It often seems to us amateurs that, to appreciate every last nuance of Carnatic music, one must be a true polymath—the sort, we’re always assured, that our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were. A mastery over ragas is only a beginning, a mere scratch on a substantial surface. There is the mathematical acuity needed to grasp the hundred-plus talas, or cycles of beats (I continue to struggle so comically with this that I console myself that such a skill must be innate, that either one has it or one doesn’t, and that I don’t). There is the familiarity with scripture, which helps catch oblique lyrical allusions. There is the faculty of memory, permitting comparisons across time. Most directly, there is the knowledge of multiple languages, required to really understand the songs being sung on stage.
A Carnatic concert’s linguistic canvas can resemble a portrait of Indian diversity. Through its most substantial portion, beginning with the brisk varnam and up to the so-called “main piece”, a concert can traverse through Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Sanskrit. Subsequently, that terrain opens up even further, beyond those five languages, into Marathi, Hindi and Bengali. This assortment of tongues is daunting; it also leads to frequent friction. One of the eternal debates in Carnatic music runs roughly as follows: If a singer from Chennai performs in Bangalore, should she sing more Kannada songs than usual? Some audiences believe so; others prefer to leave it to the singer; the artistes themselves fiercely guard their prerogative to choose.
Melodious: The 16th century composer Purandaradasa wrote mostly in Kannada. Photo: Sruti Foundation
For a performer, knowing and understanding the meaning of lyrics is, without doubt, vital. Every song comes freighted with a particular bhava (feeling) made explicit by its libretto, so singing words of devotional despair with joyous stridency, for instance, is a gross misstep. Happily, students at advanced levels of musical training are always taught the precise import of the songs they learn. Pronunciation, though, is a more frequent casualty, since artistes aren’t necessarily fluent in the languages they sing in. A Hyderabadi friend insists that there is nothing quite like hearing M. Balamuralikrishna render a Thyagaraja composition in Telugu, his mother tongue.
I find myself divided on how much it helps a listener to know every, or even any, one of the languages being sung. On the one hand, I’ve encountered the thrill, on infrequent occasions, of being moved by a song I understand completely. Individual vowels and consonants seem to come alive with colour and significance, and the words breathe. It’s not an experience to be written off lightly.
But the romantic notion that music can communicate beyond the barriers of language is still a powerful one, easy to believe because we want so much to believe it. As proof, perhaps, are the full concert halls of Chennai. I’m certain that very few people in those audiences know the meaning of every song they hear, and certain also that a large number don’t know the meaning of a single song. And yet there they are, obviously enjoying the music, without even the benefit of the Italian-into-English surtitles common in opera houses. In such cases, it is easier to agree with Goethe: Only when ideas fail do words come in handy.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at email@example.com