Chennai’s famous music season has just ended, with audiences thronging the concerts of popular artistes. But every individual who is serious about music has to make a conscious effort to look beyond the popular.

As every December comes to an end, along with the shift of a number, we sense a feeling of freshness and change. We enter the first of every year with a feeling of great hope. Our minds traverse the markers of the last 12 months, the sadness, bitterness and moments of joy and discovery with the prayer that the new number would tilt the balance towards the latter.

In the world of Carnatic classical music, the thoughts are very much the same. The New Year marks not only the end of the year but also the conclusion of a month-long engagement with the classical arts: the December Music season. This is the largest festival of the classical arts in the world. The festival concentrates on Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, though Hindustani concerts have also featured over the decades. Now we also have some experimental presentations becoming part of this festival. For the whole month of December, the city of Chennai is transformed with a large number of people coming from various cities and countries to experience this phenomenon.

The presence of such a festival also makes this a time to critically assess classical music especially Carnatic classical music. Over the years much has been written about the December festival having become unstable, straining at the seams, without any sense of ‘the optimum’ for the artists and the audiences. This has led to voice-related issues for the artists and even to many empty halls for concerts. Yet, notwithstanding these perceptions, little has changed. The season is like the Olympics, making every musician, dancer, aficionado, impresario, connoisseur and the legendary sabha wanting to leave their own imprint. Maybe this is the law of natural evolution and Darwin will work his wonder. I am, therefore, not going to whine about the season or its problems.

But I would like to say something else, which is related and also distinct.

A lot of Carnatic music does go on after the month of December — in fact for the next 11 months all over the world, with the same commitment from the artists and interest from the audiences. The issues that relate to these 11 months interest me, perhaps even more than the one-month carnival.

Like in every other art, one thing that stands out today is the converging of people’s interest in what is termed the ‘popular’. Within Carnatic music, ‘popular’ refers to musicians who are at the zenith of their popularity, drawing large audiences for their concerts, numerous invitations for concerts, receiving the complete attention of the Carnatic music world. The ‘not popular’ I refer to in this piece are those musicians who have not reached this position in their professional life.

The popular has always dominated the minds of the organiser and listener and this is natural. But there was a time, not long ago, when the not-so-popular yet exquisite had a healthy presence within the psyche of the Carnatic music community. This space has today shrunk. Musicians whose music had intrinsic honesty attracted a healthy audience. Often listeners who were part of the popular musician’s audience made the time and took the effort to listen to the not-so-popular musicians. This was a conscious recognition of value by those who were not swayed by the larger trend. This also meant that people were willing to sacrifice, on the same evening, the popular for the not-so-popular. When people came for these concerts in healthy numbers, they were not only instilling belief in these musicians that there existed a space for them within the spectrum of Carnatic music, but also displayed an attitude of seeking music. Many musicians who belong to this category have provided and still do provide serious music.

The organisers also felt the need for such space. They made it a point to work with these artists and provide platforms. In this atmosphere there existed a vibrant Carnatic music environment in which there were musicians at different levels of professional success and popularity, but all given due respect by listeners and organisers. This created a situation where there was so much to gather musically from various musicians and we were all willing to do that. The not-so-popular musician felt a sense of pride in the fact that though mass popularity may have eluded him/her, a sizeable audience was still present. Many of them were those who “missed the popular bus” professionally but were passionate musicians. This attitude was not belittled.

Today there is a change in attitude. The way listeners, at large, ignore ‘that which is not popular’ is symptomatic of how we view art today. Different members of the audience have their own favourites but when this differentiation tilts towards only those who are popular, it means that a larger vision is being lost and, with it, something that has been prized and valued over generations by discriminating audiences and artists. The likes and dislikes remain within the popular spectrum. Judgements of serious and frivolous music also remain within the spectrum of the popular. In this scene, what does the serious musician who is not popular do?

The musician is constantly aware that most listeners are trapped in the popular and almost resigns him/herself to a life of empty chairs. Does this affect the music of the musician? Yes. In some cases, they decide the only way out is to adopt techniques that got the popular to become popular. This makes things worse, as these often don’t work. But having adopted such musical ideas the musician is trapped, alienating even the few that came before and still unable to break the glass ceiling.

One does not expect large audiences to throng concerts of the not-so-popular. Nor am I going to explore the reasons for popularity. But every individual who is serious about Carnatic music has to make a conscious effort to look beyond the popular. Each one can decide whom to listen to but must place faith in musicians who are serious, irrespective of popularity. Even a fairly decent, consistent attendance at the concerts of such musicians will help create multiple spheres of Carnatic music. One aficionado, in fact, asked me “Why are people not coming to concerts of serious musicians just because they are not popular? This was not the case before.”

