S.Rajam’s (Music Appreciation notes)

Friday, 7 September 2018

Why Carnatic music matters more than ever

 By Ludwig Pesch

Listening to French radio one night in 1977, I noticed a recording by Ramnad Krishnan being discussed at great length. This happened to follow a daily poetry session I loved listening to, so Carnatic music was not what I had tuned in for. Yet, to me, being a student of Western music, keen on learning more about all kinds of music, this music was a revelation. To my ears, this music was more than just one among others, each worth appreciating in its own right. I realised that this experience answered some questions I had long been pondering: Could there be any music that is, at the same time, "ancient" and “flourishing” in the sense of unbroken continuity with scope for self-expression?

And if such a music could be found, would it make someone like me feel welcome? Without having grown up in its cultural context? Little did I know that the second question had long been answered in the US where Carnatic music was in the process of becoming one of the best-studied music traditions, thanks to Wesleyan University's "visiting artists" programme that had invited Ramnad Krishnan to the U.S.A.

It took me several years of study at Kalakshetra, at the invitation of its founder Rukmini Devi Arundale, to realise that the history of Carnatic music was a highly contested one. Studying such a music was therefore bound to be a lifelong pursuit.

Ludwig Pesch
Blissfully unaware of any possible pitfalls that would delay my grasp of Carnatic music, I became a student of flute vidwan Ramachandra Sastry. Learned musicians and scholars guided me on various aspects, most generously Vidya Shankar, S. Rajam and T.R. Sundaresan, noted for their ability to brighten the lives of music lovers in often unexpected ways.

As it turned out, Carnatic music is many things to many people, a fact rarely reflected in scholarly works, yet evident wherever musicians, listeners, and learners congregate. Their shared pursuit is all about a joy that transcends—and often contradicts—"common sense". This is an attitude valued and clearly expressed in Carnatic music's lyrics, particularly those of Tyagaraja for whom music was a source of unmitigated bliss and fulfilment, even conducive to liberating oneself from trivial pursuits. Could this be akin to modern concepts like "total immersion" and “mindfulness”, for instance in song lyrics like Intakanaanandam, Manasu swadeenamaina, Aparamabhakti, Nidhichala sukhama where Tyagaraja also invokes legendary role models in accordance with older conventions?

In other words, does this not sound like a message or "remedy" for some of the “ills” of our times—like the many distractions imposed by modern lifestyles and our inability to focus on the task at hand—hence putting our most important relationships in jeopardy? The difference is obviously that Carnatic music at its very best relies on a heightened involvement in several realms at once. For this reason, most of south India's music is hardly suited to being used as a sonic background merely to create a pleasant ambience. This may even stand in the way of ever getting “popular among the masses” (though some have claimed success in such an endeavour).

This brings me back to what greatly matters to me as regards all Indian music and stated succinctly by Yehudi Menuhin, the violin virtuoso to whom Hindustani music and Carnatic music were of equal interest, though he was mainly remembered in India for collaborating with Pandit Ravi Shankar: "An oral tradition is a wonderful thing, keeping meaning and purpose alive and accessible. As soon as an idea is confined to the printed page, an interpreter is required to unlock it." Little remains to add to this insight by a globally acclaimed musician, other than asking ourselves: Should we allow our favourite music to be limited by convention or reduced to a "definite" performance, fixed forever on any medium like paper, CD or other digital media?

I doubt this makes sense from any point of view, be it artistic, social, pedagogic or historic. After all, today's performances hardly look or sound like anything past composers could have anticipated as regards their own creations such as padas, keertanas or kritis. Regardless of a given sampradaya, this may have made little difference. Nor have their interpreters objected to the introduction of new, formerly “alien" instruments (the tambura, violin, saxophone and electric mandolin); or to the adoption of instruments from dance and folk ensembles (the flute, ghatam, khanjira and morsing). On the contrary, all of these instruments have long since been played by men and women from different social backgrounds, often to international acclaim.

