Song of Surrender

Monday, 25 May 2015

Follow the spirit, not the letter

‘Chitravina’ N. Ravikiran

This is in response to P.K. Doraiswamy’s comment (Sruti 367, April 2015) on my lecdem on Raga Development. I reluctantly have to point out that in his article, he has missed the wood for the trees. He has made seemingly sensible but obvious points but most of them are quite off-context, since his entire narrative is based on the letter rather than the spirit of the two dicta I had advocated at the beginning of my presentation. 

All the true students of the art and system, including the Sangita Kalanidhis he has mentioned, have endeavoured to follow these dicta in spirit, and most of those that I was fortunate to interact with have generously shared their vast knowledge and perspectives with me since my childhood and communicated the importance of these two aspects, namely: 

 (a) Every phrase must aim to be true to the rendered raga
 (b) No phrase must be untrue to the raga 

I may phrase it in a variety of ways on different occasions but most students, artists and listeners have thankfully got the spirit of these till date! Without this basic tenet, Carnatic music – the most sophisticated, organised and consummate melodic system I have seen in the world – would be reduced to a state of anarchy where anything goes – often justified by
(a) Over reliance and/or false interpretations of books
(b) Incorrect understanding or out of context application of what great artists may have said
(c) Insecurity whether ‘this’ will ‘really work’ in concerts
(d) A plea for allowance of ‘poetic licence’ to make artistic lie, sense!
(e) A brazen “why should I worry about such things, I can create music that garners me listenership” attitude.

Tyagaraja has documented his frustration about musicians in some of the above categories in his Chenchukambhoji composition, Vara raga layagnulu taamanuchu vadarerayya. 

This is not to say that grammar should rule over expression. In a panel discussion on "How to bridge theory and practice" at the Kennedy Center, Washington DC (in Sept 2013), I had advocated that a performer should focus 85-90% on expression, but be aware of at least 10-15% of grammar. Likewise, a musicologist must aim for at least 50% expression in order to be able to make convincing points.

Going by the spirit of the dictum in my above lecture, it would have been quite obvious that:

1. I never advocated a ‘clean-up’ of a raga like Ghanta whose personality is a heady concoction of shades of Bhairavi, Dhanyasi, Punnagavarali. The idea is to not get lost in Bhairavi, Dhanyasi or Punnagavarali while rendering Ghanta but endeavour to bring its holistic personality to the fore at all times. 

2. However, suggesting Punnagavarali while rendering Todi or suggesting Mohanakalyani in Mohanam, Darbar in Nayaki, Anandabhairavi or Sreeranjani in Reetigaula (which happens quite frequently in concerts) cannot be accepted.

3. Likewise, accidentally slipping well into Yadukulakambhoji or Sahana while rendering Dwijavanti and calling it ‘chhayalaga’ is easily avoidable by quality artists. 

A handful of legendary performers have shown time and again that awareness of and adherence to grammar only add to aesthetics and do not detract from it. Suggesting Saveri while attempting Malahari or rendering Saurashtra like Chakravakam + Sooryakantam is neither poetic nor aesthetic. These are what I call CMCM (Common Mistakes in Carnatic Music).

How to avoid them? It requires an awareness of (i) nuances of each raga and (ii) subtle distinctions between very close ragas. While a large group of performers develop a sense of the former over time, it takes even more clarity of thought and intensity of desire to develop a keen sense of the latter.

Everything boils down to investment of time, energy and emotion in the right direction. Constant introspection, mental and physical practice will help us to avoid minute mistakes in borderline phrases and take music to phenomenal levels of excellence. 

This is not idealistic talk! I used to be amazed that someone like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer would spend 95% of the time I spent with him discussing and illustrating the subtle distinctions between ragas even past his 90s. He also advocated that we need not do ‘research on stage’ where expression alone mattered. I have been likewise inspired from close quarters by this constant quest of legends like D.K. Pattammal, T.N. Krishnan, Lalgudi Jayaraman, Tanjavur Sankara Iyer, K.V. Narayanaswamy, Voleti Venkateswarlu, Nedunuri Krishnamurthi and numerous others. 

Today the field is full of performers and students with tremendous talent and passion. I merely wish to share the wonderful insights I was fortunate to receive from legends including my gurus Chitravina Narasimhan and Sangita Kalanidhi T. Brinda. It is vital for aspirants to avoid unintentional mistakes because of lack of awareness, negligence, and insufficient practice. It is equally important to not be swayed by seemingly alluring notions that grammar does not belong to the concert platform. 

I find it mildly baffling yet gratifying that despite my well-known propensity to take questions from listeners in my lectures, the author desisted from seeking clarification that day, thereby giving me this opportunity to share important perspectives with your readers! 

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