Song of Surrender

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Random notes

By V Ramnarayan

Should song elevate?

Research cited in his books by the recently deceased neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) has suggested that certain parts of the brain are better developed in children with especial musical ability. Sacks also provided evidence based on experiments to show that children continuously exposed from the age of four to music and musical training, will in time have similarly developed brain parts and musical ability. 

Another interesting discovery neuroscience has made about the relationship between the human brain and musical ability is that different areas of the brain are responsible for different aspects of music. For example, absolute pitch and musicality could be two different things; in fact, you can have perfect sruti and not be very musically gifted and vice versa. Natural rhythmic perfection is again said to be controlled by a different zone. 

According to a biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher was only 14 when he said, “God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.’’

In his book Musicophilia, Sacks quotes from a Somerset Maugham story, The Alien Corn, in which George, a young man being groomed for a gentleman’s life, is passionately interested in becoming a pianist. The family is against the idea, but allows the young man to go to Germany to learn to play the piano but with an assurance from him that he will return to England in two years, to be evaluated by a professional pianist. George works hard and plunges into music in Germany, and duly returns on the appointed day to be examined by an expert, Lea Makart. George plays a Chopin composition, quite competently, but the expert is unimpressed that his future lies in a professional career in music. She tells him that she would have beseeched him to give up everything for music, had she been convinced of his talent. She however comforts him by saying, “Art is the only thing that matters. .. I can see that you have worked very hard. Don’t think it’s been wasted.’’

The fictional expert Lea Makart’s view that working hard at art is never wasted, even if you do not have it in you to become a professional artist, is so true. A very dear friend of mine struggled for decades to master Carnatic music enough to become a concert vocalist. Unfortunately, for all his dedication, and despite training under a great teacher, he lacked the talent for that no matter how deep his devotion and how hard he worked. I used to wonder why his guru, whom my friend adored, never told him the truth, but he must have truly believed that the sishya would be a better human being for having tried so sincerely. My friend finally realised that he had only been daydreaming about becoming a bhagavatar, but is a happy person nevertheless, still worshipping his late guru and his wonderful music. Music has shaped his career in an allied field and given him a pair of ears that can tell good music from bad and give him countless hours of joy, listening.

Followers of Hindustani music will know about the oft-repeated plea among its practitioners for the creation of a battalion of kansens or people with good ears, a play on the name of Tansen, the musical gem of Akbar’s court. It is true that in both the north and the south, it is the devoted army of rasikas who have kept our music alive through their unswerving support of music and musicians. Even the much maligned species of sabha secretaries consists of diehard rasikas who have turned impresarios in their thirst for more and more music.

One of Sruti’s veteran contributors, R. Ramaswamy Iyer, passed away quite suddenly on 9 September at New Delhi. A highly respected bureaucrat regarded as an authority on river water management, he was an intellectual with a deep social conscience. Like many others of his background (Tamil brahmin, IAS), he had a genuine interest in Carnatic music, and through the decades, developed into a clear thinker and eminently readable writer on the art. Fortunately, he did not let his steady acquisition of musical expertise make him a dry cynic of a critic, but continued to enjoy listening to musicians young and old.

Ramaswamy Iyer was not afraid of dismantling obsolete ideas of tradition in our music, and his admiration for great artists was moderated by his expectations of constantly high standards, especially in terms of sruti suddham and good aesthetics. Conversely, his critiques were tempered by empathy for the musician, who despite a lifetime of labour, can occasionally fail to live up to high expectations. As a result, his writing was marked by a gentle touch even when critical of an artist or institution. He liked and encouraged youngsters but was wary of new-fangled ideas.

Ramaswamy Iyer and his wife Suhasini invariably allocated a day for a visit to Sruti whenever they came to Chennai to enjoy the music season. Both of them made enjoyable conversation with Sruti staff expressing their opinions on the concerts they attended, besides enquiring about our friends and relatives. A beautiful couple, who brought calm and good cheer with them every time.

He was much my senior, wise, knowledgeable, and mellow, and I should not have the temerity to say so, but the fact is that we did differ on a few matters musical. He was not averse to writing to me to point out the error of my ways, so to speak, taking care, however, to stress that these letters were not for publication. There were some exceptions, like the last letter from him we published in Sruti. He had not overly liked the tone and content of my editorial on the state of Carnatic music, and I did have a personal correspondence with him on the subject in which he conceded that my views were not entirely unacceptable. 

News of his death was unexpected and distressing. When his son called to inform us, it was from Ramaswamy Iyer’s phone, and I assumed something in the latest Sruti had upset him! As it happened, the issue, with his letter to Sruti Box and his article on caste in Carnatic music, had arrived too late at his doorstep for that.

Today, though the Ramaswamy Iyers of Carnatic music are still with us, an increasing number of rasikas are knowledgeable about the intricacies of music; they can tell the raga of a song either by relating it to songs they know, or more scientifically through their knowledge of the arohana and avarohana as well as the standard prayogas of the raga. They are armed with the learning they imbibe from lecture-demonstrations, online lessons and mobile musicopedias. What some of these expert listeners however seem to lack is the ability to discriminate between good and bad music, between a proper voice and crooning, and vocal mannerisms over-dependent on the microphone. They are often guilty of lack of interest in visranti, mesmerised as they are by pyrotechnics and the more complex permutational swara expertise they look for in vidwans and vidushis. In contrast, my friend, the unsuccessful vocalist of an earlier paragraph, has been a successful rasika. He has impeccable taste in music. He knows that ‘’song elevates our being’’.

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