By V Ramnarayan
Is there an objective standard of good music? Am I fit to be a critic if I get carried away by the emotive power of a pitch-perfect note held long, in tune with the drone of the tambura and less excited by swara pyrotechnics and speed magic that momentarily blank out the raga swaroopa? Is it all right for me to be disappointed when musicians I have admired from the time of their debut go down roads I believe are one-way streets or wrong turns? Am I alone in expecting one kind of music from a star vidushi or a young tyro when their fans are deliriously happy with a completely different kind of fare they offer them in concert after concert? Do I have a right to walk away from the charming vocal offerings of yet another accomplished vocalist, because I expected her to pay more than lip service to her guru’s legacy? Is it wrong to shed tears of despair when a gifted veteran gives no more than surface treatment to his superb pathantara, as if afraid of drowning in the depth of his own art? Should I have my head examined if I expect star singers with a huge following to immerse themselves in total music instead of being satisfied with cosmetic surgery that attracts fans to new wave music?
What a negative attitude is mine! Is this what happens to every old codger who has gone to concerts for decades on end? There must be something wrong if you cannot enjoy what most rasikas and connoisseurs approve and appreciate. You must be the odd man out if you don’t agree with the idea that it is OK to go off key—so long as the music is full of brilliant improvisation, and the musician can scale three octaves like a trained mountaineer, but without the risk of slipping off the precipice into an abyss. After all, nostalgia is all the listener needs, to fill in the gaps in the musician’s manodharma. And isn’t it perfectly acceptable for technical mastery to paper over the cracks of a weak or unpleasant voice?
Don’t get me wrong. We are dealing with brilliant minds. Their scholarship is enviable, their repertoire impressive, their mastery of swara and rhythmic complexity ‘awesome’. They are capable of leading the audience to believe they are about to unfurl one raga, only to surprise them with another. They are experts in sruti bheda, both deliberate and accidental. They can (mis) pronounce lyrics in a dozen languages and dialects. They know their Dikshitar (Muttuswami, Subbarama or any other) and Iyerval (Tyagaraja or any other) backwards. Then what am I complaining of? What do we look for in the practice of our music, our great legacy? Soukhyam; poise; balance; deep focus; a questioning mind, certainly, but also an open one, while listening to criticism; and above all, commitment to a true voice, devotion to sruti.