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!