However, the "message" of revered poet-composers still finds its most congenial expression in community programmes rather than in sleek stage and studio performances, going by "their key motives in cultural creativity which include, psychological satisfaction and bliss". In other words, "popularising" Carnatic music may well succeed once more if its exponents dare to reach out to laypersons instead of reducing them to passivity—treating them as participants again, which they had indeed been not so long ago. It goes without saying that this calls not only for patience and creativity but greater sensitivity to the special needs of participants from different cultural backgrounds and age groups.

In search of words to explain what attracts people like me to Carnatic music, I compare the experience to that of looking at one of the large and colourful mosaics found in ancient sites: an impression produced by countless elements of infinite colors and shades, each contributing to such splendour though rarely noticed in its own right. This brings home the fact that our minds need to enter “the greater picture” before paying attention to the finer details and appreciating accomplishment on the lines of rasa.  

It may have been this wide range of expressions that first drew me to the music embodied by Ramnad Krishnan, and through him to Carnatic music in general. His secret may have been this, in the words of Sruti magazine Editor-in-Chief V. Ramnarayan:  "Ramnad Krishnan’s choice of the veena-like, delicately modulated style of singing was a decisive deviation from the general trend.” If its appeal remains undiminished in the year of his birth centenary, this may be due to the possibility raised by singer T.M. Krishna, namely that Ramnad Krishnan's special aesthetics would have come naturally to him.

What better way to follow in his footsteps than by building bridges between different cultures and creeds—thereby linking generations, different artistic disciplines, and so much else? Doing so on a regular basis fosters mutual respect while boosting cultural resilience in the face of dominant trends. Such an effort sensitises us to subtle nuances in a noisy world, reduces stress due to constant distractions, and enables us to care for what really matters—not just to ourselves. Yet I also realise that there is another way of explaining how a Carnatic musician like Ramnad Krishnan could install a sense of wonderment in a novice like myself: from an idealistic point of view, this music beckons one to join a cultural movement stretching across time and space as active participants. And this quite independent of any particular specialisation, like vocal and instrumental genres, or favourite composers (Tyagaraja in my teacher vidwan Ramachandra Sastry's case).

The strength of music is that its beauty arises in the mind, emerging in seemingly unrelated processes over a period of time, always in need of being created a new rather than constituting a definite “work of art". This realisation can be a source of strength in the face of adversity, the inevitable challenges posed by human history and natural forces. Becoming conscious of these processes is as gratifying for those starting this journey later in life and in all modesty as for seasoned performers and teachers weary of routine.

"Modesty" may be the key to even more benefits, still latent in Carnatic music, some already corroborated by modern science, others still waiting to be discovered and harnessed by therapists and caregivers. Such new insights may readily be applied without putting the sanctity of tradition into doubt. So for me, this is an experience everyone may share. There are simply no inherent barriers in this music as for inspiring creativity, be it among hereditary practitioners or others.

As part of this pursuit, I have long worked towards greater appreciation of the "real" tambura, always highlighting its role in “the wonder that is Carnatic music”. I quite believe that such appreciation, in combination with hands-on experiences, makes Carnatic music more accessible also to audiences and learners hailing from other cultures.

There are many reasons to believe that Carnatic music matters, perhaps more than ever and almost anywhere in the world. So why not perform and teach it in the service of better education for all, for ecological awareness or in order to promote mutual respect in spite of all our differences? And attempt this where other means have failed to make a difference?

In Paramatmudu, Tyagaraja points in this direction by celebrating the wonder of life in all its manifestations, extolling "a joyful subtle insight into that in all its beauty”—to start with, by listening to a rendition of Paramatmudu and similar songs together, followed up by a frank exchange of ideas: to figure out together what this may mean for any living being we, as Tyagaraja in this song, can think of—then moving to the next level by getting involved beyond the music as such—realising what makes a particular tune so enticing, keeping tala—thereby getting invigorated and better equipped to tackle the larger issues at hand.
Ludwig Pesch is a musician, musicologist and educator interested in “other” ways of sharing music. He studied South Indian music at Kalakshetra after serving as church organist and studying music and musicology in Freiburg (Germany). His critically acclaimed Oxford Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music has been in print since 1999.

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