Are you listening to Kodaikanal rap?

Trying to mix multiple streams in one column: millet, music, film extras and environmentalism.

Are you listening to the Kodaikanal rapster? 

Are-you-listening-to-the-Kodaikanal-rapper

The old woman in Palani—down the hill from Kodaikanal– was trying to recruit me to be a movie extra.  Muniamma looked like a rock star.  She was about 80, with weathered skin about the colour of a coffee bean.  She was clad in a soft white cotton sari sans blouse in the fashion of village women in Tamilnadu.  

Muniamma’s recruitment strategy was fool proof.  She would make me homemade “kuthirai-vaali kanji” for lunch if I would dance in a video that her grandson was making.  I said yes without asking any more questions.

Kuthirai vaali belongs to the Echinochloa family and is called barnyard millet; bhagar or varai in Maharashtra; jhangora in Hindi, and odalu in Telegu.  Kuthirai vaal means horse’s tail in Tamil and for a moment, I idly wondered if it would give me the strength of a horse, like Ashwagandha does in Ayurveda.  Muniamma gave a knowing smile and said that the effects of barnyard millet wasn’t mere strength; it was more like the effects of Moringa, widely touted as an aphrodisiac in Tamilnadu.  “Your husband will be very happy tonight,” she said, with a knowing, if sexist smirk.

Muniamma approached me as I stood outside the tonsure shed in Palani, contemplating whether I should shave my head: an action that I have often considered.  Even though I was wearing a sari, she had pegged me as a “jeans-pant Madam,” who were, apparently in short supply in the area: Dindigul district.  Her grandson wanted to make a video to protest the dumping of garbage in the Shanmukha lake in Palani.  He needed extras to dance behind him and fill up the screen. 

“Don’t worry, nobody will see you,” he said reassuringly if somewhat quixotically.  What was the point of dancing in a video if nobody would see me?

After filming, he would post it on Youtube “just like that Kodaikanal girl had done.” 

That was how I heard about Sofia Ashraf, the star musician of a viral Youtube video called “Kodaikanal Won’t.”  Smartly set to the tune of Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda, which earned the Indian video a tweet from its muse, Kodaikanal Won’t has garnered over 3 million views and some amount of action.   

Most environmental issues, unfortunately, involved a clichéd set of actors: Big Business who is usually the villain; and the Disenfranchised Poor, who are usually the victims.  So it was with Bhopal; so it was with the Uttarakhand and Kashmir floods where rampant real estate development led to an environmental collapse; and so it is with Kodaikanal’s case against Hindustan Unilever, where it alleges that the company’s now-closed thermometer factory caused mercury poisoning in 600 people; water pollution; widespread environmental problems; and 45 deaths.  Ashraf is the protagonist.  In a video interview, also posted on Youtube, she comes across as a spunky, funny, independent woman– the kind you’d hope your daughter would grow up to be.  She got involved, she says, because three NGO’s– Kodaikanal Worker’s Association, The Other Media, and Vetiver Collective—who have been fighting Unilever for years asked for her help.  They also roped in Bangalore-based Jhatkaa.org, which does online campaigns.  I enjoyed Jhatkaa.org’s website, flowing as it was with the milk of human idealism.  This isn’t a fly-by-night operation.  They have run campaigns to “Save the Western Ghats,” “Clean Ganga,” and fight moral policing, rape, censorship and sexism.

Once the video gained traction, Unilever CEO tweeted that he does “not accept” different standards of environmental compensation.  Then, he added, somewhat unnecessarily that he believed that “all humans are the same.”  In its website, Unilever refutes all allegations.  It says that that its former employees, and the environment, did not suffer any adverse effects because of its presence in Kodaikanal.  Each side has offered its version of “proof” to substantiate its statements.  The issue is being negotiated on an ongoing basis.

As an interested observer, I hope that the issue is seen through to conclusion.  Now that the spotlight has been cast, the aggrieved parties need a different cast of characters.  Rather than dancers and actors, they need environmental experts, lawyers and accountants to look through regulatory codes and mercury levels to figure out if and how much compensation would make sense. 

For people such as Paneer Selvam—Muniamma’s grandson and wannabe rapper—the video has inspired copycat ventures; and the hope that they can change things.  Citizen action is often a nebulous exercise. How many times have signed change.org petitions? I have signed countless online petitions, mostly because they came from friends and happen to align with causes I support.  The problem is that such online action doesn’t have good follow-up.  The petitions vanish into the Internet and the signers don’t really know what happened to the issue they supported.  I have friends who scoff at online petitions as “useless efforts” that don’t really move the needle in terms of the effect they generate.  I happen to be one of those idiotic idealists who believes the opposite: that each individual action, however small, can make a difference.  Perhaps the way forward is to mix creativity with causes. 

