Song of Surrender

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Thirtieth anniversary of Sruti

By A. Seshan

The completion of 30 years of life is as much a milestone for a journal as it is for the humans. In both cases it marks the entry into middle age with advantages of youthful energy backed up by intellectual and emotional maturity achieved through experience. The one major contribution of Sruti is in blazing new trails in documentation in the field of fine arts relating to personalities, institutions, techniques, styles, events, etc. It has filled up a major gap in the cultural history of the country. There is evidence of considerable research work done through references to the existing literature and what is called ‘oral history’, that is, getting artists and others to talk about the professions, gurus, styles or banis, etc. As a student of musicology and choreology I have immensely benefited from the description and discussion of various banis in the fields of both music and dance. That the magazine has an open and eclectic mind is evident from the fact that it has spared space for what is called light music. Thanks to Sruti we now know that javalis and padams that are dismissed as tukkadas (tidbits) to be sung at the end of a Carnatic music concert call for as much skill in voice training, modulation and rendition as the main kritis that are sung elaborately with the paraphernalia of alapana, niraval, sangati and swaraprastaram.

The only caveat that I have to enter in my otherwise full-throated appreciation of the journal is about some of the biographies tending to be hagiographies (the writings of the lives of saints), the artists having only virtues and no vices. We should not forget that the personalities dealt with are humans with all their limitations including possibly the lack of scruples and following the principle of ends justifying means. They are not Mahatma Gandhis or Jesus Christs. When Gandhiji was assassinated Pearl Buck’s son is reported to have wondered whether such a person had ever trodden on earth. I get the same feeling when I read the biographical sketches of some of the artists. This danger is particularly present when they are written by the descendants of the artistes or their disciples. We do not expect the latter to say that the person under reference was a rogue in his personal life or a fly-by-night operator who would do anything to solve the financial problem of running a large family. But there is a tendency in our country to imagine that a great artiste must necessarily be a great human being. A gullible editor can easily be taken for a ride. Thanks to the proliferation of media, today artistes, especially the established ones, are highly respected persons in society so much so that marriage alliances are arranged by some parents just for the prestige of saying that “Kalanidhi Kuppuswami Iyer is our sambandhi” ignoring all other important factors bearing on a successful marital life! Their children also inherit a false sense of values. I remember Anup Jalota once saying that despite his singing bhajans he was a non-vegetarian. There is no inherent contradiction in his being so but the average Indian would consider it to be odd. The need to look at a person differently from two angles, as an artiste and as a human being, is ever present in writing biographies. I feel that even the Carnatic music Trinity, though highly respectable, should be looked at as humans and not as divine personalities. The Englishman does not attribute divinity to Shakespeare or Milton. While there are interesting episodes there are others which can be eschewed in the absence of verification. That, before teaching Smara sundaranguni (Paras), Brinda insisted on Semmangudi always singing it with prati madhyamam, although it was against grammar, is of interest to me because it clears my doubt as to why the latter was doing so. But if someone claims that his ancestor had helped Mahatma Gandhi with the use of enema when he stayed in his house I would not publish it because there is no way to verify it. Unfortunately, there is so much craze for publicity, press conference and the printed word that those who want to gloat in reflected glory make all types of claims while, at the same time, suppressing or downplaying information whenever it is unfavourable. I have always wondered at the brilliance of the statement of Robert Louis Stevenson that the cruelest lies are often told in silence. I call them ‘unspoken lies’. (See “The Search for Truth”, A. Seshan, Bhavan’s Journal, December 15, 2002). This is true in all walks of life whether personal, official or business.

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