Music

Like an ancient river

The performance content may change but not the identity as Carnatic music.

No issue on art can be resolved entirely by logic, but analysis may throw more light and invite fresh viewpoints. The following analysis is done in this spirit.

There is no central authority to prescribe what is tradition or to enforce it. The word ‘tradition’ is thus a fertile ground for raising interesting, not easily answerable, questions such as:

Has tradition a minimum age or date (like a ‘classical’ language which must be at least 1,500 years old)?

Can there be more than one valid tradition (like two different patantharams for the same kriti from two different sishya paramparaas)?

What do we gain or lose by preserving or not preserving tradition?

Can one create a new tradition?

What constitutes a violation of tradition? and so on.

We can include, if we choose to, several aspects in discussing tradition, such as:

Other art forms using Carnatic music such as dance, bhajan, Thevaram, etc.

Adding to a kriti sangatis not composed by its author.

Authenticity of a kriti’s authorship.

Changing the kaala pramaanam of a kriti from what its author intended.

Difference of opinion about the scale and/or mela of a raga.

Instead of asking difficult-to-answer, abstract questions such as what is tradition, what is music, etc., we should reframe our question as: what do we want to preserve?

Let us take the expression, ‘traditional classical Carnatic music’ and examine the three italicised words.

What is the prime object of Carnatic music? Carnatic music is not merely raga-based but raga-centric. As an art form, the central objective of Carnatic music is, and has always been, the showcasing of raga bhava. The musician’s virtuosity is not an end in itself but the means for achieving this objective. This is the crux of tradition. To the extent the musician fails to focus on this, he has deviated from tradition.

To what extent the musician has succeeded in this or not will always, like any other aesthetic judgment, remain a matter of subjective assessment based on the rasika’s preference, perception and depth of knowledge and listening experience. But when the objective is substantially achieved, most rasikas usually agree on it.

‘Tradition,’ thus projected, is neither something to be idolised nor something to be destroyed or deviated from but something to be built upon. Lalgudi Jayaraman once said, “The tradition that my predecessors have bequeathed is a strong ground floor and a first floor on which I am trying to build a second floor.”

‘Classical’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘something that has achieved the highest standard in an established system.’ In our context, this should be interpreted as ‘doing one’s best every time and constantly trying to improve.’ The degree of melody and on-the-spot creativity that a musician brings to bear on the showcasing of raga bhava is the measure of his music being truly classical.

What makes a music ‘Carnatic?’ According to Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao, ‘carnaataka’ means ‘that which is pleasing to the ear.’ According to Prof. Sambhamurthy, it is a corrupt form of ‘karna haatakaa,’ i.e. gold in the ears. The commonly described characteristics of a Carnatic style are:

*Strongly kriti-based (unlike Hindustani music where the bandish is almost inconsequential)

*Dasa vidha gamakams (especially the kampita gamakam)

*Unity of ragam, talam and sruti in every piece

*Mixing the three degrees of speeds (unlike Hindustani music where they are mostly kept separate)

*Raga development phrase by phrase (unlike Hindustani music where it is note by note)

These together may be called the Carnatic paddhati. The musicologists’ favourite simile that Carnatic music is like an ancient river with an eternal identity and ever-changing content is relevant here. The performance content may change but the music should always remain identifiable as Carnatic.

We may now say, with some degree of confidence and clarity, that what we should preserve is traditional, classical Carnatic music which

*showcases raga bhava as its unceasing central objective,

*does this by trying to achieve the highest standard of melody and on-the-spot creativity, and

*achieves this within the Carnatic paddhati.

What we should see is whether the above three parameters are being followed substantially and substantively in most of the items of a concert. “To believe that the best belongs to the past is the surest road to degeneration.” - Lalgudi Jayaraman. On the other hand, far from being an inhibitor of innovation, the past, with all its pluses and minuses, should be a giant on whose shoulders one can stand and see farther.

The writer is a retired IAS officer.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 1:13:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/Like-an-ancient-river/article16466033.ece

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