I prefer south India to north India. I also prefer south Indians to north Indians. I wish Mehmood had defeated Kishore Kumar in Padosan’s singing contest. The audience thinks Kishore’s Vidyapati trounces Mehmood’s Master Pillai. But Vidyapati is on home ground singing in Khamaj to a tabla playing Keherva and Teen Taal. Pillai is singing the other man’s music. What if it had been the other way around?
The south Indian can access the north Indian’s music easily. Often he even masters it. Witness Kannadigas Kumar Gandharva and Mallikarjun Mansur in Hindustani music. Or Tamilians A.R. Rahman and Shankar Mahadevan in Bollywood.
The reverse isn’t true. North Indians have little access to Carnatic, being able to neither penetrate its rhythm nor absorb its melody. Few can even bear listening to it because it is so foreign.
Classics: It takes merit to understand the true greatness of Subbulakshmi (centre). Photo by Hindustan Times.
Historian Ramachandra Guha once described reading an editorial on M.S. Subbulakshmi in a Hindi newspaper, I think it was Dainik Bhaskar. He reported that the writer accurately and knowledgeably illustrated the difference between the two music systems, and was able to locate the Carnatic singer’s greatness.
This is exceptional and it is the rare north Indian writer who has interest in, let alone knowledge of, the south’s music. On the other hand, the best writer on Hindustani music I have read is a south Indian, Raghava R. Menon.
The north Indian caricatures the south Indian in his popular culture, his movies. This caricature is an accurate reflection of his own crudeness and lack of subtlety. The south Indian has no such caricature for the north. In fact, he is inclusive, and Bollywood movies are shown in Chennai, to say nothing of Bangalore and Hyderabad. I don’t think it is only the northern expatriate who watches these, but again we cannot say the same of southern movies in the north.
Clearly, the two cultures are different. Let’s look at some of the substantive ways in which they differ.
The first thing that strikes us is that south Indians have a written classical music. This has enormous implications. It separates them from north Indians who have no canon of music. The average southerner can assess a performance of his classical music better than the average northerner can. This is because he knows how a particular song is to be sung. He understands how long it must be, where and how the thing must be modulated. And he knows how others have sung it, because the works of Purandaradasa, Thyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar are standards.
To appreciate Hindustani music other than instinctively, a northerner must study the deep form of his music, which few can. Else, he must just nod his head at the mood emoted by the singer, which is what most do, saying: “Wah!”
Writer Sheila Dhar observed that even here the southerner was different. On first encountering it, she described the sound of appreciation made by listeners of Carnatic music thus: “Whenever the listener was smitten by something particularly wonderful that the performer was doing, he would raise his chin, bring his lips together in a protruding ‘O’, and make a series of little clicking sounds by striking the tongue against the back of the front teeth, gently shaking his head from side to side in mock helplessness.”
Their canon makes south India’s classical tradition like that of Europe’s, where also the music of the classical period is recorded by note and reproduced in exact fashion.
The second thing that strikes me as being different is that south India’s high culture has little influence of Islam. It is Hindu culture, not a mix. There is not as much secular music in Carnatic as there is in Hindustani. There’s no equivalent of “Ganga Jamuni”, as the northerner refers to his high culture, a mix of Hindu tradition and the aristocratic Perso-Arabic tradition produced during Muslim rule.
This might be seen as a bad thing. But the south Indian is actually quite tolerant.
There are five loud mosques around my house in Bangalore, and some robust proselytizing on the billboards surrounding them. However, this carries on without any sense of friction.
North India’s high culture is Indo-Persian, whether in music or poetry. Even some of the popular culture is influenced by Islam, such as Amir Khusro. What is the south Indian Muslim’s high culture? I do not know.
There is no urban Muslim aristocracy here unlike the north, were one to exclude the Dakhni speakers of Hyderabad. Much of the culture appears imitative of the north’s Indo-Persian tradition. This seems out of place here, and perhaps one reason for the lack of mingling is that for the most part the southern Muslim’s culture is low church, and therefore unappealing to the outsider.
I puzzled over what the name of the largest mosque near my house—called Khuddus Saheb—meant till I looked at the Arabic lettering which showed it to be in fact Quddus Saheb. Similarly, Qadiriya is spelled Khadiriya on the mosque in English. This is a mistake no educated north Indian Muslim will make because the letter qaaf is different from the letter khay.
The third thing is southern tolerance. Unlike the Baniya’s, the southern Brahmin’s vegetarianism isn’t oppressive. The intolerant and insular Gujaratis and Marwaris of Malabar Hill (writer Bachi Karkaria called them the Malabar Hill Tribes) have banished all meat from their neighbourhoods.
There is little sign of such horror of pork and beef eaters around where I live. This may be because the area is not a traditional Brahmin neighbourhood. But generally speaking, the Gujarati’s fanaticism against meat is absent.
The fourth thing is the most important one for me. Mumbai has its charms, but an intellectual life isn’t among them. It is a city of singularly dull conversation. This is because south Mumbai is dominated by Gujaratis, who are not an intellectual people and quite proud of that fact. In the north of the city, Bollywood’s cacophony effectively obliterates any other culture. It is true that the middle-class Marathi is different, but he has no voice.
To my mind, the south’s urban culture is more intellectual. My hypothesis is that this is so because its culture is dominated by the Brahmin. I like keeping the company of Brahmins, I must admit. When I listen to intelligent conversation in Bangalore and look around the table, they dominate. People like U.R. Ananthamurthy would not be treasured in another culture as they are in Bangalore. It seems to me that civic life here is more intellectual, and certainly it strives to be more intellectual than in Gujarat or Maharashtra.
The fifth observation is the commonly found ability of south Indians to speak another (southern) state’s language. This comes from proximity more than from any pressing desire to be multicultural. But it shows the southerner’s openness, and even his canon of sacred music includes songs from another state, in another’s language.
Few Gujaratis speak Marathi or are bothered to learn it, even when they live in Mumbai. Cartoonist Hemant Morparia is the only Gujarati I know who engages with Mumbai’s Marathi theatre.
I like Mumbai, and it is our one great city. But getting off a flight from that city and into one of the cabs at Bangalore’s airport is always a relief.
As I said, I prefer south India, and it is where I call home.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns