While I make the stray comment on an Internet forum or the occasional enthusiastic remark in this space, I have thus far resisted the temptation to write full-blown reviews of Carnatic music concerts. This has been rather easy, for one primary reason: I am supremely confident of how unqualified I still am to judge the various technicalities of this complex system of music. The philosophical debate about artistic criticism—about who is qualified to review performances—is, in fact, a very interesting one, alive in Carnatic music but also in many other spheres of the classical arts.
Rule setter: Philosopher David Hume. AFP
Here is the premise of that debate: A classical performer in her prime, say in her late 30s or early 40s, has been immersing herself full-time in a musical education for at least two decades and probably more. A critic of a similar age, on the other hand, is an aficionado of, or at best an irregular student of, the genre. In this theoretical match-up, there is little doubt about who knows more, and this is where musicians tend to feel aggrieved—that somebody less knowledgeable is sitting in judgement of their work.
There are slippery slopes on both sides of the debate. If we accepted the musician’s logic absolutely, performers would be reviewed only by their peers, forming an incestuous, closed network of criticism (extrapolating, every cricket commentator must be an ex-cricketer, and we would have no Harsha Bhogle; every film critic would be a former auteur, so no Pauline Kael). But too much lassitude promotes lazy, unlearned criticism, plenty of which we in India are inflicted with in the fields of cinema, literature and music.
Boiled down to its essence, this is simply a question of what we define a critic’s role to be. We don’t expect our critics to be expert performers in their own right; Itzhak Perlman could no doubt write a technically sophisticated review of a Joshua Bell violin recital, but that isn’t really what we want to read. We also don’t want our critics to be novices or laymen, content with trite evaluations such as “Sudha Raghunathan’s singing was mellifluous” or, worst of all, “This is a good time-pass movie”. Ideally, we need our critics to be interpreters, to train their acuity of thought on what they are seeing and hearing, and to relay those perceptions clearly and intelligently. We want generous context, either vertically through the art’s history or horizontally across the current state of the art. We want their thoughts and writing to be accessible, even if their expertise isn’t.
The best blueprint of a critic that I have come across was that drawn up by Scottish philosopher David Hume. Acknowledging that “(T)he taste of all individuals is not upon an equal footing,” Hume set down a meritocratic model. In his view, anybody could become a critic, provided they possessed five vital faculties: delicate taste; lack of bias; practice; common sense; and a wide experience of life. From even a cursory reading of the arts sections of Western publications, I can name three or four music critics who embody these faculties admirably. From a much deeper reading of Indian publications, I can perhaps, if severely pressed, think of one. If the condition of criticism is any sign at all of how much we cherish our arts, this is a matter for great sadness.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org