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Sober dress for soulful music?

Sushila Krishnamurthi
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With a plethora of Carnatic music concerts and the annual festivals under way (or just over), it seems important and relevant to ask ourselves how we are projecting this ancient and spiritual music form today. What image are we creating and presenting to listeners in our country and worldwide?

All music genres have their own particular brand image, developed by the artists themselves, and displayed to audiences as part of the entertainment package itself. Thus, we have rock and pop artists with their usual wild and vibrant, sometimes societal-norm flouting, dress and behaviour codes. We see western classical musicians adopting a more sober dress code — reflective of the discipline and focus required of a western concert musician. All orchestral members are generally dressed in neat and formal black attire — women in black evening gowns or skirts, men in black suits.

What of our Carnatic musicians though — and the image they present to audiences through their dress and behaviour patterns? There seems to be a 360 degree transformation in image, compared with the sober, spiritual images projected by our venerated musicians of yesteryear.

Witness the pious and devout renderings of Subbulakshmi, in her modest, both shoulder-covering sari compared with the gaudy, vulgarly expensive Kanchipuram silks (costing tens of thousands of rupees) donned by the female stars of today — to the accompaniment of glittering diamonds and excessively heavy gold jewellery.

As a Carnatic musician myself, I wonder what must be going on in the minds of these vain, display-conscious musicians, as they prepare for each concert. Will they be focussing on which sari and matching jewellery to wear, or on the subtle nuances of the main raga for the evening? The male artists too have taken to this finery display — many of them donning quite loud and ugly angavastram, all looking uncomfortably out of place.

What should I tell my western musician friends about the ethos of Carnatic music — about what it really represents and should deliver — both for the practitioner and for the listener? They are as confused and unimpressed as I am when they see the dress and behaviour patterns of our publicity — crazy stars.

Is it time for the most popular artists to do another 360-degree turn towards sobriety and propriety — towards presenting a more devotional and meditative image of this music form founded in bhakti , which greats like Tyagaraja and Dikshitar have called a mukti maarga ? What are bhakti and mukti, if they are not about reflection and introverted focus and a rare beauty and elegance based on simplicity and non-ostentation?

What will we do with our beautiful Kanchipuram collections, I can hear the women wailing. Sure, we want to encourage and patronise this most exquisite silk-weaving art, honed through centuries. But, perhaps, we should reserve their use for weddings, parties and TV shows — not for the concert platform. And how about taking to Kanchipuram cottons for a change towards more profundity?

Personally, I would like to see our artists dressed in simple, yet elegant cottons (pastel colours preferably, so as not to distract the senses) with just enough unostentatious jewellery, to add to the beauty and elegance of the performer and the entire performance as a whole. After all, we are world leaders in cotton manufacture — our cottons can be so rich and interesting, and so capable of sending the right message to the world.

Our classical music forms are uniquely about reflection and self-focus, they can liberate us from our ordinary, everyday small realms of identity and consciousness, with its material obsessions and transport us into larger, undivided, and joyful vistas of creative existence and consciousness. So it is not just image-building that is at stake here — at stake is discovering the roots and essence of this mukti maarga — with the grand bumper prize of mukti, so much more precious and desirable than all the glittering diamonds of the world put together.

Quite apart from mukti and liberation though, the unique greatness of Carnatic music lies in its ability of bringing the performer and the listener into one tranquil and sweet plane of meditative mindfulness. But this means we have to desire sweet mindfulness rather than the frenzied showmanship on offer today.

(The writer is a Vedanta scholar and Carnatic musician. Email: sushi.krish@gmail.com)

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