Come  December and one can see the city of Chennai  come musically alive. All the various “Sabhas” and their timetable of “Kutcheris”  are topics of discussion among a group of people who call themselves ‘rasikas” or music lovers.  National dailies like  “The Hindu” give these events a lot of prominence especially in their Friday review section.  If you go past some of the auditoriums where these performances are held you can see ladies in brightly colored Kanjeevaram sarees with diamonds glinting on their ears and noses. The men can be seen wearing long kurtas ( called Jibbas) over freshly laundered “veshtis”. I am told that there are NRIs  who come every year from their home aborad just so they can attend these concerts.

But wait, this is not a post about this wonderful “culture” that defines Chennai during this month of Margazhi! For starters, I have never been a fan of Carnatic music!  May be it has something to do with  having been forced to learn it during my younger days. I was often told by my mother that I had absolutely no ear for the “finer sounds” given my love for Hindi film music. It was towards my late teens that I realized that I was not incapable of appreciating classical music! That was the time that I discovered Hindustani Classical music!

As I heard more of Hindustani Classical music I learnt  about the artistes who performed and one of the first things that struck me about this form of music was the way , music and melody helped transcend religious and communal boundaries. If there was a Bismillah Khan playing the Shehnai or Ustad Amjad Ali Khan playing the Sarod, there was also a Gangubai Hangal  or a Pandit Bhimsen Joshi singing or a Pandit Ravi Shankar playing the sitar .  And what I found most unique about this form of music was that people associated themselves with styles of music or “gharanas” which roughly translated can also mean “lineages” in musical styles. Hindus, Muslims, Maharashtrians, Bengalis, Punjabis – they were all artistes united by the identity of belonging to the same “lineage” or genre of music. They were almost like members of a family and treated one another so. But more than anything, what really moved me was the way that music served as the inclusive force.  This diversity did not limit itself to the performers but extended to the audience or the listeners who were as diverse.

However when I look at the Carnatic music scene today (or for that matter that of yesterday's) one of the first things that strikes me is the fact that its appreciation and access is limited to people of a certain community. Yes, there are a few exceptions ( like Sheikh Chinna Maulana) but overall it is dominated by people from a particular religion and caste.  This obviously extends to the “rasikas” too. You only have to overhear conversation at the food stalls in some of the Sabhas to know who they are. Interestingly  this exclusivity is seen much less in the dance scene of the south – Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Mohiniattam do have a diversity of performers. In fact I have also seen a Catholic priest perform a wonderful Bharatanatyam recital. Unfortunately ,I am yet to see a Catholic priest sing a Carnatic vocal. Yesudas,  the only Christian Carnatic musician that I know of, I understand is facing some excommunication issues within the folds of his church  
I have sometimes wondered why the Carnatic tradition is so insular while the Hindustani tradition is more open and inclusive? One of the reasons I guess is that the later  has had the benefit of taking in influences from different genres of music – Indian and West Asian as both the Moghul rulers and the Rajputs popularized it. The Bhakti saints Meera, Surdas, Tulsidas and Kabir introduced a folk angle to it and brought it even closer to the people as they used local dialects like Brij, Awadhi etc in their compositions.   While Carnatic composers like Andal, Thyagaraya and Ramadas did compose songs in Tamil and Telugu I am not sure it was the dialect of the weaver, the potter or the fisherman that they used!
Another interesting point of difference between these two traditions that comes to my mind is the largely “Bhakti Ras  content of the Carnatic style. The Hindustani style includes within it a number of “Shringar Ras” compositions. The emotions of Shringar –love, separation, longing are universal! They can be expressed by a person of any religion openly while the Carnatic  compositions were in Sanskrit or high flown Tamil, Telugu, Kannada  in praise of a God - Rama or Krishna etc. Is it a surprise then that the Church should feel threatened when Yesudas sings “ Hariharatamajam…” in praise of Lord Ayappa?

There is a certain close mindedness to fusion that I see in the Carnatic style. While Carnatic musicians have adapted western musical instruments like the violin and the mandolin to their  style very effectively, one does not really see them infuse the western style into their rendition. The closest that one can imagine “fusion” in this context is a “jugalbandhi” between the Hindustani and Carnatic musicians. I am yet to see something like the musical fusion that George Harrison and Pandit Ravi Shankar brought forth! Why, even the so called musical “Aradhana festival” held in “Thiruviyaru” is largely composed of Carnatic musicians – if this is not exclusion even within the world of musical performers then what is it?
One does not have to do a detailed social profiling of the Carnatic musicians to prove exclusion.  Carnatic music teachers like Dronacharya are reluctant to accept a student who may not be from a certain social category! Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbalakshmi (popularly known as MS )who was from a Devadasi family was probably  “accepted”  and “acknowledged”  into this group more because of her marriage to a person of  this exclusive community rather than the community where her singing skills were honed. Over the years she was appropriated into the identity of the community that she was married into.

