnakara, a musical text that influenced both Hindustani and Carnatic music, was written by Sarangadeva in the 13th century. The Islamic influence that caused Hindustani music to diverge from Carnatic music was just about to happen.

Western music’s Baroque period began in the 15th century when the plainchant that was the norm started becoming more complex. This was around the time when Purandara Dasa codified the way in which Carnatic music would be taught—and it has held forth ever since. This was the time when the influence of Amir Khusrau, Tansen, and Persian music was felt in Hindustani music; and just before the gharanas were established.

The golden age of music, both in India and the West, was from 1730-1820. This was when the West’s “classical” period occurred, resulting in the composers and symphonies of the kind that we know today: Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn and others. It was the time when composers took the complex and layered Baroque polyphonies (two melodies played simultaneously) and made these into simpler homophonies (one melody with accompanying chords). In fact, the evolution of Western classical music has been a move from complex to simple; from sacred to secular. Should Indian music emulate this?

Vrinda Acharya is one of Bangalore’s talented young musicians. She grew up in Basavanagudi and lives with her in-laws in Malleswaram—the two localities that were combined by R.K. Narayan to create his fictional Malgudi. Acharya has a master’s degree in Sanskrit and has written numerous papers for conferences—about composers, techniques and musicology. “Should Carnatic Music Be Irreligious?” is one. Married to a mridangam player, she is part of a close-knit community of musicians who make their life and living through music. When I visited her, she had just returned from performing on the banks of the Cauvery in Mysore. Over cornflakes mixture, we discussed the future of Carnatic music.
We mostly disagreed. I believe that classical Indian music, be it Hindustani or Carnatic, is in need of an overhaul; a rethink; a reinvention. Acharya believes that change ought to be organic, gradual and evolutionary. I say innovation; she says evolution. In her mind, the flaw in the

Indian system was one of presentation, not evolution. “We need to figure out a way to project our music to a global audience,” she said. It has to do with branding, she said, not innovation.
But, but, but…. I interrupted. Carnatic music has stagnated since the 18th century. What was composed and sung by Purandara Dasa in the 15th century is still sung today, in pretty much its original form. There have been no great composers since the 17th century. The songs composed by the divine trinity of Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri and Thyagaraja are still being sung today. You could call this the strength of Indian tradition. You could also call it a lack of musical imagination.

Acharya emailed me the following day to offer proof. Warning: These are details that will not interest those that are not musically inclined.
“Namaste Shoba. I totally disagree with your points that Carnatic music is stagnant. To give you an example of musical concepts developed post the Trinity:
* Many new ragas like pashupathipriya, karnaranjani, kadanakuthuhalam, valachi, sumaneesha ranjini were invented.

* Many Hindustani ragas like desh, maduvanthi, jog, pahadi, behag were very ably adopted to our music.
* Many technical concepts and experiments in rendition of ragam tanam pallavi have developed.
* Concepts like doing grihabhedam in ragalapana, dwimadhyama ragas, mukhi talams, swarantara ragas have developed.
“I would say the period of the Trinity is the golden age for our music as far as compositional forms and musical concepts are concerned. When it comes to performing aspect of Carnatic music, the golden age is undoubtedly the 1900s when so many great music maestros lived at the same time. Rather than talking about stagnant music, we should figure out how to reach out to a global audience.”

Which brings me back to the musical innovators of the day. Some musicians are now adopting a mix-and-match approach. “What some musicians are doing is like moving bricks in a wall. Instead of placing a brick at the top, they move it to the middle. The structure remains the same,” says Acharya.

It is like eating curd rice in the beginning just because you always eat it at the end. There is no logic for the change except rebellion, which—my words—is what T.M. Krishna is doing. But let me say this: I have gone from knee-jerk negativity towards his attempts to reluctant admiration.

In fact, I think he is on the right track and he is also a musical genius. All of which will provide ample preamble for what I am going to write next week about his methods.

Shoba Narayan is reading R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days, and Kumar Prasad Mukherji’s The Lost World of Hindustani Music. This is the third in a weekly, four-part series on the evolution of Carnatic music.

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
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Evolution of music 2

Carnatic music: on the cusp of change

Madras, some would say, is not just a place. It is a pace that begins with the milkman at 4am. As cities go, it is like any other. It is a mindset and space. There are birdwatchers and tree-huggers (Madras Ramblings is a great blog on both these areas); there are the textile mavens and stylistas who eschew filter coffee for the city’s new baristas. Madras also, is the place that decides the direction of Carnatic music, given that the city is soaked in this form. Walk around the shaded roads of Adyar, where the vaagai and pungam flowers bloom, and you will hear young voices doing the ‘akaara sadhana.’ This is a basic ‘riyaz’ or practice where you open your mouth, sing up and down the octaves, and hope like hell that a mosquito doesn’t enter your mouth while doing this. It is also during this stultifying “a-a-a-aa” practice that novice girl students wonder if they should switch to Hindustani music, mostly to attract the guys who saunter around IIT during Mood Indigo or Mardi Gras, humming what seem to be amazing khayals and dhrupads but what are in fact old Hindi ghazals of the most basic variety. This passing fancy with Hindustani music soon passes. It is what your ears are used to, I suppose, and Chennai’s ears are doused in as much Carnatic music as there is gingili (sesame) oil in their milagai-podi (chili-powder, wrongly but appropriately called gunpowder by North Indians).

