Classicism is not too vague for words, it is indeed too precise

Music seasons come and go with their fanfare and festivity, triumphs and tears, debuts and swansongs, awards and tributes. But through the mighty ocean of sound bytes inside the concert halls, the roar of the chatter outside, and through all the conflicting reviews in the newspapers, one nagging question always remains unanswered. How much of all this music is truly classical?

This question was perhaps not relevant, say, 50 years ago. There was only one music then — classical Carnatic music. Even film music flowed from it! A musician had almost a fanatical dedication to what he had learnt from his guru. A severe censure awaited his slightest deviation. His world was small and he hardly had a chance to think for himself.

There is a sea change now. A musician is more often an intellectual with a rational, analytical and incisive mind. He has a stunning exposure to a wide variety in culture, music, art, and to other milieus. His opportunities have increased. His audiences have enlarged. In a sense, the whole world is his stage. His eclectic mindset and versatility open a whole new access to opportunities and rewards. Through hard work, he has cultivated amazing skills and a degree of virtuosity not seen in the earlier generation. He can take changes and challenges. He has perhaps every excuse to want to think liberally, and differently from his predecessors.

But then, how liberal and intellectual is classical? Again, is classical music a product of experiment or experience? More fundamentally, is music the experience of the sound or the sound of the experience?

On the other side, one might also ask whether art is an insular discipline or a free exploration? Difficult to answer. But then, when you see music in two different forms, such as the classical and the contemporary, it follows that each has its own grammar.

Mindless innovation

If anything, classical music has to relate to tradition and heritage. Mindless innovations cannot go under the garb of creativity. It is one thing to enlarge and enrich the classical idioms in new forms where necessary, and it is totally another to destroy them and create new ones.

Viewed against this background, today's Carnatic music scene offers a discerning connoisseur varying degrees of satisfaction. At one end of the spectrum, we do have the musicians, young and old, who tenaciously cling to tradition, both in form and content and satisfy the nostalgic quest for the classical. Then, we have those eager, no doubt for a change, here and there, yet deeply respectful of the classical aesthetics and repertoire which they try sincerely to bring within the reach of a large body of listeners. But, a good majority of the other musicians are found to pay only a lip service to the form, sadly missing the aesthetic content of classicism. Their music is generally effete with a surfeit of excesses and they carry the day mainly with their vocal prowess and cerebral exercises.

At the other end of the spectrum are the musicians who are preoccupied more with the audience than with art. Innovation to them is what has popular appeal. They rebel all the time against the classical boundaries in order to create a generic layman's entertainment devoid of any classical value.

Einstein is quoted to have once remarked that Mozart did not create music but his music “was so pure that it seemed to have been ever present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master”. Without doubt there is an infinite lot to be discovered in our classical music. This has been proved time and again by several masters of the past who have left behind noble models to emulate. Of them all, in the present context, three stalwarts claim our special attention for the diverse values they cherished and promoted to preserve and enrich our glorious tradition. One was the doyen of Carnatic music, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who built an enduring bridge between the past and the contemporary times, and till the end of his life, albeit struggling with an aging voice, thrilled large audiences with nothing but impeccable classical music.

Next, we have Ramnad Krishnan, who within his unfortunately short life span, breathed into Carnatic music, decades ago, an air of modernity and refinement totally compatible with high classical values. He remains an idol even today to a horde of sensitive aesthetic young musicians.

The inimitable Brinda admired by all, sang an ineffably ecstatic style, having blended what she had imbibed from the robust Naina Pillai school with what she inherited from the reticent Dhanammal bani. She is remembered today with nothing but sheer reverence.

The music of all these three is still fresh in our memory and can truly sum up for the present generation of musicians and listeners, our hoary tradition and it should not be difficult for our young brilliant musicians, to check for themselves if they are in the right direction. Classicism is not too vague for words. It is indeed too precise for words. If our quest for classicism is genuine, there is scope for introspection and adjusting our bearings more precisely.

(The author is a retired Managing Director of Spencer & Co Ltd. He is also a connoisseur, musicologist and composer.)

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