By V Ramnarayan
Many of the young musicians responsible for putting together and presenting the millennium concert on 31 December 1999-1 January 2000 are the senior vidwans and vidushis of today. Either stars or stars-in-the-making then, many of them have achieved considerable success in their careers since then, travelling abroad frequently and blazed new trails at home as well, some of them acquiring distinct brand identities in the process. Among the next generation of musicians are some of their disciples, though none of the disciples has as yet made as big an impact as the gurus had done at the same stage in their careers. To explain, what happened when the Sanjay Subrahmanyans, Vijay Sivas, Unnikrishnans, Bombay Jayashris and Nithyasree Mahadevans began to share stage space with the Seshagopalans and Sankaranarayanans of an earlier era, does not seem to be happening now. The process of growth to the senior level seems to be taking longer, young musicians appear to be maturing more slowly, especially among vocalists. This observation may be disproved by empirical studies, but it is more likely that it is actually true.
Concert opportunities for the young seem to be linked to success in competitions and reality shows. The winner of the year’s Carnatic Idol award is more often than not the flavour of the season. The explosion of information and of technology choices available for the dissemination of knowledge and the music of a wide range of musicians from past masters to new kids on the block mean that the current crop is better informed and technically equipped than ever before. As Semmangudi Srinivasier was fond of saying, today’s musicians are much more cerebral than those of his generation, which believed in the sanctity of the guru’s word, sometimes going to the extent of imbibing incorrect or inappropriate practices from the teacher. But greater and greater emphasis on technical brilliance and theoretical mastery seem to blunt the creative impulses and deflect the focus away from the need to achieve emotional depth, from genuine rasanubhava.
While higher education and greater exposure to the latest developments in our networked world can make our artists articulate and savvy, even more aware of the history of their art, the stronger moorings in tradition of earlier generations is no longer possible, a problem that all of us in different walks of life encounter everyday in an era of rapid homogenization.
Bad vocal practices have become endemic to Carnatic music, with the grand tradition of full-blooded akaram conspicuous by its absence. Unfortunately, this is dangerous ground for a music critic to tread, as by doing so, he is likely to incur the wrath of vocalists who do not share his view. Some of them do not agree that such a problem exists, while others believe that current styles of vocalisation are acceptable. Comparisons with Hindustani vocalists may be anathema to many representatives of mainstream performance, but this is a point we must debate in the interests of a sustainable future for Carnatic vocal music.