By Bala Shankar
Like poets and writers, Carnatic musicians (and may be other musicians) don’t retire, it is often their last breath that brings down the curtains. In most other fields, especially in sports, retirement from competitive circuits occurs much earlier. Golfers are the exception—they play till their grip is firm and the vision is good. For the rest, the demands on physique, stamina, agility and steady loss of ranking or non-selection accelerates retirement. How do we view the plight of Carnatic musicians on this rather sensitive subject?
If we go strictly by competitive performance, many musicians reach their ‘use by date’ earlier than when their career actually finishes. Physical fallibility, variable voice quality (in case of vocalists), lack of consistency, demand for ‘freshness’, impaired listening faculties and the like take away their steam, after their prime. Pitch alignment becomes a battle. Age, however, is ‘just a number’ as the proverb goes. There are many 80-plus vidwans who can hold their merit seats as well as any.
It begs the question: why not retire from active performance when you need to? There are many factors in their defence like continued opportunity to earn, keeping up their societal relevance, and waiting anxiously in the award queue. When the music matures, there is a different enjoyment for the rasikas. Some do it as a hobby as their focus had just been music. On the other hand, by diminished quality of performance, are they not compromising their legacy? Maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman withdrew from playing when his bowing arm aged faster than his musical brain. He was perhaps conscious of preserving his iconic quality for posterity. Instead, he devoted his prowess to composing and grooming others. Some musicians keep a low-activity calendar in the sunset years.
But many others want to compete with full vigour, notwithstanding the spring of new talents that is amazingly unabated. In fact, they may inadvertently harm the fortunes of their progenies and disciples. The number of top performers in their late twenties to mid thirties is remarkable. So, if your ATP ranking (as in tennis) is below 150, what do you do? Instead of the official ranking system, there are surrogates like loss of prime slot, substantial reduction in audiences, and unfavourable grapevine reviews. You would rather listen to their prime recordings. Graceful retiring is an option that musicians must consider—however irreverent it may sound. The system can do its bit to preserve their dignity. Musicians must be honoured and awarded when they are in their prime, and silver hair should not be the criterion. Top retired musicians could be part of an advanced learning and intellectual forum that offers them different vehicles to share their expertise, and must be well compensated. The industry is getting its own ‘unicorn’ status in terms of budget sizes. Is it time to frame an appropriate pension scheme for ‘former’ musicians, just as former cricketers seem to receive? A Palghat Raghu, for instance, was not as fortunate as a Kris Srikkanth!