MUSICSCAN: What stirred my memory and made me fish out the relevant cutting from my old files was a recent performance of the Madras String Quartet in a brief session of chamber music in the mini-hall of the Music Academy.

Nuances of Indian classical music infused into the Western make the blend attractive, but not so vice versa as the Madras String Quartet’s attempts proved.

“When some colourful nuances of Indian music are infused into new works in Western music, usually the resulting blend is not only attractive but can be quite natural. But when any foreign elements are injected into the bloodstream of Indian classical music, the sequel is always unnatural and unsatisfactory, even if the musicians’ vision and skills are of a very high order.... (So) the colours of Indian classical music have the potential to enrich Western music infinitely, but the elements of the latter cannot embellish Indian music except perhaps marginally...

“It is true that a composition in Western orchestral music becomes an inflexible entity once it has been completed and is finally written down. But the composers in the West have always been free to stretch their imagination beyond any visible horizon. In Indian classical music, however, although the performers enjoy great liberty to improvise on given themes, the whole system is tightly bound by the specific laws which govern the permissible melodic patterns and rhythmic structures. Our greatest composers have always honoured the traditional rules, and no performer can transgress these boundaries with impunity. In the Carnatic system, moreover, one cannot stray even slightly from the spiritual track without undermining the very character of the music...”

I had expressed those thoughts nearly 20 years ago in an essay titled ‘The alien colours’ in this newspaper (Sunday Magazine, March 3, 1991); and they obviously implied that projecting the sacred songs of Carnatic music in alien styles is fraught with the serious risk of dilution and distortion.

What stirred my memory and made me fish out the relevant cutting from my old files was a recent performance of the Madras String Quartet in a brief session of chamber music in the mini-hall of the Music Academy.

West and East

The event – which was reviewed sympathetically by Randall Giles in the Friday Review two weeks ago (Sept. 4) – had started by presenting three authentic works of Western classical music, and followed them up with several well-known compositions in Carnatic music arranged for the String Quartet by its leader and first violinist V.S. Narasimhan.

Referring to the transition, Mr. Giles was sensitive enough to tell us truthfully: “The concert then moved on to what was for this audience, if not for this reviewer, more familiar ground.”

Obviously Mr. Giles is on far more familiar ground than I am, when considering the works of Purcell, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, which figured in the Western segment. And I am happy to note that his overall impression of the way they were rendered by our own musicians was quite favourable.

This must be a great source of encouragement for Narasimhan and his colleagues, and I hope it will spur them on to achieve greater excellence in their efforts to function as a true European-style string quartet in India.

But of course, I find myself on far more familiar ground when it’s a question of the works of Dikshitar, Tyagaraja and Papanasam Sivan (whose compositions were among those presented); so I am grateful to Mr. Giles for giving me a chance to say something about the Carnatic section of the evening’s music. And my impression was that the results were quite distressing.

Take ragas, not kritis!

For I did get the impression that the quartet-oriented ‘arrangements’ of familiar songs such as Dikshitar’s ‘Vatapi Ganapatim’ and Tyagaraja’s ‘Gnaana Mosagaraada’ were basically distorted. True, the songs were rendered quite chastely by Narasimhan on the first violin; but there was an extremely jarring parallel stream of incompatible sound effects produced by the other instruments in the name of ‘harmony’, undermining the spiritual tenor of the ‘sahitya’ (lyrics) which inevitably echoed in our minds.

Moreover, as pointed out by Randall Giles, the roles assigned to the second violin, viola and cello in these arrangements were very marginal, and didn’t conform to the usual Western norms which envisage a ‘conversation’ between all the instruments constituting a four-string ensemble. As a result, this whole segment of the concert was rather sterile, judged even by Western standards.

Of course, it might have been a different story if Narasimhan had left specific kritis alone and taken only the ragas (Hamsadhwani or Poorvikalyani or whatever else) as the basis for his innovative endeavours!

For that would have been a legitimate case of exporting Carnatic colours to Western music, and not of importing dubious Western colours into Carnatic music. It would also have created enough scope for all the four musicians to show their paces in terms of improvising within the framework of Carnatic melodies.