Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

When we speak Carnatic music

Random Notes

By V Ramnarayan

Some standard items occupy the bill of fare at Carnatic music-related events with depressing regularity. One of them is the strange practice of every speaker on the dais (or dias as most of the community refer to the stage) extolling the virtues of the other "dignitaries" on it. This is of course healthily supplemented by the encomiums showered on each of them by the master of ceremonies, so that by the end of the formalities, you willy nilly become an expert on the life stories of all these splendid worthies assembled to felicitate or honour an individual for his or her great contributions to the arts. This is invariably preceded, accompanied, or followed by the handing over of mementoes (pronounced momentoes) and/or the wrapping of each and every distinguished member on the dais with a shawl, each more hideous than the previous one. There is a strong rumour doing the rounds that the shawls are recycled via a thriving flea market; for all we know, the shawl that covers a lowly magazine editor may have once adorned a Natyamani or Sangita Kala Sagara.

The same is also said to be true of the speeches delivered on such occasions. Pet phrases or sentences include 'guru-sishya parampara', 'pathantara suddham', 'the divine origin of Carnatic music', 'concert paddhati', 'the blessings of my parents and my gurus,' 'the greatest, most sophisticated music system in the world,' and 'bhakti is the ultimate purpose of Carnatic music.'

Increasingly, speakers on such stages take potshots at a mysterious individual or individuals whom they charge with the blasphemous claim of atheism, when they are not targeting the same or other individuals who have the unfortunate habit of tinkering with the hoary old concert format we see on the stage today.

Another familiar refrain is one that rhapsodises the good old days, when the word of the guru was gospel, even a guru who seldom taught but sent the sishya out on tiresome errands, or made him press his legs or wash his clothes, or thrashed him when he failed to get a sangati right or worse still imitated a rival musician he must have heard surreptitiously despite the guru's blanket ban order. The only way to learn music was to sit behind the guru in concerts and pick up the gems he scattered on stage, and convert each slap or hook or square cut with the bow of the fiddle into a lesson never to be forgotten.

The crowning glory among such glittering jewels it has been my recent good fortune to experience is what one speaker followed his confession of musical ignorance with. "I know nothing about music," he said, "but its only purpose should be the attainment of jivan moksha, the kind the Trinity of Carnatic music attained through their bhakti. If we inculcate such values in our young, we can forget the Trinity, for we shall then be creating brand new trinities." Indeed "a consummation devoutly to be wished", in the sage words of PG Wodehouse. Or was it William Shakespeare?

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