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English is no match

Bala Shankar
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OFFBEAT Certain vernacular words simply don't have substitutes. Bala Shankar

Language matters.
Language matters.

W hen we try to review (a fairer word than critique) concerts, in English, we are often confounded by the difficulty of language to describe the happenings adequately and to readers' familiarity. Conversational phrases are often the perfect way to describe something – ‘Kutcheri Kalai Kattarathu' for instance – I am not even trying to hazard an equivalent.

‘Sruti Sudhdham' is loosely translated as ‘perfect pitch' or sometimes ‘pure pitch' and even ‘good pitch alignment.' All these words fall short of the implicit powerful meaning of ‘Sudhdham' (which usually also means unadulterated). Carnatic Music, over the decades, has cultivated its unique lingua franca, including several vernacular and colloquial phrases.

Off the mark

‘MDR pidi' or ‘Madurai Mani Iyer pidi' is another oft-heard expression among young learners. The literal substitute is ‘MDR catch' which is obviously far off the mark. Even ‘MDR phrase' does not encompass the ramifications of the four letter word ‘pidi' as pidi includes swaram, bhavam and the full course.

What about ‘bhavam?' such a quintessential term in our music. Sanskrit translations of bhavam include ecstasy, dedication to service and intimate love and affection – none of these fit our usage. ‘Azhutham' is a trademark term used to depict music with correct vocal emphasis. We could never use ‘pressure' or ‘compression' or even ‘emphasis' to signify the word. How else can you describe the music of legends such as DKP or DKJ?

Talking of abilities, ‘Saareeram' comes first to my mind. English language fanatics would vie to suggest ‘endowed voice ability' and similar long but imprecise phrases. But ‘Saareeram' is on its own, like many others. Compositions and Pallavis can't do without ‘eduppu' – ‘take' is a funny equivalent, but what else fits? Place is too generic and spot is no good. Other words from the same context include ‘aridhi,' ‘laghu,' etc – we are always stumped searching for their counterparts in other languages. Tempo is often used as a surrogate for ‘Kalapramanam' and yet, one is not sure of its adequacy in the context. ‘Manodharma' is represented by its weaker cousins ‘imagination', ‘creativity', which are not sufficiently potent expressions. ‘Ragam' is either a ‘tune' or a ‘melody', both not true equivalents. Kalyani tune would probably refer to ‘Mannavan Vandaanadi' song in ‘Tiruvarutchelvar.'

Khambodi melody would be a particular note sequence and not the whole ragam.

‘Expansion' and ‘Elaboration' have crept in as the imposters for the word, ‘alapana.' It is not that ‘niraval' is in any enviable position. ‘Chittaiswaram' is an orphan too. We classify the styles into ‘gamaka' or ‘briga,' which had their origins in the manner in which instruments such as veena and nagaswaram were handled. English language, unfortunately, has no synonyms for these words. It could also be due to the non-existence of such phenomena in other forms of world music. The traditionalists often look for a good ‘vazhi' in a budding musician. We have no way to find its equivalent or for that matter, one for ‘padantharam.'

When we were young listeners, we had our own language set and were afforded a bit of liberty with descriptions. ‘Asattu sangati' is a phrase allowed inside four walls. Try translating it into English – ‘bad phrase' is too bland without the right punch. ‘Sangati' is also tricky to translate. If a concert was a deliberate poor effort, we could also be mean enough to say ‘bhajanai' whose strict translation is: normally lyrical, expressing love for the divine – far from saying that the performer took it easy!

Even a simple word like ‘sowkhyam' seems untranslatable – ‘Convenience,' ‘Comfort' are absolute howlers! If a performer was not very flamboyant, but gives a reasonable account, an easy term ‘chittaya paadarathu' comes in handy. The ‘chittai' is a loner without similar meaning words in English.

Referring to accompanists (that unfortunately is the word for pakka vadhyakaras – it almost sounds as if they are passive co-travellers), one could have the pendulum swinging from ‘anusacharichu vassikkarathu' to ‘edainjala vaasikkirathu' – without conviction, I use words like ‘supportive play' or ‘obstructive play.'

Great musicians such as MDR made the ‘vilamba kala' singing their trademark. Slow is hardly a fair way to describe their style. ‘Leisurely pace' is closer but linguistically not aesthetic.

What about the characteristic ‘besh' acknowledgement of good singing or playing, patented by Semmangudi and others? Imagine saying ‘very good' instead!

‘Kanakku swaram' cannot be left to fend with terms like ‘mathematical notes.' Sequence is often used as a poor substitute for ‘korvais.' Reduction would be the logical unnatural equivalent for ‘kuraippu' if we are not allowed non-English words. We have already made ‘thani' (referring to thani avartanam) as a rightful member of our vocabulary although we are still doing our research finding the right word for ‘nadham' in the context of instruments.

A ‘rasika' is a mere listener. The special ability to understand, appreciate and applaud is not fully encompassed in such a word. We do use many English words and of course, adjectives and prepositions in order to qualify for publication in an English newspaper or magazine but they are poor substitutes for the Tamil original.

Great musicians such as MDR made ‘vilamba kala' singing their trademark. ‘Leisurely pace' is closer but linguistically not aesthetic.


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