Classical music in democratic times!

From the Tanjore Court  to Madras Music Academy

A social history of music in South India By Lakshmi Subramanian, OUP, 2006, pp 196

The rise and fall of classical music? Not necessarily!

It is always great to be a connoisseur of classical music, arts. Only a high society that appreciates the great classical arts, music, dance and much else, can sustain  a high culture.

Seen in this perspective, the Indian music and dance, more so the  Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam, had got revived thanks to many promotional interventions, but somehow, the arts got stuck in a middle class mindset.

First, the book. A curious  title  I thought when I ordered the book from my usual bookshop supplier. Why curious? What is special about the South Indian music, called as Carnatic music, and the link between the Tanjore Court and the Madras Music Academy?

So, I read through the pages and found the book is making some new contributions to our understanding of how Carnatic music evolved. For long there was no objective writing on the Carnatic music by those based in Chennai, being mostly Brahmins, these musical experts, they have a way of  eulogising music as if it was a divine gift from Tyagaraja and as if it is the beginning and end of music!

Such clannishness used to put me off reading the usual texts that are put out during the December music seasons. There was one book, again by OUP, written by one  William Jackson, which didn’t fully satisfying to me and yet I read with some interest as I imagined that a foreigner might give some objective insights and intelligent guesses.

This  book  is much more interesting as for the first time I learn that how the music from the court of Serfoji I(1798-1832) grew out of the peculiar temperament of the King, whose interests in composing music, marching tunes for his military bands also shaped his courtly ways to assemble and listen to musicians and the shape the musical performance took. These rather’ trivial compositions were made in European notations’. The king also had the curious  notion of placing guards to prevent others to enter and disturb his head during the musical performance, so a new etiquette for musical performance evolved, says the author, rather interestingly. There is a reference to such an order in an earlier book by one AMC Mudaliar(Oriental music in European notations, first published in 1893.So,we can believe such stories. In 1820 the same court issued a number of orders regulating the sartorial code, the social status of court dancers, there were too many at that time, and the dancers were also prescribed rules of certain colour prohibited and also the mode of their conveying the various postures were regulated.

We can only imagine the social status of the musicians and dancers, must have  been very low and also much degraded for a polite society.

The king also composed himself a dance-cum-dramatic performance(Devendra Kuravanji)which even today reads  rather  too explicit in its certain descriptions and thus, we can only imagine the sort of things there were refined and others not so refined. Serfoji was an improviser par excellence, for it is to him the credit must go to elevate the arts that were not yet  fit subjects for court display and it is really a historic turn the Carnatic vocal and instrumental music as well as Bharata Natyam received the  court recognition.

I had visited the Tanjore court premises more than once in recent times and every time I go there I come back with some new insights or other. There was plenty of time hanging on the king and the court with no real power to rule and that is why the Serfoji era had created so much of art treasures. The library itself is a rare treasure and so is his other art patronage. He was a much traveled man for his times and his all India perspective, I am sure, must have given the king the  real opportunity to give the local arts. Degraded much by the illiterate feudal patrons to a more refined arts stage by an enlightened king.

The Saraswathy Mahal Library contains the books collected and read by the king and he had read Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon and much more! He had written in the passages of the books such notes! The catholic tastes of the king were shaped by his tutor, the Christian missionary Schwartz. We can also easily visualise the situation in other neighbouring courts, like Ramnad, Mysore and Trivandrum where native kings presided over. Another factor  that contributed to the Catholicism of the musical and artistic tastes was the use of other languages like Telugu, Marathi, besides English, Sanskrit and Persian. This multilingual culture and the education curriculum under the king’s schools contributed to the evolution of a more refined musical taste. Thyagaraja himself sang in Telugu, his mother tongue.

The Nayaks who ruled before the Marathas, were following their Vijayanagara traditions, in being patrons of arts and learning. I learn for the first time that it is they, the Nayaks, who sponsored a major project of classification  of the melodic structures and a systematic theoretical compilation of musical texts. This was done by the now immortal, Venkatamakhin, the definitions of the 72- reference scale in 1660.He was none other than the son of Govinda Diksitar and minister for three generations of Nayak rulers in Tanjore. This text became the landmark in the evolution of music and Tanjore already earned its claim to historic glory. It is a curiosity that the trinity, namely, Syama Sastri (1762-1867),Tyagaraja(1767-1847),Muthuswamy Diksitar(1762-1867) must have had the impact of the classification of the musical notes and the practices that must have led to musicians to practice Carnatic music to such disciplines, I guess, must have contributed to the trinity, to produce such chaste and sophisticated  song compositions. Perhaps, Tyagaraja must have been more gifted.

