Carnatic musicians today think beyond performances, be it to demystify the genre for the common man or in pursuit of meaningful discourse. Since most efforts are long-drawn-out and may even go unnoticed, Lakshmi Krupa talks to four artistes to find out what drives them to go the extra mile for music

For connoisseurs of Carnatic music, its complexities are as much a challenge as they are a pleasure. Just walk into a concert and watch the pride on the face of someone who has identified the raga a song is set in. For an outsider, these complexities may seem intimidating at best and alienating at worst. However, it appears that quietly, albeit very seriously, some leading artistes of this generation are working on opening up the floor for a democratic debate on what works and what doesn’t in this classical field. For instance, with his new book (A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story) T.M. Krishna throws the doors open for a conversation on aspects such as aesthetics, pianist Anil Srinivasan is taking music to Corporation as well as private schools with Rhapsody, in a bid to create an inclusive future. Musician Ramesh Vinayakam has worked on notating gamakas (ornamental notes) in Carnatic music while Chitravina N. Ravikiran has done intense research on Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi.

What drives them?

The effort that goes into such pursuits is often unnoticed. They are not undertaken with applause in mind either. So what drives them? Chitravina N. Ravikiran has an interesting answer. “An inner passion for beauty, greatness and the intense enrichment I get in the process,” he says. “For instance, while a PhD scholar may need to spend only a few years on a given thesis, I have spent more than 25 years researching on Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi, driven only by his genius and stunningly inspiring all-round quality. Right from the earliest stages of my learning, my father and guru Chitravina Narasimhan used to balance instinct and intellect in his teaching. I have often mentioned that a good performing professional should focus on 85 to 90 per cent of practical music but still be aware of the 15 to 10 per cent of theory. This means a proportional investment of time, energy and emotion!” 

“Any person who seriously pursues something with intensity and integrity is a scholar — be it a farmer or carpenter,” says T.M. Krishna. “And artistes who are serious singers, and not necessarily carrying out inquiries — I like this word better than research — are also scholars,” he explains. “For me, the next step to singing is naturally understanding what art is; if what I am doing is art at all; and what other people think of it” he says.

As for his book, Krishna says, “When we say scholarship, or when we discover something through our own experiences, we take possession of those things and don’t want to show them to others. It’s an egoistic way of saying you own it. But what I wanted to do through this book was to put it out there. Now people know what I think and they come to me and say, ‘Hey I read what you had to say and I don’t agree with it at all!’ You can disagree with me. But we now have an exchange of ideas! For me this is a natural process. Maybe I am just a serious person. But the practise of art and these inquiries are all organic and there are no specific reasons for doing them. They just happened!” says Krishna.

Anil Srinivasan has turned down a few performances in the last year so he can have more time to work on building a curriculum for school children and reach music to them. “We need 400 lesson plans in all and these plans had to be re-done in Tamil when we reached Corporation schools. That’s 800 plans,” says Anil. This is a lot of work and time. “And there isn’t immediate recognition and no monetary benefits. This is a social mission and is welfare-driven,” he says. Because it deals with introducing children to music — for many of them, this may be a first experience at understanding music in a classroom — there is a lot of pressure on Anil to get the lesson plans right. Without precedence or reference points, this can be a tough journey. “I work on aspects such as ‘what the teacher has to do exactly in class’, and my market research background has come in handy! School teachers have been a great source of information for this. In the recent past, 70 to 80 per cent of my time has gone into this project.” Besides musician Sudha Raja who works with him on these projects, Anil names singer P. Unnikrishnan among those who have helped him with his work.

Recording the present

It’s not just the future that artistes are working on. There are also some who are looking at a way to record the present in a precise manner. Carnatic and film musician Ramesh Vinayakam undertook a long process when he decided to work on a way to notate gamakas. “Western Classical music has a very exact notation system. And in that sense, I find a lacuna in our music. For instance, they can have a concert just on Baroque music (composed from 1600 to 1750). Which is why I strongly believe that written information is important,” he says. For Ramesh, this project began 25 years ago. “I gave it up many times in between, but I went back to it. I figured if we can go to Mars, we should be able to do this as well!” While he understands that music will change and evolve, he also firmly believes in preserving its present structure in written format so that we can understand it better. “I am happy to have done it. And I know that it will take time for people to grasp the importance of notating gamakas!”

Surely, change is a continuous and organic process. It may take time. But these catalysts have initiated something new. It will be interesting to watch where they are headed.