As Sheila Dhar describes in her hilarious and insightful book, “Raga ‘n Josh,” listeners steeped in Hindustani music cannot relate to Carnatic music. To them, Carnatic music sounds like a staccato gunfire volley. The same applies to Carnatic listeners, who find Hindustani music too free-form and slow. It is like swimming in dark muddy waters. The gradual build-up of a Hindustani raga makes us want to snap, “Get on with it already.” Both these great streams of music originated with the Sama Veda, which corralled and codified sounds into manageable tones and octaves. The priests chanted these sounds and so it began.

All music originated in the sacred, no matter what religion. Listen to Gregorian or Mozarabic chants with your eyes closed and they will remind you of the feeling you get in the early morning hours at a temple in Haridwar. Listen to Baroque Jewish music from a Portuguese synagogue, available on Youtube, and it will take you back to a church in Goa. Listen to Islamic Anasheeds or Sufi music and you will not just feel the pull of a mosque but also that of a Buddhist monastery. The chants and singing all sound similar. When people say that music is universal, this is what they mean. Music has since evolved and diverged across cultures but rhythm and melody remain constant. Medieval music called the beats talea, somewhat akin to our tala. They called the melody color, which we can approximate to our ragas. Music, you could say was a way for early humans to express the awe they felt when the universe revealed its mysteries, shocks and sorrows to them. They opened their mouths in awe; sounds came; and then a short step to song.

Medieval western music has more in common with Indian music than the music that came during its ‘classical’ period of Beethovan, Mozart, Schubert and Haydn. An influential medieval composer, Guillaume Dufay, was a contemporary of South India’s Purandara Dasa, who codified Carnatic music in a way that is still being practiced today. Dufay had a similar influence over legions of medieval composers after him. The difference is that western music shook off such influences and reinvented itself through the centuries. Carnatic music evolved much more gradually. Is that good or bad? In this column, I would like to make a case that Indian classical music—Carnatic music, which is the form that I know– is on the cusp of great changes and indeed, needs to change. Some semantics here in how I define evolution (which Carnatic music has done) and innovation (which hasn’t happened in its case). Evolution is gradual and occurs as a matter of course. It is hard to predict how things evolve– who would have thought that Gnanambiga Caterers rather than ‘Gnanamu Sagarada,” the composition, would pull rasikas to Narada Gana Sabha?. Innovation, on the other hand, is purposeful and initiated by a person or group of influencers. It seeks to enhance an existing product or experience. Innovation often begins with rebellion against the current form—impressionist and abstract expressionist painting began like this before it became the norm.

What I want to focus on is innovation— because evolution of the gradual, incremental sort has happened, and continues to happen in Hindustani, Carnatic and for that matter, western music. All music went from being patronized by the royal courts to seeking sustenance from a mass audience. New instruments such as the violin, saxophone, mandolin, and guitar, and even whistling were absorbed into the fold. Jugal-bandhis, which didn’t exist, were created when Hindustani and Carnatic musicians agreed to share a stage and synchronize their form. But none of these changes are dramatic of the sort that took place in Europe and western classical music. Isn’t it about time we reinvent our music and make it relevant to our time?

There are a few carnatic musicians who are attempting innovation. An incomplete list includes Bombay Jaishree (creative collaborations); Sanjay Subrahmanyam (podcasts); Sikkil Gurucharan (with Anil Srinivasan); Aruna Sayeeram (for introducing North Indian abhangs), Madras String Quartet (playing Carnatic music on western string instruments); and T.M. Krishna (creating a new concert format). All are taking baby steps and all fear being lambasted by the so-called purists who make up the bulk of the audience. Can any of these musicians seize the day and change the paradigm? More next week.

Shoba Narayan remembers a spine-tingling jugal-bandhi featuring Bhimsen Joshi and Balamurali Krishna.

Evolution of Music

My friend, Chitra Srikrishna and I are doing a music event together on March 14th. Details here. A happy result is that I am reading a lot about Carnatic music. Ranging from Pantula Rama’s book to Sangita Ratnakara to white papers.

Two chance conversations started this. In both cases, the two music lovers were gushing about TM Krishna’s “musical genius” and berating what he was doing with the concert-format. I found the intensity of responses intriguing. And thus began this series of four parts.

Apropos of nothing, just watching an AMAZING Disney film called “African Cats.” Highly highly recommend it.

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TM Krishna: Carnatic music’s ‘stunt’ man
TM Krishna’s experimentations with Carnatic music structure have opinionated concert goers, in a lather
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Shoba Narayan

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Chennai, the city I grew up in and still call home is in the throes of a creative ferment, at least with respect to Carnatic music. This has caused some apoplexy and bile among many keen ‘rasikas’ or lovers of music, who live in homes where even the pillars sing, as an ancient Tamil poem said about the author of the Tamil Ramayan, poet Kamban’s home.

