Song of Surrender

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Thou shalt not prescribe!

By K.G. Vijayakrishnan

I read the response of T.M. Krishna to B.M. Sundaram’s letter with consternation. I feel I ought not to remain a mute spectator to such discussions, being a linguist by profession and a Carnatic musician by training, when the eminent and widely admired senior musician and composer Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna’s rendering of the Reetigaula composition with chatusruti dhaivata is branded as ‘ungrammatical’.

I have written in detail on this matter of what constitutes grammaticality in my book The Grammar of Carnatic Music. As the issue is worthy of repetition, I wish to put down my views for wider dissemination. The world over, specialists are now of the view that a grammar and the grammarian who writes a synchronic grammar must not be prescriptive. The only duty of the grammar and the grammarian is to describe current practice if attested by a group of established users; he or she does not have any right to condemn any practice as ‘ungrammatical’ if it is prevalent among established users. This certainly holds for language, and I feel also for Carnatic music which is a language like system.

Let me begin with an example from language. It is a well known fact that a large population of Tamil speakers do not use the rare and beautiful consonant sound that occurs at the end of the word ‘Tamil’ as they have lost this sound which is replaced by the lateral sound which occurs at the end of the word /teeL/ meaning ‘scorpion’. According to linguists, the speech of people who attest this pronunciation must not be termed ‘ungrammatical’, contrary to what Tamil pundits may aver or Tamil orthography indicates. The only reality of a language/dialect is change; whereas usage keeps changing, writing systems rarely do.

Turning to Carnatic music, we know that the raga Gaulipantu is sometimes rendered with a suddha madhyama and sometimes with a prati madhyama. We are also aware that some established musicians render the Muthuswami Dikshitar composition with a suddha madhyama, while rendering Tyagaraja kriti-s with the prati madhyama (which is quite similar to people pronouncing the word ‘route’ to rhyme with ‘lout’ in the US but with ‘root’ elsewhere). Being a disciple of the late musicologist, Rangaramanuja Iyengar, I normally use his Kritimanimalai to learn new compositions. As a musicologist he was way ahead of his times as he tried to follow a descriptive methodology while commenting on usage/changing practices etc., but as a musician and teacher he stuck to his personal judgements. (An aside is not irrelevant at this point. How many of today’s musicians/musicologists are aware that Rangaramanuja Iyengar had given the notation for two versions of the Muthuswami Dikshitar composition Rangapuravihara in the raga Brindavana Saranga calling one of them ‘navinam’ implying that the other one is (closer to) the original in all the editions of Kritimanimalai?) He notes with reservation that the use of prati madhyama was gaining ground in the fifties. Therefore, according to him, as per orthodox practice, the raga Gaulipantu is a janya of Mayamalavagaula and hence only the suddha madhyama must be used. However, admiring the renderings of many musicians like the late M.S. Subbulakshmi, I choose to render the Tyagaraja kriti Terateeyakaraadaa with prati madhyama. I am fully aware that my guru would not have approved of it at all. Will this constitute ‘ungrammaticality’? To him, who was a prescriptivist as a teacher, it would have been completely ungrammatical and my rendering totally unjustifiable since I am very proficient in learning from (his) notation. But how would contemporary musicians generally react to my rendering? They, I am sure, will feel that Rangaramanuja Iyengar’s reaction was unduly orthodox and that the matter does not deserve condemnation. If this contemporary reaction is acceptable, it is logical to come to the conclusion that Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna’s rendering of Sree Neelotpalanayike with chatusruti dhaivata is also acceptable and hence perfectly grammatical.

My plea is that all systems of notation published by established musicians/musicologists, be it Subbarama Dikshitar, Rangaramanuja Iyengar or renderings by established musicians (with established musical lineage) should be taken as statements of personal preference. There is no need to handle Muthuswami Dikshitar compositions with kid gloves just because Subbarama Dikshitar notated many of his compositions. The person notating the art object in Carnatic music merely records the practice he/she approves/follows/or tries to follow (even this is suspect given the human condition). Therefore, one set of notations may not be inherently superior to or more ‘authentic’ than other sets of notation.

To conclude, given Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna’s experience, knowledge and preferences, his decision must be respected, as it is acceptable to a sizeable population of Carnatic music practitioners, notwithstanding some voices of dissent. Of course, voices of dissent must not be stifled. Each side having had its say, let individual musicians decide for themselves. No orthodoxy can ever hope to stem the tide of change. Change is the law of life and change happens additively like a flood or avalanche sweeping aside small obstacles of dissent found in its path. I am not saying this with total approval as many things rare and beautiful disappear because of the general law of survival, which is always determined by the lowest common denominator: the strength of numbers.

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