This book tells us ,for me at any rate for the  first time that the early pioneers like  A.M.Chinnaswami Mudaliar wrote about the Carnatic music by presenting the Indian compositions in European notation. He complained in 1893 that no systematic  compilation was made yet on the real music of the country. He also says that the way the musicians sing,” the convulsions, grimaces and ungraceful gesticulations which inseparably accompany the performance of every musician of the east”. Rather even today this seems to be the practice, Carnatic music needs so many innovations, one the refined manner in which we have to present the music, if we are to gain respect in the international forums.

It is not out of place to point out that the Madras Academy did some atrocious things. It awarded a prize in 1931 to a kriti entitled,” In Praise of Bharat Mata”! In fact, it is much more interesting to learn that there was already a branch of Gayan Samaj in the 1870s to promote music among the newly emerging Madras middle classes.

The book brings to light, I believe, for the first time, the origins of a patronage class in Chennai, which started as pious city of gods and worshippers then under the British impact the dubashes became the merchant princes and they patronized music. These dubashes were mainly Vellalas, Pillais and Brahmins, with commercial interests and that meant big money and wealth.

The book gives a quick survey of the rise of music in the Karnataka country, the Sangeeta Ratnakara, to the country lying between Kaveri and Krishna and Godavari. It looks as if the more fertile tracts, as Tanjore was, had the wealth and the leisure for patronage of arts. The key figure of course was  Purandaradasa(1484-1564)who was a prolific composer. It is when the Nayak ruler migrated to Tanjore, musical art takes a classical form. The Madras Music Academy came late, in 1928 and that too out of an opportunity to coincide with the Congress week and the set of people who ran the Academy in the initial years and the later development as we today.

It is interesting to find that how Dikshitar was exposed to Chennai and to European musical tunes, he composed a song for God save the King! Also, his brother  Baluswamy was the first to use violin, till then a  foreign instrument. Syama Sastri was Tamil speaking brahmin and  became a typical Tanjore court musician. There were dancers, courtesans, Manga, Minakshi and Narayani who enjoyed the patronage of the court and the bigwigs and they only added to  the atmosphere to the Tanjore musical and dance traditions.

This book doesn’t explore the contributions of the dancers’ classes, the Tanjore Nattuvanars and their disciples, the role of the Devadasis in Tanjore and there must a need to evaluate the Tanjore Quartette, for a fuller appreciation of the Carnatic music and dance traditions.

Of course a whole chapter is devoted to the devadasis(Chapter four) and it is worth a reading.

Somehow, the rise and the social recognition  of such artists like M.S.Subbhalakshmi, Rukmani Devi Arundale seems to be the high point of the South Indian arts. Now, the so-called Madras middle classes seem to appreciate the music and dances just as an ornament, the done thing for various social ends, jobs and marriages to girls! While the Hindustani music and dances, Sitar, Bhimsen Joshi, Shenai and Kathak seem to have entered the international music circuit, the Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam only follow the North Indian push overseas.

Today the Carnatic music is rendered in a more mechanical manner, rare is a new talent, also the Bharata Natyam is less a search for tradition more a show in the name of new padams or presentation. Hence, we see a stagnation of any new insights or inspirational  performances. Also too much politics among the patrons!

I was more interested to know how the attempts to ‘modernise’ musical presentations proceeded. There are references to take the music to an all Indian level through Western notation, especially  Rev  H.A.Poley initiated such a debate  by his first contribution to the first edition of the Academy journal. The tile of the article is: ”A Plea for an All India System of Notations and Classification”. This was also in tune with the trend then at the all India level by such great teacher like V.N.Bhatkhande’s proposal. But somehow we can now look back and say the very middle class orthodoxy of the local brahmin class feared any radical changes. So innovation was not to take place and isolation rather made the Carnatic music still an exclusive preserve and pursuit.

Western musical instruments, more so the violin and clarinet are adoped. But the playing styles of  Western instruments are not as high as we find in the West. The Stradivarius violin! Has anyone heard of the name here? I wonder. So too the great other beautiful instruments we hear in Western concerts. It is good that now Zubin Mehta brought his orchestra to Chennai. From the interest of the audience, it looks the  Western classical  musical notes might endear here and might help to contribute to the new musical innovations. The late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe almost coincides with the classical revival in India too.

Enjoying classical music is a practice. The more we listen the more our ears and minds get tuned. So, the current globalisation might help to contribute the Western refinements might likewise refine our Indian musical performances and the stage etiquette and  innovative presentations.   However, there are now radical changes in the air. Much of modern fusion music is bound to impact the old methods. Even new musicians who are trained in Western musical traditions like L.Subramnanian draws  appreciative audience. In India as well as in the West.

The Hindustani music, more so the Sitar is seen now as an internationally appreciated instrument. Now, violin itself needs a new style of playing. So too the use of other instruments like Clarinet is more popular with the tradition-minded listeners.
I read somewhere that the Western orchestras came along as the new great big building of the Cathedrals beaded a more elevated, fuller representation of instruments to create the resonant sound to fill the great spaces.

May be India is yet to see such large musical halls we see in the Western capitals. The very physical environment might change our musical presentation too.

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