Song of Surrender

Monday, 9 January 2012

Words of wisdom from Semmangudi (part 2)

By Gowri Ramnarayan
 
The briga is another dangerous device. Its glamour is often mistaken for grandeur. No attention-getting device has lasting value. Music must not draw attention to skills; it must make performer and listener forget themselves. Sometimes I feel that not having a good voice is an asset to the Carnatic musician. It impels him to Herculean efforts to grasp something beyond his reach - to explore new, original, fascinating territories. Of course, now you think I am talking about myself. Maybe I am.
 
There are many changes for the better. There are more sabhas, sponsors, government support and more musicians. Artists enjoy financial security, a far cry from the days when parents were afraid to get their daughters married to musicians. Yes, I speak from personal experience.
 
Another tremendous step forward is the emergence of women as equals of men in this male-dominated field. With the exception of the Dhanammal family, women musicians sang a string of songs exactly as they had been taught. They did not attempt much improvisation of raga and swara, they avoided the challenge of the ragam tanam pallavi. With the advantage of naturally sweet voices, women are now overtaking men in each one of these departments.
 
Concerts today have team spirit. Instrumentalists have made great strides. The violin has become a solo instrument on par with the veena and the flute. New instruments like the mandolin and the saxophone are crowd-pullers. We have to wait to see if they will endure.
 
The rasika has greater variety and choice than ever before. But there is less diversity in another area. In my time you could say this boy was trained by Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, this man is the disciple of Ariyakudi, and so on. But today every youngster sounds the same. Their concert pattern, manner of kriti rendition are all the same. They are all one even in refusing to descend from the higher octave until they extract applause.
 
The reason is that they are no longer merely the sishyas of this or that guru, but of the cassettes that flood the market. Nor has criticism developed as a constructive guide. Critics are more interested in attacking established artists to produce copy that sells.
 
Our age has seen a proliferation of musical compositions. The less-known kritis of the great masters have been discovered and polished. And each day brings a new composer to light. The old endures because it is steeped in the essence of the ragabhava. And time will decide the fate of the new. I will say that Papanasam Sivan's songs are not skeletal verses; they are filled with life-giving melody.
 
Staying with the guru for years and absorbing music by listening as well as learning is no longer feasible. Now we have institutions where music is taught to groups of students in one-hour slots - a waste of energy and money. In Thiruvananthapuram, where I was Principal of the Sri Swati Tirunal College of Music, I devoted a whole morning to a class, attended to the needs of each individual student and finally sang the whole piece so that they got the whole picture of what they were learning in parts. I find that those who learn from classes held in the home of vidwans show better results than government college students.
 
I cannot end without repeating my conviction about teaching methods. You know that children who learn in the Montessori method have a better grasp of the subject than those who are force-fed. They learn spelling and grammar after becoming familiar with the language. Similarly, exercises in the scales like sarali and janta must be taught after the child learns little, simple songs. Then he will learn more, enjoy more.
 
With all these developments in the art and its sponsorship, why is it that the impact of present-day music is confined to concert time? Why does it not linger in the mind for days after? One reason is that there is too much of it easily available round the year. You do not have to wait for it and seek it as in the past.
 
Perhaps the problem has to do with a fast lifestyle, one that hankers after novelties and innovations all the time. It lacks the perseverance and discipline on which the creative arts thrive. But Carnatic music will retain its grandeur and depth despite temporary trends. There will always be a group of committed listeners and performers who will refuse to compromise on values. It will remain a small minority. So what? The classical arts have never had mass appeal.

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