Song of Surrender

Friday, 19 July 2013

What is tradition in classical music?

By S. Sankaranarayanan

Art is an aesthetic creation of man.

A fine art is a stylized or refined expression of emotions and feelings meant for appreciation by a refined mind (sahridaya). A refined mind is a cultured mind, a mind deliberately cultivated to appreciate beauty in accordance with the principles of good taste.

Art music, alias classical music, is not only a fine art, but the finest of fine arts.

Good taste governs all music, classical or otherwise. However, classical music differs from music of other kinds in one important respect, and that is in its objectives.

The aim of classical music is to evoke aesthetic delight (gana rasa) in the listeners. It is the inherent power of the various formations of the musical notes of a melody mould that creates the emotive experience. The artiste, through his rendering, portrays the varied moods of the melody. The artiste’s expression is the bhava, and the listener’s experience, the rasa.

Culture, of which music forms an integral part, is the realm of cultivated tastes, both expressed and experienced. Anything that is both worthwhile and desirable to be preserved, need to be cultivated – be it a crop, habit, behaviour, expression or taste. At any given time, the number of people who have an interest or inclination to cultivate good taste (rasanubhooti) constitutes a small proportion of the listeners. They are the small circle of connoisseurs. Treatises on music term them ‘bahu sruta’ or ‘guni’ -- intelligent rasikas who enjoy gana rasa and appreciate it with a sense of deep understanding.

Tradition, in the general sense, denotes a custom, opinion or belief handed down to posterity. In relation to classical music, tradition is governed by expression and experience, portrayal of the bhava of the musical piece and rasanubhooti. Both are affected by the principle of good taste, and together they constitute what is suggested by the term ‘tradition’.

All traditions are a function of time. Being a performing art, classical music lives both in space and time. As time itself is a medium of change as well as a measure of its frequencies, no tradition ever remains unchanged in absolute terms. What does not change is the principle of ‘requirement of good taste’. ‘Requirement of good taste’ constitutes the very core of classical music. Good taste is reflected in the quality of music and its appreciation; it demands a high degree of discipline in learning and training, as also in listening.

Tradition is, therefore, a continuum of growth and refinement, incessantly reshaping, renewing and revitalizing itself, nourished by the insights and wisdom gained by the practitioners of successive generations. Consequently, at a given time, traditions come to represent the very best of the creative expressions of the gifted exponents and cultural vitality of the societies of the generations that have gone by. In the process of its continuous evolution, traditions assimilate the elements of societal beliefs, philosophy, behavioural norms, and even mysticism, all of which go into making culture composite. Hence, in an ancient yet extant civilization like that of ours, traditions, including musical traditions, have come to be regarded as guardians of cultural identity.

It is the dynamics of this continuous process of rejuvenation that is sought to be signified by the clichĂ© ‘tradition and innovation’.

In classical music, tradition is synonymous with quality of music and standard of performances and its appreciation. Promotion and preservation of excellence is its very raison d’ĂȘtre. Much of what else that masquerades as ‘tradition’ is ritualistic formalisms, which only tend to perpetuate misbeliefs of the uninformed.

It is the exquisite musical creations of great vaggeyakaras and the expositions of those pieces by maestros that keep traditions alive and afloat. Masterpieces of such high standard created centuries ago are models of the harmonious marriage of sound and sense, and hence they continue to entertain, enthrall and elevate connoisseurs of successive generations.

(Reproduced from the Bhavan’s Journal, 31 May 1999)

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