Classical music must innovate and draw young listeners. Indian’s weakness for myth-making, forgetting history, making heroes of saint, politicians, plain villains!
In the West, much new, innovative music created and much new style of music writing. I was reading through, for the second time, of a life of the Carnatic music legend, Tyagaraj, because a foreigner had written it (OUP).
Thus, I find that though the musician lived just a half century before the close of the 19th century, almost just a hundred years before Independence, there are more myths about him, than objective, critical and sceptical views about a human’s capacities and limitations. I was visiting not longago the Chandragiri fort near Tirupathi, where the last big raja had signed a document leasing out the Chennai territory to Francis Day to build the Fort St. George. Then, Perhaps, another raja, paid a handsome rent to the British resident-collector in Chittoor in 1809! The fortunes of the Indians, Indian kings changed so rapidly in the last 300 years of British rule (in the South), Tipu defeated in 1799, British became powerful , the Tanjore Maratha court crumbled. Carnatic music flourished in Tanjore, around Tiruvaiaru, the living place for three Carnatic trinities.
Saint Thyagaraja, referred to from now onwards as saint was born in 1767, died in 1847. His life is briefly known, he sang, he composed songs, he had some disciples who wrote down his songs and his brief biographical dates. There are references in his devotional songs to his secular, practical life, his house partioned, his songs have army tunes, but he has less on the practical life, less than Purandaradas, nor band music he had bothered to sing this world’s problems or offered solutions. All his songs were about his deity, Lord Rama.
The book by William Jackson on Thyagaraja, life and Lyrics (OUP) is now more than a decade old and most must have read this book. What is striking is that in the last fifty years of the 19th century, more legends and unsubstantiated stories have built up around this saint and the lyrics are so soul-stirring and appealing to our senses, there is now a dead hand of conservatism, the Carnatic music didn’t evolve, no innovations or growing with the world outside, as Hindustani music, instrumental music of sitar, tabla are known though out the world.
The reason is the peculiar character of the Tanjavur brahmins, now generally called the Tamil brahmins, the Madras brahmin’s penchant for self preservation and they do so by making the saint music more and more esotoric. Also, no progressive mind, some eminent musicians like Balamurali Krishna are not given the due recognition, perhaps the only Carnatic musician who is extremely capable of extending the meaning of the saint’s appealing music, Bala’s mother tongue is also Telugu, as the saint ’s, also quite innovative, creator of more new ragas. He invites comparion with Ravi Sankar in his approach to music. But the atmosphere in Chennai could be killing to any serious musician or listener, if the Music Academy approach to music is the only indicator. There is now much politics in the Carnatic music, only the outsiders, outsiders to Chennai environment, names like L. Subramaniam, the violinist, and Bala (who was invited by AP government) to promote Carnatic music in the State, others who gather around the Chennai brahmin community suffer serious handicaps, by way of orthodoxy, partisan politics and a general averseness towards any innovative experiments.
Even then, Carnatic music tradition had been greatly influenced by foreigninfluences, violin, now Saxaphone, guitar and even the use of orchestra had brought out some promising experiments and the modern audience, young and educated and exposed to a wider musical influence, both pop and classical, have taken to listening to Carnatic music performances in many cities and towns outside Chennai. There are now much competition from other classical music, North Indian music though it originates from the Hindustani musical base, regional pride and regional bases are coming to the notice of cosmopolitan audiences. Thus, for instance, in Bangalore, there is much appreciation of music by the visiting Carnatic musicians from Chennai, but at the same time, there are also classical musicians from Mysore, Dharward and even Pune.
The music cassette shops are mushrooming and even buy any music of one’s choice easily. The author, a foreigner, that too an American easily fell for the local contacts that only led him astray, and into much verbosity and much non-sense into adding, rather than disentangling the myths around the singer-musician. It is time we liberate music, much of Carnatic music into the wider world of musical writings in the Western quality journals. The Financial Times Week End Review carries routine much good writing on what is happening around the world. I read a book (Stradivari’s Genius), the legendary violin maker of Italy who in the three centuries became a brad name, as much as Picasso, Shapespeare for violing making. To own a Strad (the brand name violine) is like owning a Rolls Royce!
So many stirring anecdotes! How a Strad can fetch as much as a mind-boggling 48,000 pounds in 1927! It would not be misunderstood if one says that the present day Carnatic music and also Bharata Natyam practices in Chennai had become more academic and in music specially you see more the punditry, rather than the creative individuality of the musicians. Bharatha Natyam in the hands of so-called English language-educated middle class ladies is a bit dry and lacks genuine atheistics.
Kalakshtra style itself shows this suppression of individuality in the dancers trained there. I also read about a famed Orchestra now bringing Palestinian and Israeli children to play music. There must be some living current to any music, more so for Carnatic music to stir the public’s consciousness. There is no point in being conservative no reason of being conservative in music, in any genre of music.
How the music took the shape it did, is not narrated in any objective way in the book, though the book stands out as refreshing in giving some insight into the mind of a sensitive soul, while the Muslim, British invasions changed the fortunes of landowners, kings and the Brahmins who somehow managed to survive and acquire, in the process, as I see so much cunningness and selfish genes to see them through in subsequent centuries to the present day. Unless the modern presentation is agreeable to modern conveniences of the modern day listener, the halls must be comfortable, tickets must be easily available, the sessions must be brief so as to enable to listener not to be bored easily. Thus, what menu goes into a musical session counts more than who sings and how long the session lasts.
It is always more relaxing if the innovative element is introduced in the performances. There are now specific music compositions for relaxation, for therapy, mind’s peace, so many other offerings, all meant to draw more listeners.