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Of trends and traditions

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North-South Jugalbandi: Viswa Mohan Bhatt and Ravi Kiran.
North-South Jugalbandi: Viswa Mohan Bhatt and Ravi Kiran.

M.V. RAMAKRISHNAN

The two expressions are simple and familiar but have intricate connotations.

Having asserted that modern trends such as the diversification of the conventional guitars-only accompaniment to the vocal element hadn’t materially altered the original nostalgic character of Portugal’s traditional music Fado, during the past half-century (Musicscan, June 27), I was tempted to verify the exact significance of the words ‘trend’ and ‘tradition.’

Normally I rely on the Oxford and Chambers dictionaries for such basic references; but this time I found myself staying somewhere far away from my home and books in Chennai, so I took a look at the Webster’s Concise Dictionary, which defines the terms as follows:-

TREND: (1) A prevailing or probable tendency; predominant or likely course or direction. (2) A popular preference or inclination. (3) The general course or direction, as of a coast.

TRADITION: (1) The transmission of knowledge, opinions, customs, practices, etc. from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth and by example. (2) The body of beliefs and usages so transmitted. (3) A custom so long continued that it has almost the force of law. Perhaps it wasn’t quite necessary to look up these simple and extremely familiar expressions in the dictionary. But they do have some intricate connotations when they’re considered together (both in a general sense and in the specific context of music); and it’s always useful to recall precise and complete definitions when reflecting on such issues.

Parallel phenomenon

Since a tradition is obviously a long-term phenomenon, we are normally inclined to think of any new trend in the context of a given tradition as a short-term affair. In a relative sense this is always true, because the tradition has to be in place for a long time by definition before any new trends can materialise in the relevant scenario.

But in absolute terms it may not be true sometimes, because a particular new trend may continue to exist indefinitely as a parallel phenomenon, being neither powerful enough to get absorbed into the system and thereby affect its basic character for better or for worse, nor so trivial as to wither away and just disappear.

A striking illustration of such long-term coexistence between trends and traditions is provided by the ‘jugal-bandis’ between Carnatic and Hindustani musicians. My own attendance and personal observation in such events date back to 1971, when flute masters N. Ramani and Hariprasad Chaurasia and percussionists Umayalpuram Sivaraman and Kasinath Misra undertook such a joint venture in Madras.

Since then I have attended many similar concerts of the same and several other distinguished musicians, including Balamuralikrishna and Jasraj (vocal), T.N. Krishnan and Lalgudi Jayaraman (violin), Amjad Ali Khan (sarod), N. Ravikiran (chitraveena) and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (mohanveena).

And I’ve found that striking a proper balance between Carnatic and Hindustani elements in such ventures has been a constantly challenging problem even for such great maestros, although all of them have achieved very colourful results sometimes. (My detailed comments on this aspect can be found online in www.thehindu.com, Friday Review, Archives, November 17, 2006 and November 23, 2007, Chennai).

It does seem that no matter how much experience even our most accomplished and versatile musicians gain in this endeavour, the quest for a common idiom will invariably be a fresh or repeated experiment every time, and can never become a well-defined practice.

But the quest is never likely to be given up either — and I am sure more and more talented and imaginative musicians will go on searching for a synthesis in ever-changing ways — because the striving itself happens to be so fascinating, and the successful efforts can produce unusual and thrilling effects.

In fact, after observing the North-South jugal-bandis closely at the highest level of performance for nearly 40 years, I am convinced that the trend will coexist permanently with the Carnatic and Hindustani music traditions as an attractive parallel phenomenon, without either refining or undermining their basic character in any way.

Powerful impact

It’s interesting to note that several other modern trends materialising in the past 50 years (whether artistic, technical or environmental) have also not seriously altered the true nature and spirit of our classical music in India. But certain trends of earlier times did have a very powerful and vital impact on Carnatic music, adding a new dimension or giving a new direction to the classical tradition.

The appearance of the European violin in the Carnatic music scene would surely have been no more than a novel trend originally. However, the violin had not only become an integral part of Carnatic music in due course, but had also eventually evolved into an indispensable element of the tradition.

Similarly, the present ‘kutcheri’ pattern of performance must originally have been only an effective new trend of organising concise Carnatic music recitals; but it had become the conventional standard well before the middle of the 20th century, and now seems to be as ancient as the whole sacred tradition in our imagination.

But wait... the concordance between trends and traditions in music all over the world has many interesting and subtle aspects, and let us take them up for discussion progressively in this column.


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