These are homes in the bylanes of T. Nagar and Mylapore where the home-ground Narasu’s coffee (my father drinks it) is piping hot and frothy; where the pichi-jasmine is pink rimmed and smells of a beautiful woman’s hair—the one described in the Sangam Tamil poem “Kongu ther vazhkai anjirai thumbi,” which legions of Chennai’s students memorized from their trusty “Konar notes”; and where Carnatic music is played from dawn to midnight.

Carnatic music, for South Indians is not just music; it is a milieu. It thrives in Chennai where most of the top musicians live, but it has a vast cultural network with tentacles all over India. It draws within its fold the bharatanatyam dancers of Matunga, clad as they are in mustard yellow, parrot green and maroon Chettinad sarees. It includes the maidens of Palghat, Kerala, who step out in the morning with dripping wet tresses tied in a loose knot called the ‘aathu kattu.’ It also includes those Delhi army officers with long names like Lakshminarayanan who settle their stomachs with curd rice and piquant vadu-manga pickle couriered from Thanjavur, after enjoying the single malts in Delhi’s swirling party scene. These are men and women, aunties and uncles who can expound on the difference between the ragas, AnandaBhairavi and Reethigowlai; who can snatch a Saramati ragam (which is how South Indians say it—name first and ‘ragam’ next) from the sound of the waves; and who venerate the musicians of yesteryear like Ramnad Krishnan and Voletti Venkateswarulu. It is these ‘mamas’ and ‘mamis,’ the South’s version of ‘uncle-jis’ and ‘aunty-jis’ who froth at the mouth at certain new developments in Chennai’s cutcheri (concert) circuit.

One of the objects of their ire is a musician-singer named T.M. Krishna and the reason for their sound and the fury has to do with Krishna’s “messing with” the traditional cutcheri paddhati or format. Krishna sings varnams in the middle of a concert, for instance. These fast-paced compositions are typically sung at the beginning of the concert to warm up the voice and energize the audience. Krishna has, on occasion, trailed off after an alapana or flight of musical imagination of a raga. Instead of singing the composition that comes after the improvisation, he has asked his violinist to do the job instead. All this has my uncles and aunts who are rabid, devoted and opinionated concert-goers in all of a lather. I recently attended a family lunch where no one could agree on anything including whether peanuts were appropriate additions for a lemon-rice; or the origins of asafetida (it originated from Afghanistan for the record). But they were united in the condemnation of “modern” musicians who mess with tradition. My eldest aunt shook her handkerchief so vigorously while speaking “on the matter” that the rest of us were doused with the Gokul sandal powder that she spirits into her kerchief. My uncle—her husband—was frothing at the mouth and not because he had slurped a large mouthful of coffee. In fact, my uncle never slurps. He pours the hot coffee straight down his gullet, which has over the years developed a kind of acid coating to all manner of hot fluids going down its centre, tainting neither tumbler nor esophagus as far as I can tell.

In speeches and interviews, Krishna has tried to explain why he is breaking the mold. The cutcheri format as it exists today is less than 100 years old, he correctly says. It was formalized in the 1920s by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar to follow a standardized format. First, a brisk varnam; then an invocation on Lord Ganesha; then a few fast-paced krithis or songs without the improvisation; then a heavy piece in a ‘ghana’ ragam or weighty ragam like Kambodhi, Kalyani, or Bhairavi. Then the centerpiece of the concert or the RTP– Ragam, Thanam, Pallavi, which is raga improvisation followed by swara-play followed by the song in a ragamalika or garland of ragas; then the virtuoso “thani avarthanam” display by the accompanying drummers; then the lighter fare called ‘thukkada’ which include bhajans, abhangs, padhams, javalis and the like. This is how a typical Carnatic music concert is structured and most concertgoers time their bathroom and bonda breaks to suit this format. In changing this structure, Krishna has derailed the audience; and put a spanner, or in his case, silence in the works of when they go out to stretch their feet and gossip about sabha secretarys.

I too had a similar knee-jerk reaction when Krishna “pulled his stunt,” as some purists might call it, at a Bangalore concert. After shifting the varnam to the middle of the concert, he explained that there was no rule that stated that varnams had to be sung in the beginning; that he was just trying to innovate with the format.

My view, however is different from the average Chennai rasika who views Krishna’s experimentations as being disrespectful of tradition; and altogether too bold, indeed cocky. I think Krishna is right to experiment. I also think he is not bold enough; not imaginative enough. Read on…. Next week…..

Shoba Narayan is practicing pouring green tea down her gullet.

Music– classical and film.

I am very excited about this program. My friend, Chitra and I are doing this together. I met Chitra because of my columns in Mint. She was a reader who became a friend. She is an amazing singer. So we came up with this idea and pitched it to Bangalore International Center. They accepted it; and here we are, at home, rehearsing. Chitra lived in California for many years before returning to India. She is a lovely person. We are having a great time rehearsing this. Please come if you are in Bangalore on March 14th. It will be well worth your time to hear Chitra sing. It is a FREE event.

Invite dt. 14-03-2014