Of credentials and criteria

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What exactly is the objective of some of the classical musicians who indulge in cross-cultural experiments?

“Carnatic music rests on a rigid religious foundation, and the ultimate source of its monumental strength and vitality is the devotional inspiration radiating from the sacred works of the venerable composers...”

“The dividing line between progress and perversion in all visual and performing arts is so thin that it is often almost invisible... Every manifestation of change must be judged on the basis of extremely intricate criteria...”

“What harm will be done to Carnatic music if some accomplished and versatile musicians visualise a performance called Tyagaraja-Jazz Suite?...

No harm at all, provided they have an adequately wide musical vision, absolute spiritual integrity and true musical genius. Indeed, if they have the proper credentials, saint Tyagaraja himself may bless the project and pray for its success!”

With reference to the above observations made in this column recently (May 25 and June 22,, a very distinguished and discerning person in the cultural world was kind enough to point out that it may be useful to explain the relevant credentials and criteria, to avoid any impression of a contradiction between the views expressed.

We don’t have to look far to recognise the fact that the credentials required for achieving excellence in any field of activity — whether economic, social or cultural — and the proper criteria for evaluating the excellence achieved are not unrelated phenomena, but are two sides of the same coin. For it’s quite obvious that only a person who will be able to fulfil those criteria satisfactorily can have the proper credentials to undertake the given activity.

Alien colours

But we do have to think a little more deeply to find the correct answer to an important question which arises in the specific context under discussion. What exactly is the objective of some of our eminent classical musicians who wish and try to extend the natural boundaries of their own traditional native music by introducing alien colours, and associating equally outward-looking foreign musicians in risky cross-cultural experiments?

To understand the intricate nature of this issue, one has to realise that some of the successful and extremely busy musicians must be finding sooner or later that life can become progressively very tedious and monotonous, with endless repetition of the same kind of music in frequent concerts and constant practice or rehearsals.

Even if the musicians are resourceful enough to find some interesting ways to relax and cope with such artistic boredom, they tend to be alarmed (consciously or subconsciously) that its cumulative effect may cause serious damage to the vibrant quality of their music, making it stale and less colourful in the long run. Of course, they can avoid mental fatigue to some extent by constantly enlarging their active repertoire, or sometimes even by marginally amending their performing style or presentation.

But such tactics will not solve the problem beyond a point, because most of the original features of their virtuosity — which had been the strong foundation for their eminence and popular image — can never be sacrificed without affecting their music even more adversely.

There comes a stage sooner or later when they begin to feel an irrepressible urge to explore the musical frontiers and discover some unfamiliar musical vistas which will enrich their imagination and overcome the weariness they have been feeling.

Dazzling variations

And if they happen to have a very wide musical vision which transcends the system in which they happen to be functioning as successful performing artists, their exploration too tends to cross the borders and enters the frontiers of some other system, particularly when there are some elements common to both.

That’s the point where they come across like-minded musicians belonging to the other side, and begin to visualise collaborative ventures like North-South jugalbandis (in the case of Carnatic and Hindustani music, which have many similar and almost identical elements), and experiments in East-West integration (as when Indian classical music is harmonised with jazz, or even with Western classical music). Improvisation is a vital element which is common to the twin systems of Indian classical music and jazz. In Carnatic music there is infinite scope for improvising in the swaraprasthara (permutations and combination of musical notes), within the natural boundaries of the given raga (tune). And improvisation governs the whole concept of jazz.

While there are no natural barriers to introducing the colours of Carnatic music in jazz, there are severe restrictions to importing the colours of jazz into Carnatic music, because of the latter’s inflexibly devotional spirit. Therefore, it is only in the form of extended swaraprastharas, presenting novel and dazzling variations which do not violate any fundamental principles that jazz can find a legitimate niche in Carnatic music.

Surely an intriguing venture called Tyagaraja-Jazz Suite can be very colourful and impressive if the musicians on both sides have a grand artistic perspective and true genius. And the recital will also have the authentic aura of Tyagaraja’s music if all the performers possess absolute spiritual integrity, which implies due respect for the worshipful attitude of the saint-composer.



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