The notion that all art is political is often accompanied by immediate examples of music made out of angst or anger: rap, heavy metal, grunge. Perhaps because of its genteel appearance, or because of the impression that to be classical is to be inert, classical music is believed to be far less political. It’s an erroneous belief, of course. One needs only to think of Ludwig van Beethoven, who first dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon, hoping he would fulfil the democratic goals of the French Revolution. When he heard that Napoleon had, instead, crowned himself emperor, Beethoven scratched the dedication out of his score with a knife—in such rage that he left a hole in the paper.
Democrat: Ludwig van Beethoven. AFP
Two weeks ago, after some stray reading on Independence Day, I was struck by the influence that the British occupation of India had on Carnatic music—an influence that changed texture and tenor just as India’s own attitude to the occupation did. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Muthuswami Dikshitar—one of Carnatic music’s famed trinity—borrowed a number of the waltzes, jigs, folk songs and marching tunes that he heard British bands play, teased them into the scale of the raga Sankarabharanam, wrote up Sanskrit verses, and produced a set of at least 40 compositions known as the Nottu Swaras. That title is, in a sense, redundant—nottu is a corruption of the word “note”, which is also what swara means—but it captures very nicely how rich in individually sung notes these compositions are.
How much should we make of this act of composition? Does it indicate a fondness for the British and their institutions, or was it only a musician’s reaction to other music? How much does it matter, for instance, that one of the Nottu Swaras was that most British of all compositions, God Save the Queen, merrily repurposed as Santhatham Pahimam? Or were the Nottu Swaras symbolic of a time when British rule was still viewed, on balance, as benign, or even advantageous?
The music historian V. Sriram cites other compositions that were much less ambiguous about their sentiment towards the British; a couple even directly praised or prayed for King George V. But in the early 20th century, as the independence movement began to gather momentum, that sentiment too changed direction. The Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi wrote, in elegant lyrics set to Carnatic ragas, songs of burning patriotism. In one translation of Sudandira Daaham (The Thirst for Freedom), Bharathi asked: “When will we slake our thirst for liberty?… When will our Mother’s manacles break open?” In Shanti Nilava Vendum, a favourite of the late D.K. Pattammal, the composer Sethumadhava Rao recalled Mahatma Gandhi’s spirit in his open-throated paean to peace.
If there is a gripe to be made about today’s lack of original compositions—or at least, original compositions making it to a stage—it is probably that a richly reactive art is in danger of losing its political quality. I am, however, not too worried. The Nottu Swaras, Bharathi’s songs and these other compositions functioned perfectly well from their position on the Carnatic periphery; they were, after all, never at the core of a concert. Should the occasion arise, I am sure Carnatic music will rediscover its political soul.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org