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Popularising Carnatic Music

My son has entered the world of Carnatic music after what seems a long while. He is a genuine seeker and he wants to understand, what he refers to as the ‘emotive art’, and experience the spiritual satisfaction offered by it. But he is also a restless modern man and he wants to know why troubling questions of hegemony and elitism are levelled against it and how he is to defend it. I am not sure we can defend the caste specific nature of the art. It is a historical given and we might as well accept it and hope that musicians like TM Krishna who propagate a democratization of the art and take it to school children and fisher folk and to communities hitherto innocent of the musical tradition, will succeed in expanding the base of the art and make it a people’s art, and popular in the best sense of the term.

What is popular? In a manner of speaking, Shakespeare is truly popular because he appealed not only to the learned and the aristocratic but also the Plebians who sat around the stage with eggs and tomatoes ready to pelt them if the play did not interest them. The popular aspect of Shakespeare has to do with the imitation he made of, as Dr. Johnson pointed out, of Nature, including Human Nature. He may be talking of Kings, Romans and Heroes but ultimately, they are humans like us and we respond to Hamlet or Cleopatra because we see something of us in them. This is the profoundest meaning of the idea of something being popular—that it is universal and available to all, provided the reader or audience makes the effort and trains oneself to receive this largesse. This is a far cry from the way we use popular today, as in popular music, or popular fiction. The latter is a fashion appealing to the rebellious young who sometimes give me the impression that they are presiding over a dangerous closing of their minds – minds which simply will not want to engage with challenging art. So, anything goes. Mere noise is music, the more violent the gestures, the more exciting. Some of these performances suggest a mass orgiastic experience.

Carnatic music as an art form, is not easy. You have to sweat hours to learn the basics and do repetitive ‘sadhana’ to get the exact nuance and the rhythm and the melody. This is evidently not for the casual listener or the one who wants to pass time. You can only appreciate it if you devote your whole soul to it. If you are more interested in multi- tasking and listening at the same time, it is not emphatically, your cup of tea.

Assuming that you have, by birth, ‘samskara’ or by accident trained yourself for this experience, what does it offer? The phrase, which I think is very appropriate about music from Susanne Langer, the Philosopher, is that music is not about this feeling or that feeling. It is about what it feels like to feel. It is so! And here she is brilliant, about the morphology of music. When you listen with your whole Being you are in the presence of the Absolute and the Universal. You are in the middle of a creative process which you are called upon to complete by your response. You are a co-creator of the art, and music ultimately makes sense because you are facilitating it. If Tyagaraja, Dikshithar and Syama Sastri are the singers, they need you as the listener to complete their communication.

When you are doing this, you are participating in what is common to all human beings – the experience of intense feeling and pleasure at the combination of notes and the skillful deployment of rhythm which is music. This is available for any person – be s\he, a man or woman, an aristocrat or a Dalit, poor or rich. This is profoundly popular in its appeal. Theoretically anyone can access it, but you must be ready to receive it. I see no reason why Caste needs to be a barrier. While our music has been the preserve largely of the Brahmin community, instances are not wanting of great artistes in music, and its allied art, Dance, which came from non-Brahminical backgrounds. A mere mention of Chitoor Subramania Pillai, Madurai Somasundaram, Balasaraswathi, MS, T Viswanathan, Rajaratnam Pillai, should convince anyone who needs convincing. Muthuswami Dikshithar taught the Tanjore Pillai Quartet – brothers who came from a Non Brahmin Nattuvanar community and I have heard that one of his pupils was a Devadasi.

Thus, it is clear to me that given the necessary training and temperament any one can learn the art and excel in it. Jon Higgins and David Reck come to mind. Both are accomplished Carnatic musicians and they are neither Indian nor Brahmin. What remains to be done? The old attitudes must naturally go and musicians should shed their prejudices and teach any student willing to learn. If our schools have compulsory music education many more from different castes will hopefully take to the form, building on the school foundations. Historically some communities were looked down upon and I need not belabour the obvious that the Brahmins with their sense of superiority did not teach non-Brahmins or elided them and their contribution from the scene. The Devadasis who had perfected Sringara Rasa in their Dance called Sadr, now find the Bharatanatyam form in a way denying them their distinctiveness. Bharatanatyam with its emphasis on Bhakti saw Sringara and eroticism as not appropriate and this art form, burdened by the emerging Nation’s quest for self-expression, and needing to represent the quintessence of India became a sanitized form of the exuberant Sadr. This is not to deny the efforts of the great Rukmini Arundale who made Dance available for Brahmin girls, which otherwise, because of its associations with the Devadasis, was out of bounds for them. But in Brahminizing the form, the contribution of the Devadasis got sidelined and the series of anti-Nautch legislations ultimately left them destitute and their art invisible. Further, Nagaswaram vidwans, all from non-Brahmin backgrounds were never given primacy of place in the annual Tyagaraja Festival and in other forums. It is now slowly changing and that is all for the good. Social engineering can do much, but it is not enough to bring people not traditionally associated with Carnatic music into its fold. It is ultimately important that the base of our artistic traditions be expanded and more and more people discipline themselves so that the profoundly popular art called Carnatic music becomes theirs as well. But they must become disciplined. For this dedication and reverence for tradition, a good Guru is essential. Will the Brahmin Gurus do what is needed? History beckons them. Will prospective entrants to the enchantments of Carnatic music show the needed Discipline? History alone will tell us.

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