Petitions usually come with a nauseating amount of self-righteousness that says, “They are wrong.  We are right.”  They are serious and cause you to flip the channel or stop reading simply because you don’t want to be weighed down by the words at the end of a very long day.  They are stern and do the email version of the principal’s pointed finger.  In the future, perhaps such folks should do a Sofia Ashraf and lose the stern, self-righteous seriousness and use social media in ways that are both effective and fun. 

 Shoba Narayan didn’t make the cut to star in Paneer Selvam’s video.  Anyone interested in performing should contact Muniamma at Virupatchi Village, Oddanchathram Taluk, Dindigul District, Tamilnadu.

 

Hum Raag performs at Bharat Kalachar, Chennai on April 11th at 6:30 pm. Please come.

We are so thrilled to be going to Chennai.  Mrs. YGP is a doyenne in the field of education.  She started Padma Seshadri School.  Her son YG Mahendra is a theatre and film actor.  Now, three generations are running the cultural component of the school– called Bharat Kalachar.  Madhuvanti Arun is YGM’s daughter.  If you happen to be in Chennai on April 11th, please come in the evening to attend our show.

BHARAT KALACHAR

16, Thirumalai Road, T.Nagar, Chennai 17; Phone: 28343045/42024304

Website: www.bharatkalachar.com

Cordially invites you for the programme for APRIL 2015

———————————————————————————————–

11/04/2015TAMIL NEW YEAR CELEBRATIONS

6 30 pm – HUM RAAG by

                       Shoba Narayan (narrator) & Chitra Srikrishna (carnatic vocalist)

                       Jayanthi Keshav (violin) & Madurai B. Sundar (mridangam)

 

HumRaag – a show that explores the classical roots of Indian popular music, from Abhangs, Bhajans, Ghazals and Movie music. A multimedia presentation filled with Carnatic and classical music accompanied by poetry, story-telling and video music

 

14/04/2015   – ViSHU CELEBRATIONS

       6 30 pm – “BHARATHA RATHAM” – Malayalam Drama by

                       Kaliyuga Theatres & K.P.Samskarika Vedi, Payyanur

Bharatha Ratham – Through the live visuals of the dynamic characters and main episodes of the great epic Mahabharata, the historic events of India’s Freedom Struggle are symbolically presented in the play ‘Bharata Ratham’. The parallel between the epic and the freedom movement is brought out so convincingly through powerful dialogues and similar events. ‘Bharata Ratham’ was written by the great patriot, orator .and freedom fighter, Sri K.P.Kunhirama Poduval in 1942.

CO Sponsor : MALAYALEE RECREATION CENTRE (MRC) Chennai 76

Venue for the above Programmes: Sri YGP Auditorium

                                               17, Thirumalai Road, T.Nagar, Chennai 17

ALL RASIKAS ARE WELCOME

——————————————————————————————————————————-

Dr.(Mrs) Y.G. Parthasarathy ; Y Gee Mahendra; Smt. Sudha Mahendra;   Smt. Madhuvanthi Arun

             Chairman                         Secretary                   Joint Secretary                 Cultural Consultant                                                                    

The joy of a migratory bird going back home

Have been working on our upcoming music shows in Chennai all weekend.  We are completely redoing the show, and including more Tamil songs.  The Chennai audience is both discerning and has a specific taste.  Like the fabled Hamsa birds that can separate milk from water and drink only the milk, the Chennai audience has forgotten more about music that I care to remember.

So it is exciting for me.  I feel the joy of a migratory bird that is going back home.  The rosy starlings that are currently thronging Ulsoor Lake will go back to Tajikistan at about the same time I will go to Chennai.  April 11 and 12.

So Chitra and I are talking every day.  Deciding on film songs and classical music composers.  It is fun.  Speaking of birds, there is a lovely passage in this essay on that fine magazine, Muse India.  On birds here

Festival of Sacred Music

My friend, Ranvir Shah and his Prakruti Foundation does The Festival of Sacred Music in Thiruvaiyaru every year. Details here

This year, the festival is from March 6 to 8 and has a terrific line up. The Manganiyars, Kadri Gopalnath on Saxophone and Filter Coffee, a rock band. Imagine sitting under the stars and listening to this music on the banks of the Cauvery.

This festival is open to all. Driving distance from Chennai and Bangalore. Reasonably priced hotel rooms are available and you will be helping village tourism. Details at the website and on Facebook here.

Please share. Please attend.

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A concert

My friend, Chitra Srikrishna and I doing a music gig called “Hum Raag.” It is a fun project where we link film songs to classical Indian music. Kabir bhajans, abhangs, light songs, carnatic music, hindustani music and the like.

Our next show is on Sunday, January 18th from 5 to 7 PM. At Unnati Bangalore’s auditorium. Please do spread the word to music lovers in Bangalore. Details below.

