While Western classical pieces can be enriched by elements of Carnatic music, the reverse does not happen.

Talking about the Madras String Quartet in this column two weeks ago (Sept. 18), I had quoted some basic ideas from an essay I had written in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine dated March 3, 1991, with the title ‘The alien colours’. One of my friends who asked for and read through the relevant cutting felt that my present argument would have been strengthened if I had quoted more extensively from that article. Accordingly, I give below a substantial extract from the same text, especially since it isn’t available online.

Purity of classical

A sensible thing about Westerners is that by and large they do not tend to mix up their classical music with their pop and their jazz. A reputed symphony orchestra may perform modern compositions of a highly experimental nature; and on rare occasions it may even dedicate a whole concert to jazzy or rock music. But it would never think of mixing up Brahms or Beethoven with the blues.

A similar attitude is discernible in the realm of classical sports. The relatively modern game of cricket is already subjected to severe genetic convulsions, but even the most passionate Bolsheviks never thought of objecting to kings and queens and bishops adorning the Soviet chessboard.

Except for some isolated instances of pop bands (like that of James Last), which can dilute champagne with syrup, one does not come across questionable innovations in the West tending to ruin the noble musical traditions which exist there, so far as I know...

One of the reasons why the symphonies and concertos of the great classical Western composers survive the rigours of time is that they are all meticulously written down, and no liberty is normally allowed even to the most celebrated conductors and performers to deviate a millimetre from the score.

In sharp contrast, Indian classical music – which is carried forward from generation to generation through personal tuition and emulation, and puts such a high premium on improvisation – is extremely vulnerable to all kinds of experiments which threaten to damage its very fabric...

Liberty and limits

When some colourful nuances of Indian music are infused into new works in Western music, usually the resulting blend is not only attractive but can be quite natural. But when any foreign elements are injected into the bloodstream of Indian classical music, the sequel is always unnatural and unsatisfactory, even if the musicians’ vision and skills are of a very high order.

Nothing illustrates this truth better than the spectacular and many-sided music of the violinist-composer L. Subramaniam. When he creates and performs a Westward-looking composition heavily loaded with Indian colours, the usual result is a stunningly beautiful and universally appealing work of art. But when he puts his global approach in reverse gear and gives a Carnatic music recital which throbs with Western flourishes, the music invariably loses some of its authentic quality, and does not satisfy the serious rasika no matter how dazzling it is.

The reason for this is not difficult to understand. It is true that a composition in Western orchestral music becomes an inflexible entity once it has been completed and is finally written down. But the composers in the West have always been free to stretch their imagination beyond any visible horizon. In Indian music, however, although the performers enjoy great liberty to improvise on given themes, the whole system is tightly bound by the specific laws which govern the permissible melodic patterns and rhythmic structures.

Our greatest composers have always honoured the traditional rules, and no performer can transgress these boundaries with impunity. In the Carnatic system, moreover, one cannot stray even slightly from the spiritual track without undermining the very character of the music...

All this might appear to be a great paradox, but it is not really so. We need only a little reflection to realise that the phenomenon is perfectly logical.

Alien elements

Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that an eminent contemporary composer in Europe creates, either knowingly or by a strange coincidence, a musical sequence which resembles a beautiful Indian melody like Kalyani or Darbari-Kanada. The whole Western world is likely to be lost in admiration and would marvel at the composer’s rich imagination and resourcefulness if the music is otherwise in order. No one there is likely to resist the assimilation of the unfamiliar element. The composition would be recognised as a genuine creation, entirely natural and legitimate in its conception and character, whatever might be the source of its motif.

But just turn the coin over and visualise an Indian vocalist letting his or her fancy run a little wild and singing something which sounds like an aria from an Italian opera – or a sitarist striking, in the course of a chaste recital, some strange chords which echo a mazurka by Chopin. You can easily imagine the storm of protest which would burst immediately! For even the most ignorant music-lover in this country would declare that the musician had gone beyond the boundaries of Indian music, which is simply not permitted.

A significant inference which can be drawn from these facts is that the colours of Indian classical music have the potential to enrich Western music infinitely, but the elements of the latter cannot embellish Indian music except perhaps marginally...