Having been branded ‘popular’, today I need to ask myself another question. Am I contributing to this ghettoisation? My initial reaction would be absolutely not. I am doing what I do, sing and making ‘hay while the sun shines’. Does my responsibility end there? After a few moments of reflection, I find the conflict, the dilemma in my thoughts. Are we, the popular, making sure that every opportunity comes only our way? Are we, in a subliminal sense, creating a popular-related thought process in the majority? Are we avaricious?

Yes, I am all that. I am insecure and all artists are. I should make sure that I maximise my professional life as long as it lasts. “The artist’s life is limited,” says the other side of me. After some battle, I must say that we are not only maximising our opportunities but even sending out messages that minimise them for the rest. We — the popular — need to look beyond ourselves; at the music, at the eco-system of Carnatic music. How many times have I actually refused a concert even though I have three concerts on either side? Why have I not thought to myself that if I say ‘No’, another serious musician would be able to perform? Have I ever considered suggesting such musicians unless specifically asked? Do the not-popular feature on my lips or do they not?

We need to wake up and realise that we live in a self-obsessed popular bubble. It is lovely and will disappear but if I am not confident enough about my own music, to think beyond myself, it is unfortunate not only for music but for the music community at large. We are today in a position to influence people, and we need to nudge people to go to concerts by the numerous lovely musicians who are not famous, in order to secure Carnatic music.

The immediate conclusion would be to ask if I am generalising the popular as not-serious music and the not-popular as serious good music. I am definitely not. All popular music is not superficial. I am not here to judge music but many popular musicians are extremely serious about their art and honest about their work. Similarly all musicians who hardly get a decent audience are not necessarily creating special music. The point here is that we cannot limit our thought process to seeking out only those who attract the largest crowds or appear in the media often.

Of course, the role of the media in creating such a one-dimensional attitude towards Carnatic music cannot be ignored. As many may complain, we keep seeing only T.M. Krishna and a few others in the papers. I don’t have a defence here! The media must find ways of featuring various musicians to highlight the depth of great music available for the listeners. This will trigger curiosity and create a larger canvas of musical listenership.

I am certain that, to many readers, the images of the not-so-popular will be of septuagenarians and octogenarians. I am not referring to them. I am speaking about musicians who are in the same age group as the market leaders. These are the ones I am concerned about. Now that I have referred to this age group I need to say this.

There also exists another belief that any old lady or man singing Carnatic music presents pristine old-world music. This is a delusion. We will always hear connoisseurs going on about how this old person or the other sang the most appropriate classical pure Carnatic music. The same music from a younger person will not seem as appropriate, classical or pure; in fact sometimes the word will be ‘boring’. The point is that there are some wonderful seniors who produce such beautiful music and need to be described with all the adjectives above. But let us not get obsessed with ‘old’ and ‘nostalgia’ to the extent that we are unable to discern only the good music, even among the seniors. There can be no universality in discrimination but there needs to be a conscious cultivation of an attitude of discrimination. All old is not gold.

Beyond the music season, there are many other issues. Take for example, the lectures and talks hosted by some organisations. This too is only a ‘Music Season’ fancy. Even during the season’s lectures, the popular ones and the crowds they attract have begun to influence curators. This again is a self-critique, as I have also been a speaker on many occasions. Why do we need huge crowds for scholastic sessions? We need longer serious engagements. We need to build on the lectures and create smaller groups for discussions through the year. There is the odd lecture-demonstration during the year. I am referring to creating spaces for consistent questioning through the year. Even the most prestigious organisations with a history of lectures have not taken this step. We need scholars, musicians and musicologists to constantly engage in dialogue not just for the public but for music itself.

In a related area, we Carnatic musicians never seem interested in the nuances of the other arts or literature. Over the years the dancers, sculptors and painters have always made an effort to feel music but we have almost never gone beyond our world. The performances of other art forms, even during the music season, are almost never attended by people like me. The scholastic session on other related art forms hardly evokes interest in Carnatic musicians. We need to change this.

Carnatic music is thriving today with a large influx of younger musicians from around the globe and interest from other societies. The next few decades without doubt are going to be wonderful. At the same time we have fallen into the common social patterns that are evident in all spheres of life. All the issues I have raised are probably applicable to the art world in general, but I can only ask questions of what I know. We need to step back, take note and move ahead, in the process realign our thoughts to where we want to see Carnatic music in the next two decades — not as an artistic profession, but as an art.

T.M. Krishna is a Carnatic Classical Musician