There is enough scope within the boundaries of classicism to please anyone
A friend asked me why Carnatic music is so isolated. I told her that this is a classical art, and all classical arts, unlike popular arts, need an input from the listener to be appreciated. But, she pointed out, western classical music is everywhere — as movie themes, in advertisements for watches, and even in elevators. People all over the world instantly connect with and recognise the Ninth Symphony or the Turkish March, but that's hardly true of the Pancharatna kritis, for instance. I countered this with a slew of political and historical arguments hovering around colonialism — a fancy way of saying that the east has stronger western influences than the west has eastern influences. I was unconvinced.
Then, I heard the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in Chennai. The initial excitement of listening to a live western orchestra, finding out which section of the violins is playing what, separating the sound of the cellos from the others, and following the double bass' deep line all faded very soon. The music seemed too well-fit, too polished. I wanted spontaneous action. I was looking for the musicians to have a conversation they hadn't rehearsed before. Frankly, I got a little bored. But, not once did I find the music cacophonous. Not once did a violin squeak, not once was the cello ear-splittingly loud, not once did a single musician even stop to tune his instrument. The music was always easy on the ear. Similarly with Hindustani music — the slow-cooking and meandering might make it inaccessible, but the tone never displeases.
Now think of a searing Semmangudi Kharaharapriya that crackled with musical wit and wisdom. No disrespect to the master, for no one ever sang Kharaharapriya like him, but his voice itself crackled every now and then. Audiences in the know wouldn't react when he coughed or cleared his throat or when his idea occasionally did not express itself, because they knew that a few breathtaking sangatis would follow. Other musicians, who sang in a host of eccentric tones and syllables, were loved for these very eccentricities. Does the experienced listener learn to ignore the inconsistency of tone and appreciate the content alone? And does the outsider, who isn't able to divorce tone and content, get left behind?
Carnatic music has always been cliquey; it is hard to argue against that. The big brothers demanded a particular kind of outlook, not just to the music, but to life. But this is because the establishment was taken from and made of a particular kind of people. The artistes, the patrons and the lay listeners could all be slotted into two or three types. While these prototypes have changed in the last two decades or so, the new ones can still be pigeon-holed into convenient categories. At some level, this made the fraternity inward-looking. There are too many in-jokes and too much self-referencing.
This is one of the reasons for a lack of emphasis on tonal aesthetics. Musicians and listeners tolerate a not-so-smooth voice, an inconsistent instrumental tone and vocal quirks. It has become a part of the music. Add to this the abysmal amplification, often unsuitable to the venue or the kind of music performed, and the heady cocktail can put off listeners on the fringes. The regulars, however — the ones within the clique — have learnt to read between the lines, and shake their heads violently in appreciation.
The lack of participation from the marginal listeners is then taken as an excuse to engage in populism, like a lengthy tukkada-section or gimmickry. But there is enough scope from within the boundaries of classicism to please anyone. Some of the most popular musicians over the years, the ones that attracted the largest of crowds, sang and played from within the fence. A good Dhanyasi or Ahiri can melt even the most non-musical of souls.
When I was young, I despised brinjal. I could not bring myself to put it into my mouth, feel its unique texture, its taste, chew it and send it down my system. When I was forced to, I pushed it to a corner of my mouth, and quickly swallowed it. My father always said, “It's an acquired taste!” I wondered each time, “Why would anyone want to acquire such a taste?!” I protested for years until I was in a hostel mess and brinjal turned out to be the only edible thing on the menu. It took some time, but I grew to love the vegetable. Today, no brinjal is safe in my presence. As my father always said, “Give it a chance, you'll know.”
Carnatic music, like any other classical art, faces stiff competition from forms of fast-food entertainment that are easier to consume. Equally, the music's elitism is not welcoming to newcomers. It took abominable mess food for me to start eating brinjal; Carnatic music does not have that luxury. It needs its practitioners to pay more attention to tonality and elegance. And it needs to tell a much wider variety of people gently, “Give it a chance, you'll know.”
(The author is a practising lawyer and flautist)