Carnatic music’s new spaces, practices and styles



Dr. Lakshmi Subramanian is a Professor of History in the Centre for Studies in Social Science, Kolkata. She has also authored many books on the history of music. Excerpts from an interview.

Is the South Indian tradition of music a constantly evolving one? If yes, how has Carnatic music reinvented itself in the last century?

I think the element of dynamism is crucial to all traditions, and music is no exception. The consensus is that the changing locus and structures of patronage and the emergence of new ‘publics’ brought about significant changes in the practice and representation of Karnatik music. So even the celebration of antiquity of Karnatik music and its purity was a relatively modern preoccupation. Having said that, I also do believe that, both in terms of form, repertoire and musical values, there must obviously have been important continuities which are certainly not recoverable by historians or theoreticians. We have to look for answers in the field of practice and close attention to text and whatever can be gleaned of origins.

When people migrated to Madras, the space for public performance gradually moved from temples to sabhas. How much of loss of tradition has this led to, elaborate raga delineations of nagaswaram players being a case in point? Has ritualistic music lost its importance because of the movement of music from village temple to city sabha?

The rise of Madras as a premier city had profound consequences like loss of repertoire, of certain genres, marginalisation of some hereditary communities, restricted space for the kind of performance that instruments like the nagaswaram needed. Yet I would like to suggest that perhaps historians have focused far too much on the city. Maybe it is time to look out for other developments - the princely states, the regional radio stations after independence, the new pedagogical challenges that teachers and musicians grappled with, and the impact of technology especially on ritual singing.

Would it be right to say that with music moving to the city, listeners acquired more importance? After all, a full auditorium or a not so full auditorium, could decide reputations.

Yes and no. Listeners made up the new public and their appreciation would go a long way in establishing both the reputation of the performer as well as the consolidation of a particular style. I also believe that the audience contributes to the making of a successful performance - of ensuring that space of enchantment and that was something which was more subtle. It is not quite the same thing as a box office disaster for a commercial film. Further, I think concert going was a social habit that united the singer, song and listener in a very unusual way.

In the 1930s and 40s, there was a major preoccupation with music in Tamil magazines. Ananda Vikatan , for example, not only carried music reviews, but also illustrations of vidwans by artist Mali. Most editors of these Tamil magazines, and many of their readers as well, were migrants from places like Kumbakonam and Thanjavur, the centres of cultural activities. Was this extensive coverage of music more a result of nostalgia than a love for music per se?

This is an interesting question. I have looked at music reviews in popular weeklies, music related short stories, jokes and anecdotes. I haven’t read them as expressions of nostalgia - to me they captured the enthusiasm of a new listening public, of enhancing the social experience that a visit to a kutcheri involved. The snapshots made fun of the concert organiser, the audience, the critic and sometimes the singer and all of this contributed to a deepening of the social pleasure. If I could be permitted to make an analogy, it would be that of rereading with amplified pleasure the account of a cricket match in the next day’s papers even after having actually witnessed it on the field. This reportage was thus very important in consolidating the social constituency of classical music, at least in the 30’s and 40’s.

Musicians in the past too made money through royal patronage. So why is it that people complain now, when musicians fix rates for their concerts? The argument that this somehow takes the spirituality out of music doesn’t hold water.

I couldn’t agree with you more. Musicians surely must have a say in fixing their rates. As a profession, it will and must abide by certain requirements and obligations. The question of spirituality does not come here at all. In any case the idea of spirituality in music cannot be reduced to a crass conversation about money; it refers to a range of complex issues about subjective experience, the function of art and its quest for answers especially in moments of moral and ontological crisis.

In the early years of the 20th century, most girls of marriageable age were expected to have been instructed in music. They never became professional musicians, nor did they learn anything much after marriage, leading to the tongue-in- cheek reference to their music lessons as ‘Kalyana paattu.’ Didn’t the demand for music lessons for girls make music a commodity?

I am sure there are instances of the kalyana pattu phenomenon but I am uncomfortable about the idea of music as commodity in that context. Sure middle class Brahmins in particular made a strong case for teaching music to young women and it is quite possible that having a smattering of musical talent was an additional qualification. However, I think the provision of music instruction was more to do with the cultivation of a particular taste, of a sensibility and which was marked especially in families that had a longer familiarity with music. The commodification of music is perhaps more visible now and explaining that would be even more complicated.

All of M.K. Tyagaraja Bhavatar’s film songs were in Carnatic ragas, and most were devotional.To what extent did films of the 30s and 40s foster a desire to listen to classical music?

I would rephrase the question a little bit to ask of the links between films and classical music. I think there were important exchanges between theatre, cinema and music and this was true across India. Whether it was Hindi or Tamil films, there were musicians - classically trained - who contributed to the music in films and to that extent one could say that there was a composite auralscape that listeners were familiar with. In fact, AIR, through its programmes like Sangit Sarita, deployed film songs to acquaint its listeners with the basics of classical music.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 20, 2022 2:50:57 am |