As far back as I can remember, there was always music in the ether. Carnatic music wafted through our home almost round the clock. G.N. Balasubramaniam, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, D.K. Pattammal and M.L. Vasanthakumari kept us musical company. My parents were not averse to a selection of classically tinged Tamil film music either.
Quite abruptly, I went clean off Carnatic music. The reasons were not far to seek. Boarding school in Bangalore in the 1960s brought me under the magical spell of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, and their ilk. The Beatles hit town in 1963 and all hell broke loose. Fresh and full throated harmonies blared out of juke boxes and transistor radios, each song neatly presented for our pubescent teenage delectation. “Love me do”, “Please please me”, “I wanna hold your hand” - the mop tops from Liverpool held us in thrall. We were hooked beyond redemption. If Lennon and McCartney didn’t get you, Jagger and Richards did.
This was the musical groove in which I found myself ecstatically stuck for much of the 1970s. During my college days in Calcutta, home grown rock bands were the in-thing. As I was living with my parents at the time, I would, rather self consciously, accompany them to Carnatic concerts. My mother was becoming quite concerned with my obsessive interest in the pop culture. “How can you, born on the banks of the Cauvery, listen to this rubbish?” she would berate. But I wouldn’t see the light.
A cousin of mine turned up from London with an armful of spool tapes containing a choice selection of Western classical music. I was unfamiliar with the genre, but kept an open mind. Beethoven’s violin concerto in D, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusic, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Chopin, Rachmaninov… it was an unbelievable treasure trove for a beginner.
Jazz poked its cool and trendy head round my door. Guitar great Charlie Byrd and Dizzie Gillespie visited Calcutta, and we were in seventh heaven.
Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ was the most sought after album in town. I was like a musical sponge, gleefully absorbing anything that came my way. Discernment was strictly for the birds.
As we moved into the 1980s, I would pause to take stock of what was happening in the world of Carnatic music. The sad truth was that this great, ancient art form appeared to be on oxygen. Maharajapuram Santhanam, Madurai T.N. Seshagopalan and Sudha Ragunathan were still packing them in, but that was pretty much it. The December Season was running to half empty halls. Sabha secretaries were peevishly pushing away their morning idlis.
The distractions still came. There was a ghazal wave in the country. The likes of Jagjit and Chitra Singh, Ghulam Ali and Mehdi Hassan were sweeping music lovers off their feet on both sides of the India–Pakistan divide. We also flirted with Hindi film music. Everyone knew the songs from Anand, Aradhana and Amar Prem . But this Bollywood influence was short lived.
There was a new kid on the block. Television was taking over the nation. ‘Mahabharat’ and ‘Ramayana’ took hold of India’s collective soul in a vice like grip. Soaps, soft drinks and toiletries were sold in abundance at the altar of religious soaps. And if you wanted a break from divine fervour, there was family drama in the form of ‘Buniyaad’ and ‘Hum Log’ to cling on to. Week after endless week. What chance did the cloistered world of Carnatic music have against such popular and populist onslaught? Something needed to happen. And it did.
For reasons as yet unexplainable, a clutch of bright and brilliant musicians landed in Madras in the early 1990s. Barely out of their teens, they sang their way into the hearts of music lovers in Madras and elsewhere in the country where they can tell a Kaanada from a Kannada. Vijay Siva, Bombay Jayashri, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Unnikrishnan, Sowmya, T.M. Krishna and Ranjani-Gayathri, to name just a handful, brought a fresh breeze of creative genius to the scene.
The December Season was rocking once again. Halls were filling up before you could say Muthuswamy Dikshithar. Ardent fans were queuing up outside sabhas at the crack of dawn to buy a limited number of daily tickets on offer. NRIs from the U.S., sporting Chicago Bulls caps, along with an incongruous namam or vibhuthi, could be seen waving currency notes at ticket counters. The smiles were back on the creased faces of the sabha secretaries.
And that should be that. I should be walking off into the sunset, my headphones enveloping me with Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s gut wrenching rendition of a Khambodi alapana. But as my journey as a multi-hued music aficionado comes full circle, I contemplate a new challenge. Forty years ago, if I had laid my grubby hands on Balamurali’s latest album, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul or the My Fair Lady soundtrack, my days were made, listening to these gems over and over again on our overworked Grundig radiogram.
Today, at my desk top, with millions of options available on YouTube, I sit frozen, totally immobilised. M.S. Subbulakshmi or Begum Akhtar? T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai or Miles Davis? Eric Clapton or Jimmy Hendrix? 1983 Lord’s or 2011 Wankhede? John Cleese or Rowan Atkinson? A dilemma Hamlet would have revelled in. The awful tyranny of mind numbing excess.
So I end with Shakespeare. “ If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die...”