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Carnatic music — a complete system

At a time when the world is faced with clash and confrontation among various ancient art practices, it is imperative that the tradition of Carnatic music is reclaimed and its glory disseminated.

CHENNAI WITNESSED another music and dance festival. A stunning marathon that envelopes the entire city in classical reverberation, year after year; with close to 3,000 concerts by the young and old; music from the blatantly overpowering to the subtly sublime; conferences and lec-dems from the general to the specific; extraordinary musical interaction and creative updates; the overwhelming presence of silks and jasmine; a feast of authentic South Indian food for the culturally hungry; an ideal celebration of life engaging both the human intellect and the aesthetic; and a hangover that runs into months, till the next festival begins.

This festival has indeed sustained over a platinum jubilee period, through changes in history, economics, politics and even culture. It was introduced, ostensibly, as a cultural leisure during an Indian National Congress meet in Madras, and as a counter to the winter entertainment imported by the British Raj. In other words, culture, Carnatic Music in particular, was a tool for nationalistic assertion and identity in South India, at a time when other forms of assertion were mostly political. It has since expanded exponentially, come to stay and mean much more (or less to some) today.

At a contemplative level, the annual festival stimulates reflection and analysis and stirs cultural retrospection from its slumber. Passionate connoisseurs would claim that this phenomenon does not exist anywhere else in the world today in terms of its profile and scale, and, in the ultimate analysis, is an event that justifies itself.

Equally, the temporarily dethroned mainstream, and the eternally ignored marginal, would perceive the festival as the upper caste and class paradise; just a habitual manifestation of the traditional hegemony which has inherited both, the medieval focus on the "sacred" and its subsequent yielding to modern theatre of commerce and mass culture. Even among the festival buffs, there is a strong perception that Carnatic music is currently focused on sponsored and customised performances, and has largely sacrificed the challenge of tradition to flirt with sensorial entertainment.

Misunderstood and challenged

Like all other challenged traditions, Carnatic music is perhaps at a crossroads, and even misunderstood; and the discourse around this great musical system perhaps needs to gain depth and stature that points to, rather than takes away, from its greatness. At this juncture, the eclectic is urged to stop, ask and clarify: What is Carnatic music, its value and significance? At a time when debates are raging about the hegemonic hijacking of this tradition, the oft-neglected issue in that is blurring boundaries with an octopus called info-entertainment. Is this "inevitable change" or is this, as the dynamic traditional would say, a moment to try and sustain the constituency that is defiant of mediocrity and struggles to reclaim the critical mass that has dissolved into populist sensibility? The dynamic traditionalist endeavours to recognise the profundity of the heritage and its place in the present and the future.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Carnatic music represents the cumulative greatness of several geniuses over a couple of millennia. Carnatic music — going by the various meanings of `Carnatic' — is an ancient system, pleasing to the ear, with strong roots in Southern India. It is, notably, the continuation of a system common throughout the subcontinent until its divergence after the Persian invasion after the 12th century.

Its roots can arguably be traced back to the Vedas and also to prehistoric Tamil music through prominent ragas (musical scales) like Karaharapriya, Harikambhodhi, Pantuvarali and Ahiri. Ancient Sanskrit texts such as Bharata's "Natyasastra", Sarangadeva's "Sangeetaratnaakaraa" and the Tamil treatise, "Silappadhikaram" also legitimise its claim to ancientness.

Carnatic music has been dynamic and innovative even while drawing from several cultures and musical systems (Western Classical, Hindustani, Indian folk) and languages (Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Bengali, etc). Composers like Muthuswami Dikshitar and Tyagaraja have tried to create musical forms based on their exposure to Western music. Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi and Swati Tirunal composed in languages outside the region, such as Marathi and Hindi.

Remarkably, it has retained a distinct image and identity while imbibing various concepts, without jeopardising its basic ideals.

The history of Carnatic music could epitomise the theory of evolution: the fundamental concepts and principles of Carnatic music have been so universal, that it has been all encompassing and anticipatory; and innovations or imports could only enrich it and not fragment it or regressively modify it.

