Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Endangered species

By K.G. Vijayakrishnan

It is true that the system of raga-s followed by Dikshitar is severely endangered, if not almost extinct. Believe me, as a linguist and musician I face the predicament of a system becoming endangered on a day to day basis. I have analysed the sound systems of a few languages approaching endangerment rapidly and the system of veena playing so lovingly passed on to students by my guru Ranga Ramanuja Ayyangar will become extinct eventually as I am the last, but ageing practitioner with no students to pass on the tradition. Sentimentality apart, we can document it and leave it to future generations to serendipitously adopt a few ideas from the documentation. Take the lesson from language: for instance, the disappearance of Sanskrit from every day use is offset by the birth of numerous modern Indo-Aryan languages making us realise that for one beautiful system which is lost, we have many equally beautiful systems which replace it and which were enriched by the system no longer in every day use.

I wish to take up two issues related to the endangered status of the Dikshitar parampara. Firstly, the reasons for a system becoming endangered or extinct is, usually, not a single factor but several factors which act additively. The Tyagaraja tradition was more robust because there were more disciples and also because it was more popular. And the simple but tyrannical idea of the 72-melakarta straightjacket contributed in a larger measure to this state of affairs. The second issue pertains to codification/ notation in Carnatic music. Let us not forget that Carnatic music was and still is an oral culture. It is not right to assume that an oral culture is different from a literate one just in not having a widely accepted writing system. The underlying philosophies of the two systems are widely divergent.

An oral poem or narrative creates an art object which is, in principle transitory, and which cannot be pinned down to a unique ‘authentic’ art object. It varies in every telling, changing ever so minutely at each instantiation. The diagnostics of oral culture are inherent variability, transitory nature of the object created on the spur of the moment and absence of the notion of ownership and consequently, lacking the concept of ‘copyright’. Certainly these criteria are met in Carnatic music constructs like alapana, niraval and kalpanaswaram. The slightly radical extension of the idea that I am advocating is that the criteria may be extended even to the Carnatic music compositions which have known authors. Let us not forget that even these authors may have varied their rendering while teaching their disciples (at different stages of their lives). This seems to be only reasonable explanation for the fact that the same composition handed down by different disciples of the same composer have extremely variable renderings, and not just in the Tygaraja tradition. For example, nobody would want to question the credentials of Kalpagam Swaminathan and yet only in her rendering do we find the use of the anyaswara gandharam in the raga Manji. An established performer of yesteryear announced when interviewed that he/she would not even add a sangati without the permission of his/her guru. How many of us today are so ‘orthodox’ as to follow this principle? Logically speaking, if the guru has the right to modify the composition, and if the disciple is a full-fledged artist in his/her own right, he/she too can do so. In fact, the stand taken by this artist is not ‘orthodoxy’ but a misguided notion of ‘being authentic’.

By extension, the point I am labouring to make is that notation/any writing system is, in principle, exterior to the concerns of Carnatic music. At best the intention is to capture the transitory object but no one can be absolutely sure of the degree of success evidenced in the written text. It is an approximation which may or may not have captured the rendering accurately. The only thing we in the contemporary situation can be certain is one’s own taste/ one’s idiolect, so to speak. Let me give an example. In the Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarsini, the notation for the madhyama in Veenapustaka dharinim in the raga Vegavahini is a long madhyama on the syllable ‘ta’ of pustaka. One rendering in the Brinda school of music we have heard is a gamaka (pitch curve between gandhara and panchama) on the so-called long madhayama (not indicated in SSP). My guru, feeling uncomfortable with both these interpretations, took the liberty to interpret the madhyama as short and extended the gandhara. We now have three variations of the phrase. I am sure most musicians will agree with me that the choice from the variants will be determined by factors like who one’s guru is, one’s own taste/preference, etc.

The danger of taking up a less well known tradition, in the absence of renderings one can rely on, is that the written records may be misleading. Even renderings can be misleading. What we need is training to critically evaluate a tradition and refuse to take the baggage we feel uncomfortable with. I am proud to say that even this lesson I learnt from the practice of my guru. Though he admired the style of Veena Dhanam with a religious fervour (he used to play/teach in front of the lifesize statue of the empress of veena in his music room), he critically sifted her renderings with known renderings to arrive at what seemed to him a ‘reasonable’ text. For example, her rendering of Nijamarmamulanu in Umabharanam starts with the sequence “ri ma pa” (which is what I picked up after having listened to her rendering). But R.R. Ayyangar chose to go with the phrase “ri ga ma pa” which accords well with the arohana of the raga.

Having spelt out the danger of assuming the absolute correctness of any writing system in the Carnatic music scenario, I must admit that it is a truly remarkable enterprise to want to revive a beautiful system that is on the way out. But one ought to be aware of the danger lurking in that endeavour. In a Carnatic music event if we use two distinct ‘dialects’ of raga-s of Carnatic music, the entire discourse may lack internal coherence and it may also cramp one’s creativity and spontaneity. The effort is certainly laudable.

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