TRADITION AND INNOVATION: two words that rouse passions in the world of fine arts. What exactly do these words mean to an artist? And where does one end and the other begin in terms of interpretation of art? Six young artists tell us what they think.

Maintain core values

Tradition, according to the dictionary, is largely made of beliefs and practices passed down from one generation to another; while innovation is described as a process that renews and refreshes the existing tradition, giving it a new perspective through a different thought process. When we talk about tradition or innovation with respect to a classical art form, it's important to understand that the basis for definition is a certain idiom. A ‘classical idiom' is the foundation, knowledge, values and the core that truly represents an art form. Art forms are not rigid and offer immense freedom and scope for creativity. It is essential to find space within these boundaries and not misuse this freedom. Innovation happens only if there is complete understanding of tradition and what it stands for. Without that, innovation is not worthwhile. Each one's interpretation of art is different and subjective. The general notion that innovation begins where tradition ends is off beam. Innovation and tradition go hand in hand; they are not mutually exclusive. The real challenge is to find that space for something new while maintaining the core values of the art form.

Rithvik Raja is a Carnatic vocalist.


Traditionally Speaking

The story goes that an ocean-liner bearing toxic waste, bound for the ship-breaking yard in Alang, made a halt in Chennai some years ago. Incensed, green activists decided to protest. In a couple of motorised rubber dinghies, they staged a protest alongside the liner. While one group held up empty banners, another group would race by and spray-paint a message of protest on the banners. When the leader of the protest group was questioned and pulled-up for trespassing by the coastguard, the calm rely was that they were staging a traditional act of protest. On hearing the word ‘traditional', the belligerent coast guard was swiftly mollified.

A story though it may be, it is an all-too-familiar sentiment that ‘tradition' must be something good even if we don't quite get it. Concepts like culture or tradition are often associated with a sense of duty, thereby perpetuating a sense of boredom. Tradition becomes a historical artefact, which becomes officious and boring. So much so, that just the right degree of boringness is a reassuring guarantee of a worthwhile event, given the case of performances. Too much and the audience is driven out of its seats, too little and it may find the theme too disagreeably intense. Mediocre practitioners unfailingly find the perfect mixture.

Terms like ‘tradition' and ‘innovation' are often pitted against each other as polar opposites thereby ensuring that we never arrive at the more important discourse of what distinguishes mediocrity from potential excellence. How much better it would be if we could approach our practice by putting yesterday's discoveries to the test, ‘ready to believe that the true play has once again escaped us', as renowned theatre director, Peter Brook says in “The Empty Space”. How much better if we could resist the trap of being complacent, of being bored, of believing that somewhere, someone has found out the way and it does not have to be questioned any longer. As practitioners and audience members, we are all implicated in the act of creation; an act that requires us to be critical, alert and involved.

Preethi Athreya is a well known contemporary dancer.


Blend the two

To me, these two words are completely mutually inclusive. One implies the other. Tradition is dynamic. Today's tradition is yesterday's innovation. Tradition provides the guidelines within which to innovate. And this is how I perceive the two terms with regard to my art form. That being said, both must be upheld with care. Holding onto tradition if it does not hold relevance at the present, can lead to stagnation in thought and approach. At the same time, innovation without purpose and clarity of intention can be irresponsible as upholders of the precious art form.

Mythili Prakash is a classical Bharatanatyam dancer.


Underlying laws

In my opinion, tradition is something that is handed down by our elders. Innovation, on the other hand, is something that shouldn't compromise on tradition. What we know from what is taught to us is tradition. Innovation is working and experimenting with that which is taught to us. Tradition is the foundation for innovation. Tradition never ceases to exist. Innovation is just a continuation of tradition. With respect to Oxygen, the composition of the band is conducive to the incorporation of Indian instruments. It is not a case where Carnatic instruments are used for western bits and vice-versa.

V. Anirudh Athreya is a Carnatic musician and a member of the band Oxygen.


Creative calling

Innovation is creating something out of the box. Innovation generally takes time to be accepted. Innovation starts and continues as a tradition only if people pursue and take forward the whole new idea in terms of interpretation of art. By pursuing a tradition, we try to establish a style that already has a reputation and an identity. Healthy innovation should be a part of today's music. I've started to work with different bands and different genres. We don't mix Carnatic music and other genres but we attempt to blend different genres to give a new flavour. A genre called ‘CARFUSION' can be called an Innovation but it's not a tradition yet. People have also started accepting new styles. Innovation should be unique rather than doing something which is already done.

M.S. Ananthakrishnan is a Carnatic violinist and a member of the band ZINX.


Changing with time

Innovation is an integral part of any art form. We don't define tradition as something that is constant. Whatever is tradition today was once an innovation that has been accepted over the years. Tradition and innovation are not two different paths. In fact, I am currently riding both horses. I have my Carnatic performances on the one hand and my contemporary classical music effort with Anil Srinivasan on the other. Our experiment is fairly innovative and is acknowledged as a new classical sound rather than fusion, which was our aim. When I feel funny or uncomfortable with the music I create, I stop immediately because that is taking innovation too far in my opinion with respect to what is to be within the realm of traditional music. Ultimately, it is the identity that needs to be kept in its place.

Sikkil C. Gurucharan, Carnatic Musician

Keywords: arttraditioninnovation