Some of the defining moments were created by personalities like Purandaradasa (1484-1564), Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri — who arrived around the 1760s and dominated the music scene for the next 80-90 years and blazed three different trails, though using the same fundamental material.

One of the more recent voyages into heritage is the recent rediscovery of Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, an effort that could highlight pluralistic excellence and greatness in a world ridden with mediocrity.

Several other great composers such as Patnam Subramanya Iyer, Swati Tirunal and Papanasam Sivan have also contributed to the splendour of this system.

Astounding rhythmic patterns

Carnatic music has, in turn, enriched many cultures and is today regarded as one of the most complete systems of music in the world. Scores of Carnatic ragas like Charukesi, Vachaspati and Simhendramadhyamam have been borrowed and presented by Hindustani musicians. Similarly, several Western musicians and composers have been astounded by the raga system and its incredible rhythmic sophistication, and have created music consciously influenced by Carnatic concepts.

It is said that the cosmic can be defined in terms of time and space and the infinite possibilities of the relationship between them. In that context, Carnatic music can be viewed as a resolution between the tangible notes and the journey through the intangible spaces between them.

The legendary composers of Carnatic music have inextricably linked nada (musical resonance and consonance), laya (cosmic and the microcosmic rhythm) and shabda (word) — to generate integrated compositions that create a sense of the timeless and unbounded and are multi-dimensional in their appeal, and have therefore lasted for centuries. Several compositions possess and combine enlightenment, emotion and intellect.

There is an even balance between re-creativity (soulful interpretation of compositions) and creativity (impromptu improvisations like alapana, neraval, kalpanaswaras). Thus, a Carnatic concert is a representation and interpretation of the past into the present.

Carnatic music embodies the characteristics of all profound traditions: excellence and rigour that enable to improve the power of discernment; honing of the intellect and the intuitive, since it is a fine blend of science and art, and a constant challenge to both, memory and imagination. At a rational level, Carnatic music has been classified and codified to facilitate such an approach. The classification of ragas into parent and derived scales, organising of rhythm through well-defined systems of 7, 35 and 175 talas, are illustrative of this. The scientific meets the spiritual and philosophical. For example, Tyagaraja, in his compositions, talks as easily about the omnipresence of the supreme Shakti or Power, as he does about the futility of ritualism prevalent in his society.

Extraordinary feature

A remarkable aspect of Carnatic music is that it is place-value-based rather than face-value-based. The same notes are rendered sharp or flat, plain or oscillated, fleeting or languorous, depending on the musical context.

For instance, the minor second (shuddha rishabham) in raga Saveri is much more flat than the same note in raga Revati, though technically, both ought to share the same frequency. Similarly, the major third (antara gandharam) in raga Suruti is hardly given anything but a passing treatment, well off its base, while the same note in Sankarabharanam can be sustained as one of the pivotal points of that raga. This place-value-based treatment is metaphorically reflective of human attitude of assigning importance based on "place value" rather than taking everything at face value.

Carnatic music is a manifestation of intangible human dimensions such as aspiration, reflection and achievement; and concentration, focus and intensity. Axiomatically, the treasures of Carnatic music are beyond time, race, religion, caste or region and ideally accessible to all seekers of critical knowledge and excellence. Such an overwhelmingly multi-dimensional tradition must drive or defy, rather than be driven by, the current trends of commerce and homogenisation.

Most societies and civilisations lose the thread of their cultural heritage when they fail to centre and innovative on the relatively longer-term revelations of their traditions. It is evident that the world today is indeed faced with a crisis when fundamentally different and long traditions are confronted with each other. At this moment, a tradition like Carnatic music needs to be reclaimed by a wider, secular, and creative critical mass. Events such as the Chennai Music season could highlight burning issues in their activities; scholars and masters of this tradition must disseminate the art with more insight; artistes must attribute a deeper meaning to rhetoric like "exchange" and "fusion" and State and private organisations, and social and cultural movements, must aim to create the atmosphere and infrastructure to make all these happen.


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