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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Carnatic music: the need for reinvention

Carnatic music: the need for reinvention

How do you make classical music relevant to a global audience? How can you expand its reach?

T.M. Krishna needs to come up with a strong reason for innovation. Photo: Hariharan Sankaran Premium
T.M. Krishna needs to come up with a strong reason for innovation. Photo: Hariharan Sankaran

How do you make classical music relevant to a global audience? Should you even try? Today’s audience for Carnatic music ranges from Cleveland in the US to Chennai, and these are the hard-core ones. How can you expand its reach? Is it by removing the bhakti-rasa or devotional tone that some believe to be its core? Is it by changing the concert format, as some are doing? Or is it by developing a smartphone app?

In a wonderful piece published in the India International Centre Quarterly, Autumn 2006 edition, titled From Court to Academy: Karnatik Music, history professor Lakshmi Subramanian explains how “Karnatik music" attained its present format. It was a confluence of events that could serve as a blueprint for the future. In the piece, Prof. Subramanian traces how Carnatic music went from the courts of the Maratha rulers of Tanjore to the sabhas of Chennai.

Traditional Indian music, be it Hindustani or Carnatic, was sung in three arenas—communal group singing such as bhajans; court singing by experts; and ritual singing by devadasis or courtesans inside temples. The Maratha ruler, Serfoji II, who ruled over Tanjore, then the seat of Carnatic music, was a cultured “Europeanized Indian", who wanted music to be notated and standardized. Until then, our music was not written down but orally transmitted.

Given this situation, it is easy to make a case that some would consider heretical. The reason we still continue to sing songs by the Trinity—Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri and Thyagaraja—is not only because they were musical geniuses but also because they lived at a time when musical notation was coming into being. Theirs were the first songs to be written down. This gave their compositions a historical specialness that later composers did not enjoy. The founding of Pune’s Gayan Samaj in 1874, and the Chennai branch a couple of years later, made the focus of musical standardization and notation a project that the cultured elite took on. It was a way for them to forge a cultural identity. As Prof. Subramanian says, “The aura and weight of the Tanjore tradition became the point of reference for cultural engineers as they embarked on the project of reinventing the classical tradition in the 20th century."

Here are the things that caused Carnatic music to be reinvented in the way it exists today. Thyagaraja and other composers’ works were written down by their disciples. Many of these disciple-musicians moved from Tanjore to Madras to make a living. Royal patronage by the Maratha rulers of Tanjore was on its way out. Sabhas were being created. The ruling British elite was dismissive of Indian classical music, which it viewed as inferior. Indian musicians had to counter this charge somehow. They wanted to make their music “equal" to the Western classical music that the British were touting. They were in a new city: Chennai. They were caught in the throes of a movement to standardize and notate their, until-then unwritten, music. All these forces created the kutcheri format as it exists today.

Although singer Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar is credited with its creation, it was actually a cohort of musicians; along with the Madras Music Academy, and scholars like Prof. P. Sambamoorthy, who came up with the concert format as a way of both attracting a mass audience; and standardizing Carnatic music so that even foreigners could appreciate it; or at least approve of it.

None of this is happening today. Indian classical music is not under foreign threat. We have no Britishers who are questioning our heritage and culture, somewhat like what the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is doing to the Congress and BJP, thus forcing them to examine and articulate their core principles. We have musicians who navigate the globe and are thus influenced by global music but they operate as individuals, not a cohort. There is no group of musicians who meet at cafés, like the impressionists did in Paris. It takes an informal but vibrant discourse to create a new form. Everyone has to buy in to new ideas. You need scholars like Prof. Sambamoorthy to help formalize free-wheeling ideas. Art critic Clement Greenberg did that for the free-wheeling norms that the abstract expressionist painters came up with.

Carnatic music is therefore missing every element of transformation. There is no sponsor or underwriter like the erstwhile kings who can nudge musicians to think outside the box. There is no collective, either formal or informal, where musicians can meet and cross-pollinate ideas. Conferences can help to some extent, but they don’t encourage conversation, only paper-presentation.

What today’s musicians need is an adda in Chennai where a group of like-minded musicians can meet with scholars, musicologists, and event planners on a regular basis. Rather than competing with each other for lucrative concerts, they need to collaborate and come up with new concepts. Lastly, you need publicists to disseminate the idea to the listening public; to encourage buy-in. Which other area has done this?

In terms of reinventing a nationally beloved icon, the thing that comes to mind is cricket and the Indian Premier League (IPL). Even the most rabid lovers of the sport rarely hark back to the days of five-day matches; which means that the IPL experiment has worked. The second Indian icon that has reinvented itself for a global audience is yoga, which is now practised in one form or another throughout the world. Pandit Ravi Shankar, whatever his flaws, helped popularize Hindustani music to a Western audience. Should Carnatic musicians bring foreign singers into the fold so that they can inject new ideas? Should Beyoncé and T-Pain collaborate with S. Sowmya and Sanjay Subrahmanyan?

What is the purpose of reinvention, if any? To expand the listener and rasika base without diluting the music. How can that be done? Through brain-storming with multiple stakeholders: musicians, visionary sabha secretaries, rasikas, musicologists, event planners. I think T.M. Krishna needs a Koshy’s: a place where he can formulate his new ideas with like-minded intellectuals, without agenda, without ego. This group can come up with ideas for innovation; one that fans will buy into. Younger singers who know their history and music have to be looped in to refine and adjust the blueprint. Publicists and scholars can spread the word.

How did Lalit Modi reinvent cricket? How did AAP reinvent politics?

Carnatic music needs a leader-musician; someone who can forge a consensus. As the recent Oscar ad for the winning film, 12 Years a Slave said, “It is time".

Shoba Narayan watched and was underwhelmed by 12 Years a Slave. This is the last piece in a weekly, four-part series on the evolution of Carnatic music.

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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Published: 29 Mar 2014, 12:03 AM IST
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