Recently, I fell into conversation with a friend from Bangalore about a Carnatic music concert she had attended a few days earlier in that city. She had only one negative comment to make: The singer had not included any Kannada songs in the concert. The languages in which the business of a Carnatic music concert can be transacted are numerous: Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Kannada and Malayalam, plus possibly Hindi or Marathi in the odd tailpieces. Only true polyglots can claim to decipher every lyric sung during a concert, so my friend’s observation—that the audience ought to understand at least a song or two—seemed valid.
The counter observations—that this would interfere with the artist’s spontaneity or aesthetic plan, and that the emotion of the music transcends language—are not new, and they were raised frequently during the most charged period of linguistic friction in Carnatic music’s history. In the 1930s and 1940s, a movement known as the Tamil Isai Iyakkam began calling for more Tamil songs in Carnatic concerts, which were dominated at the time by Telugu and Sanskrit. These were the languages in which the Carnatic trinity of Thyagaraja, Shyama Shastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar had largely composed, and invariably, their compositions formed the bulk of a concert.
Diva: M.S. Subbulakshmi. Courtesy The Hindu
One of the leading lights of the Tamil Isai Iyakkam was R. Krishnamurthy, an author and freedom fighter known popularly by his pen name, Kalki. Kalki was able to bolster his movement significantly by bringing into his corner M.S. Subbulakshmi, the biggest name in the art. The movement had its effect: If concerts today regularly feature the songs of Tamil composers such as Arunachala Kavi and Gopalakrishna Bharathi, that is to a great extent the Iyakkam’s work.
But after the conversation with my friend had triggered the Tamil Isai connection, I wondered whether, inherently, Carnatic music tended to give its libretto secondary, if not short, shrift. A performer is judged far more on the lyric-less alapana of a raga than on the singing of the actual song.
Many amateur students I know have learnt entire songs without also learning the meaning of the words they’re singing. In fact, Carnatic music must be one of very few musical forms in the world in which a no-lyric, instrumental rendition of a song is as legitimate and welcome as a vocal, lyrical one. A violinist playing the song Vatapi Ganapatim, for instance, assumes two things: first, and more minor, that the audience probably knows which song it is, and second, that the emotional key of the music can speak powerfully even without language.
And, in a sense, that latter fact holds true even beyond the Carnatic world. I only know what the first two words of the operatic aria Nessun Dorma mean, but the rest of it feels just as magical. I didn’t really know all the words I was hearing when I first listened to noisy bands such as Guns ‘n’ Roses, and I suspect that thrash metal fans can testify similarly. Russians knew nothing about the music of Raj Kapoor’s films except that they liked it. The music subsumes the word, and perhaps that is not altogether a bad thing.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at email@example.com