Excerpts from A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story by acclaimed vocalist T.M. Krishna

To imagine, create and to touch the old world anew is what makes the magical journey of the artist. Artists neither belong to any special community, nor are they a unique set of people. To be an artist is in the essence of a human being. It is in every one of us to breathe life with the expanse of imagination, embrace it in our thoughts. We are all artists.

While all of us imagine, why is it that the imagination of everyone does not lead to creativity? Because if imagination has to be creative, it has to be accompanied by something else as well: deep understanding. This is essential for the spark of imagination to be more than fantasy. Essentially, the creative individual needs depth of perception. This depth is multilayered, with the past and present serving as a continuum as well as a stimulus to further evolution. Even the most radical and path-breaking ideas come from the same deep understanding within which acceptance and rejection play a part. I do not refer here to studied learning, but to a process of seriously comprehending the elements, their existence and various perceptions of them. The understanding I speak of is a result of observation and introspection.

Every individual imagines numerous possibilities around living one’s life in the normal course. But life is not just about living; it is also about the possibility of creating worlds that do not exist, sounds that have never been heard before or sights that seem improbable. These are real in the mind. In this imagination lies the courage to fight for today, to work and find the happiness of the day. Every possibility drives humans to push the boundaries of living. If not for this, there would be no tomorrow to look forward to and no reason for action in our daily existence.

Yet imagination arises from the present through human interaction with the world around. The possibilities generated by imagination are not pulled out of thin air, but born out of what exists, which in turn is the result of the past. When we link the past and present, we see a continuum, and within this change exists. In the spark of the imagination is born this constant environment of change.

In the arts, the words imagination and creativity are often used as synonyms and all artists are deemed to possess this quality. However, I see the two words as being different, even if they refer to the conjuring up of things that are fresh or not experienced before. While imagination is an activity that remains in the world of the mind, creativity is the result of it leading to a tangible creation in the temporal world. Therefore, great imagination need not result in creativity, but it is the source of creativity. The spark for imagination is experience, and the spirit of creativity is imagination. The act of creation is closely linked to the instinct of imagination. When humans ‘imagine’, they are experiencing their creations in the mind. These do not translate into creativity unless moved from the mind into the real world. Creativity involves the actual act of creation. This in a way is the translation of ‘that which is imagined’ into the reality of the present. Great artists are those who are able to make this move.

Contrasts in Shot-Silk

Subbulakshmi was born to a devadasi mother, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu (1889–1962), herself a vina artist. Subbulakshmi’s life changed with the move to Madras and her marriage to T. Sadasivam, a brahmin who was already married, a father of two daughters, freedom fighter and very well connected in political and business circles. In this new house, Subbulakshmi became ‘MS’, a divinity that lives until today. A dasi became Mira.

The bhakti music of MS was beautiful, uplifting, unforgettable, but the fact that there was another ‘MS music’ that was capable of being, and did indeed become, serious with all the rigour of art music has been lost to the legend of the ‘divine MS’. I regard this as a great loss. The Karnatik world that men had built denied her the musicianship that lesser men could aspire to. MS had to find her space within this order and manoeuvre within it. She and her husband may have been intensely committed to bhakti music, but the actual positioning of MS and her social transformation was the work of men in society, especially those constructing the modern Karnatik story.

D.K. Pattammal, on the other hand, was a brahmin from Kanchipuram.

Women from brahmin houses only sang devotional songs during religious occasions within the household. DKP, as she came to be known, showed great talent and learnt from numerous teachers and emerged as a champion of Karnatik music. She was the kutumba-penn (‘family girl’) Subrahmanya Bharati had spoken of, out in the public arena. The most common quotes about her are that she was ‘the first brahmin woman musician to perform in public’ and that she was ‘the woman first to render complex ragam–tanam–pallavis in kutcheris’.

There is a nuance to be noted here. By proclaiming that DKP was the first woman to render RTP, they were placing the capacity of the brahmin woman musician above that of the devadasi, a wholly inaccurate position.

RTPs were very much part of the repertoire of distinguished devadasis like Coimbatore Thayi and Bangalore Nagaratnammal. And therefore the compliment paid to Pattammal was less of a tribute to her than yet another expression of an attitude towards devadasis.

DKP’s music was called ‘man’s music’ and the brahmin woman was accommodated in the kutcheri world, but many male musicians would not accompany her. Only those who did not find a footing in the male world would do so. When Palghat Mani Iyer (1912-81) accompanied her and, much later, M.L. Vasanthakumari, on the mrdanga, it was a gracious personal gesture rather than a conceptual acceptance of women as important musicians. This meant that DKP’s kutcheris had to be attractive enough with just her name on the invitation. She could not depend on the names of her accompanists to attract more people. For instance, people attending a concert by Semmangudi Srinivasier (1908–2003) would also be interested in hearing him accompanied on the violin by Rajamanikkam Pillai (1898–1970) and on the mrdanga by Pazhani Subramania Pillai (1908–62).

An additional dimension of Pattammal lay in her identification with nationalist ardour. This was most powerfully expressed in her spirited renderings of Subrahmanya Bharati’s patriotic songs. And just as it used to be said of MS that she was Mira herself, people saw in Pattammal, none other than Bharati himself. All the masculinity of India’s svadeshi spirit shot through her patriotic songs. Nothing could have been more conducive to the patronising of Pattammal by male brahmins, many of whom were ardent nationalists and freedom fighters. Yet she was never accepted as an equal of male musicians. MS and DKP became two sides of the same coin minted in the foundry of male, brahmin domination.

Men manipulated the space for women in Karnatik music and saw to it that they remained a notch below their own kind.

