I believe exploration, not perfection, is the highest goal of all artistic/musical pursuits. This rings especially true with a form such as Carnatic music, where improvisation is at its very core. The context within which you improvise in Carnatic music is layered and multi-dimensional. A raga is a melodic universe. There are countless ragas and each consists of a nuanced set of phrase-based melodic vocabulary. These phrases broadly follow an ascending and descending scale (arohanam/avarohanam), but to confine them only to the idea of a scale is gross oversimplification. Expanding one’s bank of melodic phrases for a said raga comes from breaking down the movement of melodies in compositions, studying the different ways in which the great composers have allowed a raga to twist, turn, soar, constrict and oscillate through the movement of their melodies. The expansion also comes from studying the way great musicians utilised melodic phrases of a raga when improvising.
Exploring a raga
One of my favourite examples of this is a rendition of Subbaraya Sastri’s Mukhari kriti ‘Emani Ne’ by M.D. Ramanathan. His voice was deep and sonorous and his music was deliberate and as unrushed as can be. In this particular rendition, his alapana is a master class in exploring a raga with extreme patience. When he sings the phrase N, D, N,; d P, p d N, M, you can feel every little nuance from when he scoops up to the Ni from Da, by how he slightly oscillates that Ni up and down twice before hooking the Da for only a moment before sustaining the Pa, just long enough for you to feel the Pa but just short enough for you to feel his momentum swinging with a quick Da leading to a landing place of Ni. To me, what really makes his expression of this phrase so powerful is how he wistfully lets Ni fall to Ma. He barely touches the Ma as he falls into it and the yearning that is communicated by this is spiritual. . There is never any ambiguity in MDR’s music, it is always clear which stone he is choosing to turn on his path, and the stone is always turned, explored, observed, described with the most beautiful attention to detail.
To me, the most inspiring characteristic of Carnatic music is how, though the roots of its framework find themselves firmly settled deep beneath the surface, there is an awe-inspiring freedom within the music. This is best witnessed through the seemingly infinite ways the form can be interpreted. Let’s take the same raga Mukhari, but look at a rendition of Saint Tyagaraja’s composition ‘Entha ninne’ by M.L. Vasanthakumari. Near the end of her alapana, she launches into a flurry of phrases, rapidly traversing up and down the raga. Once she finishes three-four rounds of spell-bindingly fast sangatis, she sings one sweeping phrase of R,,M,,P,, N, dd M, P, D, G, R, S. The way she stretches out the Ri Ma and P after such fast sangatis provides a sense of effortless grandeur. MLV had this unique ability to thoroughly dig into the crux of a raga without it ever sounding laborious or heavy-handed.
These two musicians couldn’t be more different, both in terms of their vocal attributes and their respective approaches to music. But they do share some profound resonance points; these resonance points are shared with all the legends of Carnatic music. In their music, you can hear that they put the explorative nature of the form at the forefront of their journeys. Through their discoveries of the form, the music evolved, they found their unique voices and perspectives. Artistically, they were unapologetically themselves, imitating no one else. When they sang, you could hear the intimate trust they had in the form. They were having a conversation with the music, and it with them.
It is now December 2021. I am doing a string of Carnatic concerts, and a recent conversation with a new friend and collaborator has been re-playing in my mind. We spoke about the role of art, music, entertainment in society and stumbled upon an interesting thought. When people converse with one another, they don’t think about whether their language is flawless. There is one goal and one goal only — to communicate. Music, at its most powerful, is a mechanism to express and communicate. With a form as layered and nuanced as Carnatic music, the process of selflessly exploring the form is what allows one’s relationship with it to refine over time. I can’t wait to share this evolution in my exploration of Carnatic music with audiences again; the energy, the honesty, the love, intensity, surrender and vulnerability of it all. When one’s conversation with music extends into a conversation with co-artistes and audiences, the transcendence that occurs is unmatched.
I’ve seen words such as aesthetic and chaste thrown around by people trying to assert some lofty sense of authority. But beyond anything, there is connection. It lives in a space that can’t be intellectualised, trapped or controlled. I’ve learned that connection is the only truly worthwhile pursuit. Exploration, not perfection.
The writer is a well-known Carnatic vocalist.