Perspective Music

The temptation to not let go

There should be introspection about the music that they would like to share in the late autumn and winter of their life

Civil servants retire at the age of sixty, surgeons realise their own inadequacies and call it a day when their fingers begin to quiver or their eyes turn hazy, and sportspersons are forced to quit when the numbers don’t add up, but musicians are eternal. We go on and on until we literally drop dead!

Irrespective of deteriorating musicianship and basic skills, musicians do not seem to know when to say “enough.” They may be out of pitch, unable to render one line of music in tune or execute a simple rhythmic variation, yet, will not stop. Nostalgia usually takes over and rasikas relive the musician’s past in their minds sometimes filling in musical gaps through memory recall that conceals severe shortcomings. Their erstwhile brilliance and super-human-ness is legendary. Audiences were blown away by the impossible, the unimaginable and the sheer audacity of their musicality. Why would these stalwarts allow themselves to be viewed in such an adverse light?

Feeling invincible

The stage, hero-worship, admiration, mysticism and the intellectual high associated with arts like Carnatic music are aphrodisiac. Carnatic music may not have the huge numbers that the world of cinema boasts of, but it flaunts a kind of superior-ness that makes practitioners feel that they are invincible. In fact the niche and high-density nature of its cultural-elite following, traps the musicians in a web of invincibility. The closeness of contact with hard-core fans and die-hard aficionados ensures that the musician rarely reflects and seldom sees the image in the truthful mirror. In the last hundred years of Carnatic music, we have been witness to many musicians who remained on the concert platform much after the ‘point of no return.’

But this is not just about retiring once musical abilities fail. It is also about constantly remaining in a state of flux, allowing yourself to rediscover the art as you age. Much like an actor who is stuck in the hero/heroine syndrome, musicians at times are unable to discard the bravado, machismo and gymnastics that defined their music once upon a time. Due to this inability they not only remain musically static, they also injure their vocal cords or fingers. When they are over the hill, this worsens their performance.

Musicians almost always blame audiences for the unchanging nature of their music. This is an excuse. Audiences are partners in the musician’s journey and every musical turn that the musician takes is a shared moment. The musician and the audience drown in art’s splendour together and therefore it is imperative that the musician is a seeker. Much like living, we have to be constantly aware, remaining in that state immersive-ness so as to allow music to organically reflect our physical, emotional and intellectual state. When we are blinded by the euphoria of dazzle and glitter, age trips up the music.

Some musicians do not succumb to temptation. They either bid adieu quietly or share music that is aged, mellowed and Carnatic music’s quintessence. Their voices may not be pitch perfect or fingers not as dexterous and there are those occasional slips and stumbles. In spite of these, the music shines bright because it does not depend on mere musical brawn. The music transcends the physical.

This is much more than about a musician at the end of his/her career. A musician’s responsibility is only towards the art. Every time we perform, irrespective of the stage, we represent the art form. If we allow ‘ego’ to overpower art, we become blind to our own fault lines. We end up disrespecting and destroying the art form itself. It pains me that we will allow the music to be maligned only because we crave attention and appreciation, which is of course dutifully provided for by close aids seated on the stage.

The reader may wonder if I am prescribing a retirement age for musicians. I am not. But I am asking for some introspection about the music that they would like to share in the late autumns and winters of their life. Is it not fair to request them to not try spanning the expanse of the music but rather to plumb its depths? Is it wrong to expect insight rather than aerobics? They cannot continue competing with twenty year olds.

May be I am writing this piece with the arrogance of the yet-to-age. In my forties, I have not experienced the emotional turmoil of losing the status of prime in the musical arena. But I do hope that as I age I will not make the same mistakes as my predecessors. And if I do cling on to the proscenium stage and to un-evolved musicality I do hope there will be someone to chastise me.

Carnatic vocalist, author of ‘A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story’, public speaker and writer on human choices, dilemmas and concerns

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 10:00:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/the-temptation-to-not-let-go/article22296582.ece

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