The musical and dance forms of art in the south were originally practiced by the Devadasi community. A Devadasi was a woman “dedicated”  to the God of the temple she was attached to. She could not marry and had to live her life through her art under the “protection” of the local big wig, often becoming the mother of his illegitimate children. It is ironic that this art which was practiced by a group of women, who were considered to be part of a socially “excluded”  community  is today incorporated into the heritage of a socially “exclusive” community!!
This brings us to the question of what constitutes music? There is an untapped subaltern culture in the southern states each with their own musical style. The folk singers who sing the villupattu ,the drummers engaged in “tappattam” or even the women who sing a song as they transplant paddy are in no way inferior to Sudha Raghunathan or Lalgudi Jayaraman! Unfortunately, no one acknowledges their art as music because of who they are (or may be because of who they are not!).

I would like to sign off on the note that cordoning off cultures in order to create a status of exclusivity is an insult to something as divine as music! We are already guilty of having done it with God in our temples, let us  now not extend it to music!



  1. Interesting post. There is one correction I want to make. Aradhana festival held in Thiruviyaru is not just a music festival. It is called Thyagaraja Aradhana. It is held every year to pay homage to Saint Poet Thyagaraja Swamy. Only songs created by him are sung during this festival. This is natural also.

    If a North Indian musician like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi can sing a Thyagaraja Keerthanai, he would be most welcome there. Same goes for George Harrison.

    I am not making fun. I am sure you would have heard about an American named John Higgins. He learnt carnatic music at Wesleyan University. He was known as Higgins Bhagavathar. He performed at the Thyagaraja Aradadhana and won the hearts of many people. Unfortunately, he died in an accident at the young age of 45, in 1984.

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  3. SG,let me correct you about something- Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is not North Indian. He hails from a place called Gadag in Northern Karnataka not far from Mantralaya. I do not know about his Thyagaraya Kritis but he has sung some beautiful Purandara Dasa Kritis. I am giving below a link to his rendition of "Bhagyada Lakshmi Baramma" - the majesty that he brings into it is amazing! And yes this post is probably more "controversial" than "interesting" :) But thanks anyway for your comment

  4. Good post Meera. I do see the truth in what you're saying. But you've set yourself up for some 'hate comments' here!! All the best :)

  5. I felt while I began reading your post that, well this is not an arena I can wander into- Indian classical music.
    But reading further, I saw where you were heading for.
    Indeed Carnatic music as well as Bharthnatyam are the prerogatives of the privileged upper caste. The class and social issue is here in the case.While the Hindustani genre has transcended parochial tendencies and arguments.( I hope I’m not dwelling into a territory, I have no business to comment vis a vis classical music).
    Yesudas was disowned by the clergy. They refused to baptize his son. To his credit he has ignored those bigots. At the same time Guruvayoor Devaswom has refused him permission to enter the temple. Now this is the bane not of Carnatic music, but of the faith. What provision of the statute or the religion itself is used to banish him is something I’m not aware.
    But the loss is to the art.
    Music certainly transcends culture, and race. Why the great men of music worship music as god is because it has the power to transform and transcend barriers man has created in his midst.
    Lucky and fortunate, blessed are the ones who can see that.

  6. This perceived exclusivity of carnatic music is not by any design. There are several reasons but is mainly based on its appeal.
    The compositions were mostly in Telugu and Sanskrit. It was only after 50’s that Tamil isai became popular and was patronized. Even then in concerts most songs are in other languages and lyrics are not understood.
    Carnatic music unlike Hindustani is defined by several rigid rules-rhythms, swara and bhavam.There is underlying arithmetic in it. While Hindustani is less rigid and more to do with voice culture and melody.
    Carnatic is mostly bhakti based unlike Hindusthani and appeals to spiritually inclined
    The evolution of Hindustani music were influenced by mughals and there are several schools (gharanas) of music impinging on each other.Swara singing is not as important as in carnatic music Being simpler and pleasing to ear it had therefore a wider reach than carnatic though pure classical Hindustani music still cannot be compared to the wide audience for Bollywood Hindi filmi music.
    Carnatic music is monolithic with only the trinity of composers largely determining its music.While the raga and the song can be followed and enjoyed by laymen,the structure of swaras and kanakku (arithmetic) are beyond the understanding of common man.That is why rasikas walk out when there is Tani avarthanam or thanam and pallavi.Where the musicians indulges in the latter, it becomes the domain of cognoscenti and peers with ordinary folks finding them Greek and Latin.Canteens get busy then.
    In Tambram families it was a tradition and culture that girls are taught carnatic music and even on bride seeing days the girls would be asked to demonstrate their skill though such practice is on the way out.That could be the reason for predominance of this community in the carnatic music field though voluntarily very much like their learning Sanskrit in schools by choice. It cannot be said others are excluded. Though it remains open to all, only children of this community learn.That is not the fault of carnatic music
    I feel that tradition, cultural leanings and family practices are factors for Tambram communities to learn and even those in far away countries. But this is also declining with more and more enjoying filmy music,rap and rock. There is no other communal angle to this.
    The nadaswaram and violin and percussion instruments have many practitioners from all communities where language is not important.

  7. You missed the whole point Meera. It is not about Bhimsen Joshi's talent. It is about Thyagaraja Aradhana in Thiruvaiyaru. This is done every year to pay homage to Saint Poet Thyagaraja Swamy. I know Mr. Joshi is excellent at some of Purandaradasa kritis. That is not the point.

