Somewhere between Thyagaraja and Tchaikovsky exists a thin line of pathos. If the previous statement makes me look like I have had one too many — well, maybe I have. But consider: This state, somewhere in between being mildly sozzled and completely inebriated, is the perfect state of mind to listen to Tchaikovsky; or Thyagaraja for that matter.
Soulful: Russian violinist Dmitri Makhtin performs a Tchaikovsky concerto.
Before music purists beat me down with a stick, let me say that many legends including Flute Mali gave bravura performances only after a peg…or several. Saint Thyagaraja abstained but not so Tchaikovsky. Both these composers, born nearly a century apart — Thyagaraja in 1767 in Tiruvarur village in Tamil Nadu and Tchaikovsky in 1840 in imperial Russia — were masters of communicating mood through music. I will go further. Like Bingo Little, Bertie Wooster’s pal in the Jeeves novels, both of them poured their wounded souls into musical stanzas. And both of them understood pathos.
Pathos is a hugely underrated emotion in today’s world. The Greeks understood it and it became the basis of most of their tragedies, with Oedipus lopping off his father’s head, marrying his mother and yet, being deemed a puppet king.
Pathos is not sadness; it is a way of enjoying sorrow without being engulfed in it. When I looked up the meaning of pathos in the dictionary, I discovered that pathos (appealing to emotions) was one of the three “modes of persuasion” advocated by Aristotle. The other two are logos (appealing to logic) and ethos (appealing to morality and authority).
The best way to experience the delights of musical pathos is to listen to Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar play a sonorous Todi raga in his rudra veena in the waning hours of evenfall. As any good Malayali will tell you, these pleasures increase manifold when you have a glass of fully bloomed toddy or Goanese cashew feni in hand. This same felicity can be achieved by listening to Bombay Jayashree sing the raga, Shubha Pantuvarali (the Carnatic equivalent of the Hindustani Todi); which brings me right back to Thyagaraja’s composition in this pathos-laden raga: Ennalu Urake.
Most of Thyagaraja’s compositions are direct entreaties to his favourite god, Ram. Most of Tchaikovsky’s compositions were reflections of his conflicted soul; his angst towards his distant patroness, his sexual identity and mental torments. After composing his masterpiece, the Sixth Symphony, Tchaikovsky — worried that his homosexual affair would come to light — consumed arsenic and killed himself; life imitating art.
Now, I don’t know too much about Western classical music, but it is difficult not to be moved by Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. It is full of half notes, which are great for expressing angst. The first movement begins with unnerving juxtapositions—of soft harmonies against loud cymbals. There are shades of Raga Shivaranjani in it, another evening raga expressing romance and sorrow. Shivaranjani is also the basis of Jane kahan gaye woh din in Mera Naam Joker, which, as it turns out, is hugely popular among Russians. Maybe they recognize Tchaikovsky?
I think there is a connection between Russian and Indian souls. We share black humour; a love of monumental epics, grand in scope and sweeping in emotion, complete with incest, blasphemy and rage. Tolstoy or Mahabharata — what’s the difference? We are both ancient cultures with a love of mathematics and chess — Viswanathan Anand and Garry Kasparov — aligned against a love of music, dance and theatre. We both have corrupt governments and fatalistic citizens.
This latent pessimism is not surprising, given Russia’s long nights that foster warm fires and brooding thoughts. But India is sunny and colourful; and as any interior designer worth his name will tell you, this environment should not foster pessimism. But there it is: this strange link between Tchaikovsky and Thyagaraja; Anand and Kasparov; Swan Lake and Nala Damayanti; Grigori Perelman and Ramanujam. The deepest connect between Eastern Slavic peoples (Russians and Ukranians) and Indians, in my view, is our instinctive understanding of pathos, which is beautifully expressed in our music.
Compare this to the European composers whose music, in my mind, reflects the temperate climes they were born into. Mozart was a buffoon and a genius, as the movie Amadeus wonderfully portrays. His music was structurally perfect: every note was exactly where it should have been; and even one change would have made the whole concerto collapse. At least, that’s what Einstein said about Mozart’s music. But mood? Mozart doesn’t let it all hang out in his concertos (his operas, particularly Don Giovanni, are an exception; but then, operas are all about letting it hang out). Thyagaraja, by contrast, didn’t worry so much about harmonic convergences or structural perfection. His music was all about mood.
The Thyagaraja kriti I am learning now is a case in point. It is called Nee Dayarada in the evocative raga, Vasantha Bhairavi. It is a simple kriti — barely eight lines — and it means something like, “won’t you take pity on me”. My guru, 88-year-old R.K. Srikantan (who is currently in Cleveland, enthralling audiences with his music, I am sure), sings this song with amazing restraint. He lets you glimpse his soul without baring it all. This restraint is very seductive and yet, it brings out the pathos imbued in the song.
In today’s theatre and movies, however, most film-makers are loath to portray the kind of pathos that permeated even a Meena Kumari movie. But it is hard to keep out pathos from our music.
For a while now, I have wondered why most of the Hindi movie songs I love have an Islamic element in them. Of all the songs in Fanaa, I love Chand Sifarish the best and even in that, the section that goes “Subhan Allah”, is the one I sing out loud. Ditto with Ya Ali from the film Gangster, which I listen to ad nauseum. I think it is because Arabs, too, understand pathos. Like all ancient cultures, the Arabs, too, understand that what’s here today may be gone tomorrow. It is that instinctive understanding of the temporality of everything that differentiates Russians, Indians and Arabs from that very young culture, America. I need hardly add that Americans don’t celebrate pathos (barring African Americans who come from perhaps the most ancient culture there is and express this pathos beautifully in Soul music). The same is true of the American South. But the bulk of American culture — Broadway musicals, the movies and rock concerts — doesn’t much engage with the maudlin. They prefer the straightforward joy or sorrow approach, not the shades in between. Then again, Americans are a young people — give them a few centuries and their music, too, may have shades of the ragas Todi or Shubha Pantuvarali. Listen to these ragas at dusk with a glass of wine. I recommend it.
Shoba Narayan enjoys pathos. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org