Dear Friend,
This month we have planned a special program as per details attached. Please do not miss the same. Please make a note: 18th January at 5.00 pm

Hum Raag is an experience sure to excite and entertain all of you and take you all through a wonderful journey of music and poetry aided by audio and video presentations.

The performance features audio and video snippets of songs and live performance of the ragas or melody. They are based on a short background of the ragas and their forms, both in carnatic and Hindustani traditions. Smt. Chitra Srikrishna, an ‘A’ grade artiste with AIR and a carnatic vocalist for over a decade now, will perform with percussion accompaniments, while Smt. Shoba Narayan, an author, columnist and music lover, will weave the story and take us through the entire journey, playing the role of the ‘Sutradar”. From Bhajans to bollywood all will be covered featuring a variety of languages. On the whole it is going to be an enjoyable, entertaining as well as educative and informative evening, not to be missed.

Smt. Chitra Srikrishna
Sri. Deepak Murthy
Sri. R Adamya
Smt. Shoba Narayan

Address
Unnati Centre, Temple Road, Sadanandanagar, NGEF East, Bangalore – 560038.
Telephones: 080-25384642, 080-25384443

Chennai Music and Women

I thought about this a lot, but cannot come up with any solution. Everyone lays it on the women artistes to get together and fight the discrimination, but that’s not going to happen.

A note of dismay over inequality at music and dance festivals in Chennai
Shoba Narayan

January 3, 2015 Updated: January 4, 2015 11:21 AM

Every year, between December 15 and January 15, hundreds of thousands of people across India congregate in Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for its Carnatic and Bharatanatyam festivals. More than 300 concert halls in the city host cultural events throughout the month in a tradition that has endured for more than half a century.

But each year, as audiences clad in silk saris and white dhotis arrive, an ugly issue rears its head: the discrimination against female performers by the show organisers and male musicians.

In a recent post on Facebook, Kalpana Mohan, a ­California-based writer, highlighted an incident that happened two years ago at a concert hall in Chennai. A prominent male vocalist kicked up a fuss when he realised he would have to perform alongside a young female violinist. An older, established musician, he refused to take the stage with a junior female artist. The organisers found a male violinist to replace the female artist, leaving her in tears.

After describing the incident in her Facebook post, Mohan ended with an appeal for gender equality: “I do hope December 2014 is the season in Chennai in which artists, young and old, fight back, ask questions, write to local and national newspapers and launch a campaign to fix the cracks, while simultaneously fixing the crackpots who believe that a woman is inferior – when all that matters is prowess, not age or gender. I certainly hope that this is the year that older, established vocalists, both female and male, step up and fight for the sake of their younger female counterparts. I hope that the next time something like this happens, the rest of the performing crew unites in support to protest the injustice.”

When The National contacted the violinist who wasn’t allowed to play, she declined to talk about the incident: “I wish to tell you that it does not interest me. I would rather focus on my music,” she said

Oddly enough, nobody in the Chennai music circles blames her for her reluctance to comment, because Carnatic music has traditionally been the bastion of men. In this rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal set-up, female performers don’t want to be seen as troublemakers, especially if they are young, because of the repercussions it could have on their career.

“It is unfortunate and terrible,” says pianist Anil Srinivasan, who works with a variety of performers, male and female. “But the only way forward is for women to band together and boycott all those musicians and percussionists who are saying such things. The audience should also show their support by boycotting concert halls that allow such ­inequality to go unchecked.”

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Anita Ratnam, a renowned classical dancer, says: “Senior male performers would rather accompany a junior and emerging male vocalist than sit beside an established and accomplished female singer. It is appalling. Nobody does anything about it, so the abuse continues. Female artists should speak out, not with anger but with confidence.”

Ghatam Karthick, a young percussionist who plays the ghatam (pot), gives some context. “Legendary percussionists such as Umayalpuram Sivaraman, T K Murthy and Palghat Raghu were used to accompanying exclusively male singers,” he says.

“Until the ‘trinity’ of female singers – D K Pattammal, M L Vasanthakumari and M S Subbulakshmi, who won the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour – found success, no male accompanist would work with women,” he says.

Karthick credits female singers and musicians for his big breaks. His first concert at the Madras Music Academy was with the well-known vocalist Charumathi Ramachandran, he went on his first foreign tour with the veena player Veena Gayathri, and says his career soared after he played alongside top female singers such as Sudha Ragunathan and Bombay Jayashri, who was ­nominated for an Academy Award for Pi’s Lullaby in Life of Pi (2013).
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“I owe everything to women,” Karthick says matter-of-factly, but agrees that no effort is being made to challenge senior male performers who practise gender discrimination.

“Will we need a Nirbhaya in the music world?” asks the eminent veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh, referring to the 2012 Delhi rape victim whose brutal death drew attention and galvanised support for improved attitudes towards women across India.

artslife@thenational.ae

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.

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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