Song of Surrender

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Let us journey back to where we belong

By Arvind Brahmakal

Can each of us think of the last time we went into a trance after listening to a Bharatiya Sangeeta concert? A state of mind so meditative? A longing to go back to the same artist's concert even if the same songs or ragas were to be rendered again. Such instances have become few and far between - for me.

Are there too many concerts these days? Yes – but, with our lifestyle and competing demands for our mind-space, the number of concerts per person might have reduced. Has the attention span reduced? Certainly. But, the concert duration has also reduced from several hours to two hours these days. Quality of concerts? There is much variety being offered these days. Meticulous concert planning – no repeat songs, variety of composers, rare and new ragas, range of talas, multiple composition types, massive emphasis on mathematical acumen... the list goes on.

So, what is the challenge?

We have heard learned people, of present and past, unequivocally say that Bharatiya Sangeeta is not mere entertainment. It is meant to elevate the consciousness – of the artist and the audience alike. It is about attaining oneness with the form and the formless. It is meditation. Saint composer Tyagaraja has elucidated this is in several of his compositions about nadopasana. He questions sharply in the Dhanyasi raga masterpiece Sangeeta gnanamu, "Can music knowledge bereft of bhakti lead one on to the right path?" If the learned people have said this consistently over time, could there be some truth in this?

What is bhakti and how does this manifest itself in a performance? Bhakti can be loosely translated as an intense longing or love for the divine. All concerts have songs that have been composed by great saints and which have lived through time. Think of this too – songs of the latest movie last only till the next catchy tune comes our way. Songs composed by Tyagaraja, Purandaradasa, Bhadrachala Ramadas, Sadasiva Brahmendra, Tulsidas, Kabir, Meerabai and many others are still the most sought after even after many centuries. These saints looked at music beyond simple entertainment. There was, at the core, a fondness, a deep love for the divine. This love manifested itself through words that were sung. Yes, there was lyrical and musical brilliance – but both these emanated from intense bhakti. The outcome was a melodious outpouring of nectar, very similar to water gushing out of a fountain or a flower opening its petals. The fullness of the devotion manifested into something beautiful and timeless. This can be amply seen in songs where these saints talk freely with their 'ishta devata'. The various emotions of this bhakti are there for all to see and experience. A simple lifestyle, a yearning for the divine, excellence in poetry and music and single minded life pursuit were key attributes of the life they led – nada aikya.

A performer is duty-bound to do justice to the songs composed by such greats. Effort has to be made by the artist to get a deep understanding of the mood of the composer,  the expression of this through words, and how these words flowed musically. It is only with such a visualisation that a good artist would succeed in providing a "lift" to his performance – to a level beyond entertainment. In the type of songs we are discussing, the focal point has been the Hindu gods. So, an artist needs to have this connect with the God principle to appreciate the mood. What is essential for the artist is a spiritual connect with a Higher Entity – which may or may not have form, something that fills the heart with love towards all. A good understanding of poetry, and not just meaning of the words, is key to the artist's expression. Proficiency has to be achieved in music and finally, the performer has to develop the ability to comprehend the linkage between bhava, sahitya and sangeeta. A perfect combination of all of these significantly enhances the melody – remember Bharata Ratna M.S.  Subbulakshmi.

Lately, we keep hearing our music is secular. It is interesting to watch this trend and observe certain patterns of intent. I think this concept is raising questions in the minds of young artists whether rendering songs in praise of Hindu Gods is secular. There appears to be an orientation towards more of raga and swara rendition and usage of symbolic words to make our music perceivably appealable to people of various faiths – and worse still, to convince Hindus. Like yoga and ayurveda, this music is there for humankind to take benefit from. Without the deep connect and love for the divine, how can an artist appreciate the bhava of the composition? Secularism is not a synonym for being an atheist or for being irreligious. It should not constrain one from following his faith in private and more importantly, as a social group, in public. This trend has been initiated by certain artists because they are either non-believers or they feel this is the way to take music to the masses; and by companies who do not consider Bharatiya Sangeeta as secular and hence, do not sponsor programmes. Atheist artists might introspect and decide to offer "art music" concerts where songs can probably be about social issues and the like – else, simply render raga and swaras with no compositions at all. Bhakti is without boundaries of caste – hence, an artist probably needs to dive deeper into bhakti if he wants to propagate this art form to the masses and not the other way around. We need to establish think tanks and pressure groups to impress upon companies that preserving and promoting culture in the land where they earn profits is equally important as supporting education, healthcare, etc. It is time for us to move away from this hypocrisy and embrace the true essence of our music.

There is an argument that this music form has to be more about kalpana (creativity) than kalpita (pre-written). It is important to note that kalpana has been hugely enhanced only because of kalpita – that is, compositions of the great saints. When there are so many rich compositions, let us take this discussion to the other side. Reverse the trend! In a concert, pack more number of such compositions and limit the kalpana element. The role of kalpana should be viewed as primarily to embellish the compositions and not for it to stand out as a solo piece. Is it not true that an artist  gets maximum applause when he renders the 'lighter' songs towards the end of the concert. For those kalpana fans, have 'art music' concerts! "Popular music" is what our music was and along the way, we appear to have lost the direction. This principle was adequately demonstrated by these great saints who took this musical form to the masses and did not restrict it as a 'fine art' to be enjoyed by a limited elite.

Another trend today is the call for expanded repertoire with songs that are not in that higher league and in ragas that are not jana-ranjaka. As an audience, we should demand largely popular songs in often heard ragas to be performed. Liken this to 'hit songs' in a live show. These songs and ragas have become popular for a reason – that great saints composed them and there is an inherent power in them. Such songs and ragas have had a natural connect with the artists and the listeners, over time. This, however, should not be viewed as an attempt to constrain innovation or new compositions. A very strict filter needs to be applied by the artist to bring on only compositions that truly are in that league. This will help raise the quality bar on the new age composers. As for exposition of rare ragas, yes, but in a limited measure. If a rare raga gets accepted by the audience over a period of time, it can then be brought to the mainstream. Quality over quantity should be the mantra.

Music organisations have a key and active role to play in protecting and preserving this tradition. Create an aesthetic temple-like ambience for concerts. Encourage the artists to render popular compositions largely of great saints. Nudge the artists to stick to core set of jana-ranjaka ragas for the most part. Have programmes linked to Hindu festivals to enhance the devotional fervour. Develop 'outreach' programmes to take this form to the people than passively waiting for people to show up at concerts. Take music to the masses. Encourage members/ audiences to be more vocal about these topics in different media. Develop and innovate formats to connect the GenNext to this art form. Convert passive listening to active participation by the audience –  example, the last two songs in the performance could have the audience repeat the lines in the song or permit claps through the song.

Government has been supporting artists and music organisations in promotion of arts and culture. The parameters for approving grants needs to be relooked. The aim has to be to fulfill Mahatma Gandhi's dream of our society becoming a "Rama Rajya". The Government can orient maximum funds towards an ecosystem that promotes movement in this direction.

In conclusion, there is a need for something that helps us understand the larger purpose of life. Learned people have said our music is the easiest vehicle available for such attainment. To sustain and perpetuate this medium is our collective responsibility. We need to view Bharatiya Sangeeta as a means towards a purposeful end and not an end in itself. Let us move back to where we really belong – to the source, that is "bhakti".

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