    Let me give you an example. How would you like if someone recite vishnu sahasranamam in a church on December 25. May be the best rendition. But not suited for the occasion. No church would invite them to do vishnu saharsaranamam on December 25.

    Can we say this is an exclusion? I don't think so.

  8. @SG, sorry I think there is a communication gap here. I was trying to point out the error that Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is not North Indian! He is a South Indian whose mother tongue is Kannada.My comments about his singing abilities were a sort of foot note to the original comment about his place of origin. About your example-I do not think it conveys the point you are making clearly ( or probably I am not able to understand it clearly). If music is used as a means of worship then it should be open to all. If you have heard a Kriti ( I am not sure if it is Ramadas or Thyagaraya though it is in Telugu) adapted by the Colonial cousins you may probably understand it a little better. Hariharan sings the original Telugu version while Lezz sings the translation in English. I do not remember the words exactly but the English version goes like this " Shadows in the darkness tell me that you have deserted me". This is exactly the sort of fusion that I was talking about but then the Colonial Cousins are not what the Carnatic purists would even touch with a barge pole...!There are sholakas set now to a western beat that I have heard somewhere and I think that is a good way to take religion to the youngsters. I only wish the closed mindset to all this would change!

  9. @ KP thanks for the informative comment about the Carnatic music features. As I had mentioned the Bhakti Ras is strong and as you say the melody is not very attractive for the common lay person. About the exclusionary issues I am sorry, I think we should look it from the point of view of those who have experienced it and not look at it from the insider's perspective. I have experienced it partly by association and I can imagine how it must feel for a person to be completely excluded. It is very subtle but the perceptive person can immediately catch on!

  10. @ Anil, ahhh finally someone who sees my point! I agree with you about Yesudas-the blurring of boundaries between art and religion. I must say that this is carrying the "Bhakti Bhav" too far!

  11. Interesting discussion and let me add my bit.

    It will be misplaced to render Vishnu shasranamam at church on xmas day or any day for that matter. It will be like accompanying carnatic rendition with piano or a bugle.

    The point I think what Meera wanted to emphasise was that music pers se can transcend boundaries created by man. I understand that Kathakali a dance that is based on stories and anecdotes from the Hindu myths was enacted based on a theme from the Bible. This happened in Kerala a few years back. Though it was acclaimed, for obvious reasons the matter has not been heard since.

    Though nobody in music I feel,fusion , blending etc is fine as long as they jell well and does not seem to be glaring.
    The idea must be to see the uniqueness of sound and music that in its own way transcends barriers. If a christian hymn sung in a syrian christian service can invoke the GOd , one must understand that the same god will be awed by music , be it in carnatic form or Hindustani. Not necessarily a sahasranamam.

  12. Meera,

    Very informative. I agree that there should be no bar of religion, region or caste in any form of art.

    Take care

  13. Indeed one!!
    Got your link from indiblogger...and I found it worth landing here :)


  14. @anilkurup

    I am glad you understood what I was trying to express. You said: It will be misplaced to render Vishnu sahasranamam at church on xmas day or any day for that matter.

    I agree with you. Exactly. This Thyagarajar Aradhana is to pay homage to Saint Poet Thyagarajar. It is expected that people sing song created by him. This aradhana is not a music festival. Anyone who can sing thyagarajar kritis are most welcome there. It is not an exclusive society as our dear friend Meera mentioned. As you mentioned excellently, any other song will be misplaced.

    Having said that, I would like to inform my preference. My wife is a talented carnatic musician. But I am not that fond of it. Reason? Most of the carnatic songs are in Telugu and I don’t understand the language. Everytime I hear a carnatic music, I am reminded of a song from the Tamil movie, Sindhu Bhairavai.

    Arthatha Vittupputtaa Athukkoru Bhaavamilla
    Pazhagina Bhaashayila Padippathu Paavamilla
    Ennavo Raagam Ennannavo Thaalam
    Thalaiya Aattum Puriyaatha Koottam

    (audience nod without understanding the meaning or raga or thaaam)

  15. This is getting really interesting.
    What I meant was about the universal compatibility and influence of music and not the language( like you rightly referring to the song in Sindhubhairavi ). And like people (especially the western tourists) flocking to a Kathakali without an idea of the story line.

    The appeal and power of music, I feel is when it is understood, learnt and sung (classical) or even popular by people from varied culture. Like a European understanding Carnatic or Hindustani and a person from Tamilnad enthralling audience with his rendition of Beethoven or Mozart. In such an event the difference in culture and language vanishes. If Yesudas , man born into a Christian family could be accepted by the late Chembai Vaidynatha Bhagavathar as his disciple when Xians venturing into Carnatic music, a domain of upper caste Brhamins was almost blasphemous , that is when Music transcends boundaries with its universal power.
    I have no idea of Carnatic or Hindustani , of Bach or Beethoven. But when I listen to their rendition by deft voice then I forget myself, it is bliss. And my lack of Telugu background has little bearing.


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