Friday Review

Music, meanings

Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna with H.K. Venkatram, Neela Ramgopal, Anoor Ananthakrishna Sharma and Dr. N. Ramanathan PhotoS: K. Bhagya Prakash  

The framework is music. Are the physical and philosophical binary opposites? Do emotion and intellect occupy two ends of the spectrum? The answer is perhaps they don’t. But where do these seemingly contrary ideas begin and end? They co-exist, argued Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna in a symposium, Antaranga-Bahiranga organised by Sri Rama Lalitha Kala Mandira in Bangalore, recently. T.M. Krishna’s lecdem was followed by a panel discussion with musicians Neela Ramgopal, H.K. Venkataram, Anoor Ananthakrishna Sharma and musicologist Dr. N. Ramanathan.

Where there is bhava, there is technique as well, said TMK emphatically, responding to an audience question. Technique may perhaps be an intuitive presence, but there is no one without the other. In his lecdem, earlier on, TMK drew attention to words that are often used in music – rather soppily — indicating thought processes that are assumed to course different trajectories. “Singing is an act of thinking. Thinking is also an emotional act. The two cannot be dissociated. When an idea strikes you, it treads both the emotional and intellectual,” TMK averred, setting the tone for his talk which collapsed many boundaries. “Why then do musicians abhor the word ‘intellectual’? Why do they quickly tell you to ‘just sing’? While singing is the most important thing to do for a musician, you cannot divorce thought from it. It is therefore important to discuss music not just to take it forward in one’s own mind, but also to recognise several other viewpoints,” he observed.

If the word ‘tradition or Sampradaya’ is hugely popular, ‘change’ is also used just as frequently. Tradition is complex for not just its meaning, but also for how it has been used and understood. The nothing-must-change doggedness is problematic, but convenient modification of tradition also makes for interesting politics. For instance, citing Tiruvottiyur Tyagiyer’s work Pallavi Swarakalpavalli, TMK said the ‘dhaivata’, as he notates the Begada varna, exists in a clipped form in one particular phrase and not in the elongated form as one sees in the practice of contemporary Carnatic music. “What we change and don’t change in tradition is therefore a matter of convenience. Most changes are made from the individual’s point of view, and not exactly from the point of music.”

Modernity is another word that classical musicians shun, said TMK. “So much so that if you tell a musician his music is modern, he sees it as an insult. But the very idea of Carnatic music is a modern one; its real practice can be traced to about 150 years. One should celebrate the fact that the human mind has created such a modern narrative of music.” Modernity is not a timeline, but that which is reflective, introspective and is willing to have a dialogue with the past, present and future. In fact, the bani that we talk so much about, is itself a modern creation and its presence is a very recent one. “Why is it a Semmangudi and GNB bani whereas a Tyagaraja shishya parampara?” While on the one hand, it is indicative of a musical period, it also indicates a movement in musical tradition. Some musicians in a conscious act conceived an intellectual idea. They changed certain traditional practices and substantiated it with their thought process. “That is what is called a bani and anybody can take from it.”

The other point that TMK discussed was that of oral and written traditions and how they invariably occupy different compartments. “Musicologists accuse musicians of being ignorant of theory, and musicians accuse them of being ignorant of practice. But the truth is that these two traditions live off each other. Theory is not a dry, debate happening in a room between four scholars. They infer from practise and document it in an articulate form. Both are bound within each other.” Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer set up the Kamalamba Navavarna keertanas of Dikshitar based on the Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarshini. “He, in turn, has passed it on to his students, and it currently exists in the oral tradition form. Three generations from now, nobody will even know that this spectacular work was done by Semmangudi. So is it oral or written tradition? It is impossible for one to be independent of the other.” If you see the Keertana patanthara of T. Brinda, it has amazing similarities with what is said in the Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarshini. “You realise that there was a dialogue between theory and practice.” Is there diversity in music as we claim? Are we thinking differently? “The music that has come to stay today is a masculine interpretation of music,” he categorically said. The Devadasis were huge repositories of knowledge, and with that tradition being lost we have lost a unique dimension to Carnatic music. Reading passages from the works of Bhatkande, Mundikondan Venkatarama Iyer and other musicologists, TMK revealed that ‘conventional practice’ was always met with enquiry and innovation.

Then how do we actually envision ‘manodharma sangeeta’ which is how one defines Indian classical music? Can it be transferred, is it acquired from listening, or gained through practice? Opening the panel discussion, vocalist Neela Ramgopal said that entering into the ‘manodharma zone’ takes years and years of learning, listening, and repeating. “I was obsessed with music, listening and thinking about it all through the day. To my surprise, one fine day, my mind began to fill with ideas for neraval. Manodharma is something that one gains through rigorous engagement,” she explained the beginnings of her own creative persona in music. For her, the journey of manodharma, in aspects like neraval, had only improved to become ‘fashionable and modern’. “Unlike Neela maami, who sees good things, I see only dark things,” responded musicologist Dr. N. Ramanathan, who had a problem with the term manodharma itself. The term, according to him, was a recent one and carried connotations of spontaneous, extempore, impromptu etc and thereby giving manodharma sangeeta a certain adhocism. “According to manodharma, something new has to be sung always. This is almost impossible. At best, you can improvise, to use a term that is used in jazz.” Studying the music of the great masters carefully, one recognises, manodharma comes close to a kind of reorganising and not always a creative outburst.

“An accompanist is usually guided by the framework of the main artiste,” said violinist H.K. Venkataram. “Usually shadowing, or mimicking the style of the main artiste, helps you take the mood forward. If you are a soloist you can do what you are best at, but being an accompanist requires a lot of hardwork. It is a tough job.” Venkataram calling himself Sankataram jocularly, recalled instances when the main artiste violates the tenets of classicism and it in turn becomes a challenge for the violinist to play his part. “In such situations, it is not only about tradition but also about the parameters we set for ourself,” he explained.

A good percussionist should be able to understand the manodharma of the main performer with the first kriti itself, said Anoor Ananthakrishna Sharma. “While complex mathematics is vital, it should not disturb the nadasoukhyam,” he added. He narrated ‘funny’ experiences about how privileging of musicians on a concert stage happens, and TMK quickly interrupted a laughing audience saying, ‘please don’t just remember it as a joke. It says another story.’

The symposium opened up a space for discussion. From the enthusiasm of the audience that turned up in huge numbers and remained totally engaged till the very end, it was evident that it was a much needed one.

Corrections & Clarifications:

This article has been edtited for a factual error.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 9:10:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music-meanings/article7711715.ece

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