If Carnatic musicians today are globe-trotters, it wasn't always this way. Looking back on how a taboo-bound tradition opened itself slowly to the world at large…

Indians now qualify among the world's most frequent travellers and leading the pack among Indians are the Carnatic musicians. There must hardly be an international flight today which does not have a singer or instrumentalist of that genre on board. And yet, less than a hundred years ago, travelling abroad was taboo.

When Tyagaraja in his ‘Dasarathi' thanked Rama for spreading his fame in far away lands, he must have definitely not included countries beyond the seas, for, crossing the waters was one of the most heinous of sins and usually resulted in summary excommunication. Fortunately for our musicians, Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was then called was considered all right and so, that really became the first foreign destination. Taking the Boat Train from Madras to Dhanushkoti and from there the boat to Lanka and then once again boarding a train to Colombo soon became part of the routine. Performing at the Town Hall in Colombo was a matter of prestige and if you were lucky, even the Governor attended at times and gave you a letter of commendation. Lankan hospitality was lavish and it was just a short distance from home. Music festivals in Jaffna were never-ending, with temple after temple having its annual festival. Nagaswaram and Devadasi troupes camped there for months on end.

Avoiding the sea

As the South Indian population gradually increased in places such as Burma, invitations began coming from there. Travelling to Rangoon meant having to go to Calcutta and then taking a rather circuitous and risky overland route, but musicians did it all the same through the 1920s and early 1930s. Muthiah Bhagavatar, C. Saraswathi Bai and others routinely made this pilgrimage. Rewards from homesick Chettiars in these far-flung parts of the Empire were very attractive. The lucky ones even got full furniture suites made of Burma teak which were hauled all the way back.

Travelling by sea was by now considered a necessary evil and attracted a simpler punishment as compared to excommunication, though it all depended on how squeamish you were. Ritual purification ceremonies included having to swallow a pinch of cow dung! Musicians, however, were reluctant to try ships till Musiri Subramania Iyer and party went by ship to the Federated Malay States to gather funds for the Ramakrishna Mission. This was in the 1930s and Musiri was at the peak of his popularity. When he and his fellow musicians wandered into a high security naval base, arrest was imminent but someone recognised Musiri and all was well. Rajarathinam Pillai breached the Eastern-most frontier when he travelled all the way to Japan in the 1950s and returned boasting that he had done what no other “piping fellow” had ever done.

Going West was not so easy. The Indian population there had not yet reached a critical mass. The brain-drain to the U.S. was still in the nascent stage when S. Balachander and N. Ramani made their trip in 1961. On their return a public felicitation was organised for them, it being almost like a journey to the moon and back. In all this, Balachander's earlier U.S.S.R. tour in the late 1950s was almost forgotten. But there is no doubt he was the pioneer. In 1965 the Earl and Countess of Harewood came to Madras. They heard our musicians sing, went into raptures over Semmangudi, MS, KVN and others. Invitations followed for the Edinburgh Music Festival and our musicians took flight. But Semmangudi proved inflexible. His orthodoxy ensured he never went abroad. The next year M.S. Subbulakshmi sang at the United Nations and made waves.

Academic openings

The 1950s and 60s were when some Westerners made serious attempts to study our art. Harold Powers, Jon B. Higgins, Johanna Spector… the list is not long, but these scholars did ensure that Carnatic music was spoken of in Universities abroad. Teaching assignments were given to visiting musicians, with the tradition at the Wesleyan University being the longest.

From the 1970s onwards, concert invitations from the West, East, Down Under and just about any other place have boomed. A thriving Indian population ensured that Tyagaraja Aradhana was celebrated in almost all parts of the globe, making the bard's claim in ‘Dasarathi' true in abundant measure. There have been music festivals in Europe, arangetram concerts for budding talents in London, weddings in Malaysia… the opportunities are endless. True, our musicians have occasionally had problems with bidets and at times have sighed over a three-month-old rasam being fished out of the cold storage, heated and served, but they do appreciate the passion for the art which makes the NRI repeatedly organise concerts and creating a market where none existed earlier. Carnatic music has truly breached boundaries. What next? A concert on the moon?

The author can be contacted at: srirambts@gmail.com