Much lies in the nuances

Sustained exposure alone can help appreciation of the music — Carnatic or Hindustani

September 14, 2017 03:27 pm | Updated 03:27 pm IST

A profoundly mistaken idea about Carnatic music, which Hindustani musicians and listeners harbour is that, here, improvisation is non-existent or insignificant. It is deeply puzzling — how can they miss the alapana or the kalpanaswaram or niraval? But the fact is that the elements making up a presentation of Carnatic or Hindustani music are not obvious matters.

While the Carnatic alapana does stand alone, the other two are so enmeshed in compositions that even for a sympathetic Hindustani musician, the fact may just go past him that it is improvisation. As I recently discovered. Playing a clip of Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s brilliant niraval and swara prastaram in the Kalyani kriti, ‘Vasudevayani,’ (raagataalagatulanu paaducunu), I pointed out to a senior Hindustani vocalist how the avartanam is filled in different ways to come back seamlessly and with absolute precision to the eduppu . He listened with deep interest and asked with astonishment — is all this improvised?

Just as the role of tala or composition in Hindustani music (Khayal) goes past even the most astute Carnatic musicians/listeners. While demonstrating a vilambit bandish to a group of people in Chennai, I was surprised to hear a puzzled, “Where is the tala?” Well, it is right there — Dhin, dhin, dhage etc., each matra separated by 3-4 seconds, so that an avartan of 12 beats may last 40-48 seconds. And composition and improvisation are so interwoven that one can think the bandish is insignificant and also seriously wonder what significance tala holds to the Hindustani musician. It seems to be all about sur or ‘pure’ notes.

In the busy texture of Carnatic music as well as the leisurely unfolding of Hindustani music, much lies that escapes even an interested and long time listener — which explains the popularity of Music Appreciation workshops/lecdems etc. It is not trivial to get what is happening in a concert. A heavy segment of subtle variations that informed listeners would exult over might seem like repetitions to the uninitiated.

If melodic elements are subtle, elements of rhythm — laya and tala — are more so. The same senior Hindustani vocalist said, “We fill the avartan and come back to the sam each time to establish the tala cycle, but that does not seem to happen in Carnatic music.” That clip dispelled his misconception.

What then can be done to make classical music accessible to the other? Workshops, lecdems etc., are fine, but only serve a limited purpose. They might make some aspects clear but cannot lead to real appreciation. Jugalbandis are completely irrelevant in every sense — aesthetically certainly but also as a possible means of promoting understanding of the other form.

The only way is exposure. Serious, sustained listening. Ultimately, appreciation is fully possible only to the initiated — it is an art form after all. Even for the uninitiated, it is a beautiful, exciting blur which has its own charm, but only when it is prejudice free.

The writer practises both Carnatic and Hindustani music

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