Is Karnatik music inherently religious?

To answer that, I must ask whether Karnatik music was intended to be religious. It is not possible to respond in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ terms to this. Karnatik music was not one single initiative that started like some association or a movement, but an aesthetic impulse that acquired shape and definition and then, through shared experiences and cognitive energies among master artists, developed a set of coda over a period of time.

But clearly its journey included a relationship with temples and their associated rituals. This is where we need to look beyond the function and the practice of the music. We need to recognise the brilliance of musicians whose genius was logistically linked to religious sites, but was aesthetically free to and did indeed travel beyond the precincts of the temple where they practised their art. In this complex formation lies the answer to the question about the intent of Karnatik music. My point of view on this subject is not atheistic but aesthetic.

Now to pose another related question: what happens when the thought in the musician’s mind is the music’s religious content? This is not an academic question, but is about a very real situation. Most Karnatik musicians in the past and many in the present hail from conservative families, more often than not of brahmin descent. They believe strongly in religion and ritual. This automatically makes their relationship with Karnatik music religious. In this situation, the lyrics rendered further entrench their already conditioned minds in religious belief, leading many musicians to feel, believe and then propound the belief that they are conveying the philosophical and religious meaning of the vaggeyakara to the audience. Many kirtanas are rendered with deep feeling and focus on the names of the deities and the vaggeyakara’s yearning for these gods.

In doing so, is the kirtana’s aesthetic make-up influenced? As much as the musicians are engrossed in the music, the focus is driven by textual meaning as they understand it and their own associations with the words being sung. Lines in the compositions are rendered with a clear emphasis on those words that create a religious – if not devotional – emotion both for the musician and the listener. These lines are even repeated to constantly emphasise the same emotion. In the process, the musician’s thoughts veer away from the musical structuring.

Within the modern world, the Hindu religious content raises an important question. Can an atheist or a non-Hindu be a Karnatik musician?

The environment that pervades Karnatik music makes it very difficult for an atheist to function within its world. There may be a few, but they will find it very difficult to come out in the open and articulate an atheistic narrative for Karnatik music. They will silently pamper the religious responses to their music and encourage devotional and philosophical expressions. I am not finding fault, but highlighting the difficulty for them to be who they are within this world. The musical fraternity at large does not feel it necessary to give Karnatik music, especially its compositional forms, a purely aesthetic thought.

What about practitioners of other religions? Among the nagasvara community there were not a few Muslim families that mastered this art form. Most of them flourished in what is now Andhra Pradesh and a few still live alongside the most conservative Hindu communities of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu. My admiration for these people is immense, as they have been able to negotiate two very opposing ideas, but there is a nuance. They have had to, perhaps willingly, accept the Hindu pantheon within their world. You will find their homes adorned with pictures of Hindu deities and their immense respect for Hindu gods and goddesses even when their religious practices are Islamic. This is a credit to their ability to straddle two worlds. But they cannot display apathy for Hinduism and be accepted as musicians by the Karnatik world.

Voicing the note

The human voice is a beautiful contrivance. As with the eyes, it expresses the innermost emotions and thoughts of the human being. The very tone of a person’s voice can tell you a lot about him. You do not need to see the person and he need not be near you, yet you understand from his voice more than just the linguistic meaning of his words or the sound that you hear. Sound as music, by its nature, can only be experienced, not seen or held – it is an intangible. In this intangible, almost mystic nature of the voice’s beautiful progeny, music, lies its capacity to abstract its own meaning from life. This is very different from visual abstraction.

You can stand in front of a painting or sculpture for a long time and let your eyes constantly receive the painting. Music, and the perception of abstraction in it, does not work that way. A line of music once sung is gone, but is still alive in your mind. The faculty of hearing completes its work very quickly. The voice is both a natural instrument and the vehicle of this abstraction. There is no external transfer of the mind’s abstraction, neither does the music emanate from an external source. This gives the voice a personal nature that makes it different from any instrument. This may be the reason why, in India’s artistic traditions, the voice has been regarded as music’s prime vehicle. The musician or the listener never sees the physical seat of this instrument, the voice box. All one sees is the movement of the lips, mouth and tongue. Yet, the music that is born from it conveys an emotion that rings true in the listener’s or musician’s own being. While music from the voice is very intimate, it does not speak automatically to everyone.

One has to become aware of the voice, not only in a technical sense, but intimately — the sort of intimacy we have with a plant that we nurture.

We do not just water the plant and watch the flowers bloom. There is something more: an emotional relationship, even if the reciprocity, which that expression implies, is not evident. What is it that gives us this feeling?

It is a deep sense of awareness of the plant and, through that, ourselves. This awareness makes us spend that extra second with the plant, to watch and experience. This is the kind of relationship that we need with the voice. We don’t just train it, we actually listen to it: the sounds, movements, emotions that it conveys. This awareness is about knowing oneself through the voice.

In music, awareness comes with listening; it is something we need to develop. I would like to differentiate the act of hearing from listening. Listening contains the awareness of what is being conveyed. Meaning lies not only in the words. As we listen to our voice, like with the plant, we become aware of the meaning behind every musical sound, every movement, every pause and every breath. This opens us to the world of pure music. This music is in every person and we understand it only if we understand our voice, the ‘first messenger’. Music and the voice are inseparable. The voice is Karnatik music. This intrinsic relationship is why every musician – not just the vocalist – must learn to sing. In singing, the musician discovers music, voice and, with utter clarity, the person within.

(A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, published by HarperCollins, is being launched by Professor Amartya Sen on December 16, 2013, in Chennai)

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