Forgive me, but it is raining music in the South these days, inspiring me, almost forcing me, to write about it. Yesterday, I attended a wonderful Carnatic music concert by Vijay Siva, whose strict adherence to classicism was soul-elevating. He had two tanpuras manned by live people behind him— none of the electronic tanpuras that are in vogue these days. Tomorrow, I plan to attend a concert by the Priya sisters. What is unusual about all this is not the fact that these musicians are good; it is that they are all so young; most of them are 40 and below.
Happily, Carnatic music is undergoing a resurgence in South India. It wasn’t always this way. When I was a teenager in Chennai, Carnatic music was in danger of dying out. The older stalwarts such as M.L.V., M.S. and Balamurali were still singing, but there were no younger artistes to take their place. How things can change in a span of 20 years! Now, a growing number of enthusiastic and accomplished singers and instrumentalists are giving Carnatic music life while preserving its tradition. More important, it has found an eager and appreciative audience; one that is willing to cross oceans to partake of it— witness the NRI presence at Chennai’s December music season.
No art can survive on the merit of the artistes alone. Art requires patronage, sponsorship and a discerning audience. Carnatic music is enjoying this rare confluence of factors. The musicians themselves are very good and there are enough of them to go around. Many are young and offer the potential for improvement for an audience willing to bet on them. Best of all, the four South Indian states have spawned an explosion of sabhas, concert halls and samajs that are willing to nurture and support a multitude of musicians. Bangalore has the Gayana Samaj, the Ram Seva Mandali, the Indiranagar Sangeet Sabha and others. Chennai has too many to count. Kerala and Andhra Pradesh sponsor cutcheris year-round.
The four southern states each share a special bond with Carnatic music. Andhra Pradesh, arguably, is the mother lode and Saint Thyagaraja, its missionary son. The sweet Telugu language seems particularly suited to Thyagaraja’s songs, which mixed the familiarity of a lover with the impassioned pleas of a devotee. His kriti in the vibrant raga Atana, for instance, is typical of the questions that pepper his songs: Ela nee dayaradu? In modern terms, Thyagaraja draws a vivid portrait of how great the Lord is, and then provides the kicker: If you are so great, why is your grace eluding me? Ela nee dayaradu?
Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri, the other two in the divine trinity, sang mostly in Sanskrit.
Kerala musicians render these with practised ease, given Malayalam’s affinity to Sanskrit diction. Kerala had its own princely composer—King Swati Thirunal.
The remaining two are no lightweights. Tamil Nadu has now become home to some of the best Carnatic musicians and the prestigious December season. Karnataka, where I live, is unique because it straddles Carnatic and Hindustani music, encouraging both in a way that is typical of this large-hearted state. Gangubhai Hangal is feted with as much veneration as Balamurali Krishna.
After most concerts, I hang around outside and listen to the cognoscenti talk. I love listening to truly knowledgeable rasikas expound on the delights and merits of a particular raga, a kriti or even a sangati (a passage).
When my husband was in IIT, there was a term that was used to refer to students who were so preternaturally brilliant that they could almost teach the professors. They were called “daads” and their “fundas” were absolutely clear. They could solve thermodynamic equations in minutes and design computer applications with an ease that was awesome because it was completely untutored. To this day, my husband talks about these students—men with names such as Pandurang Naik and Joy Thomas—and holds them in an esteem that far surpasses his admiration for the toppers in business school or his colleagues on Wall Street. Those were the real McCoys, he said. Simply hanging around them was enough; and enough to make you tongue-tied.
I haven’t been to IIT, but that’s how I feel about Carnatic music “daads” who can connect the dots between raga Yaman Kalyani and kaapi in a way that I can only dream about. Similar to thermodynamic equations, Carnatic music, too, has its own jargon, which takes a while to understand. But once you get the hang of it, it is like being admitted into an exclusive club. You can watch the “daads” debate the merits of a particular niraval and nod as if you know what they are talking about. Or, you can wander incognito into Internet newsgroups such as Rec.music.indian- classical.com and listen to expositions on music.
(Shoba regularly lurks around Carnatic music newsgroups. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org)