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.

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