D.K. Pattammal

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Connecticut and other Yankees in Carnatic music

By V Ramnarayan

(Continued from blogpost dated 25 September 2012)

Robert Edward Brown (1927 - 2005) was an ethnomusicologist credited with coining the term “world music”. He was also known for his recordings of music from Indonesia, which inspired several musicians to study Indonesian gamelan music.

Brown grew up in Clinton, New York, studied music theory and piano at the Utica Conservatory. Playing the piano and organ and performing popular music with his own band Bobby Brown and His Swingsters through his youth, Brown started his doctoral studies at UCLA as a piano major in 1953. He eventually received a doctorate in ethnomusicology from UCLA. His dissertation was titled “The Mridanga: A Study of Drumming in South India.” In 1964, Brown founded the world music/ethnomusicology program at Wesleyan.

One of the organizers of the American Society for Eastern Arts (ASEA), Brown also founded the Center for World Music in 1973. He remained president of the organization until his death and bequeathed his extensive collection of instruments, recordings, books, paintings and artefacts to the world music center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Robert E. Brown Center for World Music opened in April 2008.

How did the interest in Carnatic music take root in the West? Hindustani music spread there mainly through the efforts of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, though there had been others before them. Possibly the first Carnatic musician to make a major appearance in the US was the iconic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi. Her most celebrated concerts in America were at the United Nations General Assembly (1966) and Carnegie Hall (1967).

After her UN concert, The New York Times said: “Subbulakshmi’s vocal communication transcends words. The cliché of `the voice used as an instrument’ never seemed more appropriate. It could fly flutteringly or carry on a lively dialogue with the accompanists. Subbulakshmi and her ensemble are a revelation to Western ears. Their return can be awaited only with eagerness.”

Dr. W. Adriaansz, Professor of Music, University of Washington, wrote: “For many, the concert by Mrs. Subbulakshmi meant their first encounter with the music of South India and it was extremely gratifying that in her the necessary factors for the basis of a successful contact between her music and a new audience - highly developed artistry as well as stage presence - were so convincingly present... without any doubt (she) belongs to the best representants of this music.”

The late James Rubin, a close associate of MS and her family, was an American who travelled to India several times to attend the annual music festival at Madras. Rubin, who, with the help of CV Narasimhan, Under-Secretary of the UN, arranged MS’s  UN concert and two coast-to-coast tours of the US, donated his impressive collection of Indian classical—mainly Carnatic—music to the Archive of World Music, Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.

My wife Gowri Ramnarayan had the honour of providing Subbulakshmi vocal support in concerts for well over a decade, but that was long after MS’s US visit. As a journalist working for India’s leading daily The Hindu and Frontline, a fortnightly from the same group, Gowri profiled MS at numerous milestones in her life—including the occasion of the conferment on her of Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour—and when she passed away. Her long association with MS was to result in an invitation from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in September 2011 to deliver an address on the life and career of MS Subbulakshmi.  Here is a sample of what the attentive university audience heard that day during Gowri’s talk:

There have been great musicians in India, acclaimed as prodigies, admired as geniuses, and hailed as pathfinders. But Subbulakshmi (1916-2004) was seen as a saint, a goddess, a celestial being. As her grandniece, and vocal accompanist for the last 16 years of her career, I have had the unenviable task of steering her out of milling crowds, everyone trying to touch her feet, some intoning “Lakshmi! Saraswati! Minakshi! Kamakshi!” Yes, these are the names of our goddesses! She triggered this kind of rapture in the big metros, in small towns and in remote villages, all over India.

You’d say, pop icons and film folk receive the same adulation. There is a difference. This was not star craze, but worship, as if they were in front of someone who cast a divine light, a light that elevated those around her to some higher realm, even when she was not singing. A stranger in Paris said that she looked like the Madonna. Helen Keller touched her throat as she sang and said, “I hear the angels now.”

The listeners also heard and saw some clips from Subbulakshmi’s concerts including the UN concert, and were able to make an instant connection with the magic spell MS had cast on her American audiences of of 45 years ago.

The Chennai connection of the multifaceted Americans I have mentioned here made them different from the general run of artists or experts devoted to a single genre or branch of music. Gowri and I came into contact with many of them, if only briefly, finding the interaction singularly rewarding. Among other things, we listened to one of Higgins’s last concerts at Chennai, at Sastri Hall, Luz, Mylapore, in which he proved to be a vastly improved singer from the impressive young bhagavatar of earlier times. But for his tragic death in a road accident, he might have gone on to achieve greatness in Carnatic music, though his own musical ambitions were perhaps not focused on kutcheri performances alone. (On a personal level, he attended our wedding in June 1970, and filmed it on his 16mm camera. We never saw the film). Matthew Allen became a personal friend—a charming and witty one—during his stay at Chennai; it is another matter that we may not agree with some of his conclusions about the history and politics of Bharatanatyam. James Rubin, a favourite of the younger members of the MS clan, was Rubin Mama to all of them. We still see David Reck around and occasionally get to listen to his veena recitals.

No account of Americans interested in and performing Carnatic music can be complete without mention of the rising number of young Americans of Indian origin, born and brought up in the US--many of them speaking no Indian language--who are making rapid strides as musicians and dancers. The hugely popular festivals of south Indian classical music and dance such as the Cleveland and San Diego festivals annually showcase some of this outstanding talent along with some of the leading lights in the field from India. The dedication of these first generation Americans is to be seen to be believed. Gowri has worked in close collaboration with some of these youngsters in music, dance and theatrical productions and I have interacted with them in my capacity as editor of a magazine on the performing arts. We are both convinced that they are among the best products of Indo-American cooperation!

(Written originally for the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce)


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