In my mind, for many years, the word “classical” evoked Ancient Greek or Roman statuary: pristine, stern, inflexible marble, the very literal example of being “set in stone”. The classical arts are popularly imagined to be just as unyielding, not to be sullied by any stray influences. An image that daunting can, and does, put people off; unfortunately, it can also be thoroughly misleading.
Innovator: Anil Srinivasan on the piano with vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan.
Carnatic music shows how a classical art can also be open and pliant, and how change and evolution can be the breath of life, rather than the kiss of death. There’s no doubting its classicism, of course. Many of the ragas in Carnatic music today derive from the musical “moods” of Tamil music from the first few centuries AD, and notable scholarship dates back to at least the 17th century. This is an old, old art.
But the quintessential concert today is a product of the times it has passed through. The violin, for instance, is an integral part of the ensemble now, but it was introduced into Carnatic music less than 200 years ago, when it rode the wave of European influences crashing on Indian shores.
Other instruments have been accepted, even by relatively conservative audiences, with an alacrity that is both surprising and pleasing. U. Srinivas began playing Carnatic music on the mandolin in 1978. Today, he plays to a packed Madras Music Academy, in a prestigious evening slot, during the December Season. Kadri Gopalnath plays Carnatic music on a saxophone as golden as his regulation kurta. R. Prasanna is so indelibly associated with his instrument that he is simply known as “Guitar Prasanna”.
Last year, pianist Anil Srinivasan brought yet another instrument into Carnatic music when he produced a highly successful album with the vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan. The piano, the saxophone and the guitar may never make it as mainstream accompaniment as the violin did. But, they are far from experimental dabbles, and their practitioners are — and are regarded as — serious interpreters of Carnatic music.
Often, the music itself can evolve. The format of a typical concert today — a short piece known as a varnam; two or three more complex songs with varying degrees of improvization; one major centrepiece; then some lighter songs to close — is less than a hundred years old. Before that, a four-hour concert would consist very substantially of one long piece, running to two hours or more. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, a doyen of the early 20th century, was the first to restructure his concerts to provide variety for his increasingly large audiences.
One recent project shows that, over the course of the last century, even the manner of singing certain ragas has changed. Two musicians, T.M. Krishna and R.K. Sriram Kumar, have interpreted songs from the Sangeetha Sampradaya Pradarshini, a Telugu text of song notations first published in 1904 and written some years earlier. To listen to those recordings is to listen to important ragas such as Bhairavi and Sahana that sound substantially different from the Bhairavi and Sahana of today — yet, this musical evolution has happened without any distressing loss of classicism.
A few months ago, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the governor of West Bengal, presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to the veteran violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman on behalf of the Madras Music Academy. At the event, Gandhi, eloquent as ever, included in his speech a remarkable definition of classicism. “To be distinct, yet not elitist; to be rare, but not exclusive; to be fastidious, but not fetishist; to innovate, but without gimmickry; to conserve without mummifying is to be classical.” The spirit of that definition is well worth remembering.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at email@example.com