The issue of identity

Variety seems to be the ultimate aim but where does that leave Carnatic music?

May 18, 2017 03:56 pm | Updated 03:56 pm IST

In a recent lecdem, Dikshitar compositions in raganga ragas were rendered, based on an interpretation of their notation in the Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarshini. Musicologist, Dr. N. Ramanathan, raised the question with reference to compositions in Deshakshi, Bhinna Sadja etc.

“Is this Carnatic music?” The melodic texture of these compositions as they were rendered was very far from, as Ramanathan put it, the ‘Mylapore’ variety of Carnatic music, which incorporates gamakas typical to Carnatic music.

Now, how can one question whether Dikshitar’s compositions are Carnatic? The point of the question was about the identity of Carnatic music, which seems one of the most confused systems of art music on that count.

One finds, in a Carnatic music concert, bewildering variety on many counts. On the one hand, we have grand compositions such as ‘Enduku peddala’ or ‘Sri Subramanyaya Namaste’ and, on the other, we have dainty nottuswara sahityam like ‘Kamalasana vandita padabje.’ We find folk ditties, bhajans and abhangs sung as ‘light fare.’ One wonders why ghazals aren’t (yet) included!

Hindustani music concerts in Mumbai, Pune or up North, rarely, if ever, include abhangs. Bhajans are included at the end but that is a very different idiom — not the kind that one hears in popular religious song. Not every Khayal singer dares attempt Thumri for tail-end pieces notwithstanding its mere ‘semi classical’ status — Thumri, it is acknowledged, needs specialised training.

But we Carnatic musicians don’t fear anything; variety seems to be the ultimate desirable! Variety does procure a larger audience base and only demands short attention spans. In fact, that is precisely how the modern kutcheri paddhati is said to have evolved. But, in this quest for variety, where lies the fate of the identity of Carnatic music?

A different kind of variety is in the kinds of ragas: we have ragas with ill-defined contours; for instance, Sarasangi, which can accommodate anything so long as only the notes that the raga admits are included; and we have highly nuanced ragas such as Nilambari, where a note elongated here or shortened there within its phrases could spell doom for the raga. But this is variety one can perhaps live with so long as the latter variety, unique to Carnatic music, are dominant over the less interesting ragas of the former kind.

The issue of identity is important for the thinking Carnatic performer and listener. If Carnatic music is, like Hindustani music or Western classical music, a form of art music, then we need to put our finger on what this means! What is the artistry involved here? How is it different from namasankirtanam? Art music involves handling of the musical material in a stylised and serious manner while placing demands on the listener unapologetically.

Many would define the special kind of gamakas that we use as the essential stylistic of Carnatic music. That means ragas like Nilambari, Yadukula Khambodi, etc. And when we have compositions such as Param dhamavati with movements not typical to this variety of Carnatic music (the Mylapore variety), there is a problem. Without questioning the worth of these compositions or ragas, how do they fit in with the idea of Carnatic music as one that has gamakas of a certain kind?

Does such an idea obtain? Or should one ride on, complacent with the ‘uniqueness’ of Carnatic music, with variety as its USP?

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