In their own voice - Are we here only for the music?

Sriram Parasuram. Photo: R. Ravindran

Sriram Parasuram. Photo: R. Ravindran   | Photo Credit: R_RAVINDRAN

The soft sinews of a Mohana raaga or the vibrant vistas of a Bhairavi, the untold joy of listening to the great songs of Thyagaraja or Diksitar, the assimilated art and creative craft of Classical music that has been honed and passed on for centuries and now in the hands of upcoming and veteran musicians alike — all these definitely are significant harnesses that rein in rasikas by the thousands to Chennai during the month of Margazhi — the December Music Season. But are we all here for this music and its glory alone? I would say both yes and no.

There are many stories to tell… more reasons to understand as to why we might actually be here in December. To understand these reasons, complex though they might be, I think would allow for the music and its glory to flow more effortlessly into us. Carnatic music like almost all other musics is situated in deep cultural contexts and hence, it is very important for us to grasp the social and historical spaces that circumscribe the music of the December season in Chennai. In fact, all music, whether classical, popular or folk, and the structures that its representative and performative forms assume, can be considered as a complex metalanguage through which socio-political underpinnings, cultural expectations and economic aspirations are played out through a series of processes — processes that encompass the performers, the listeners, the organisations and institutions, the performance spaces, the patrons, and the commerce and the media that support it. All of them have different attributes with respect to the meaning that they derive out of the music itself. The music means very differently to a seasoned performer, it means very differently to a music student; yet another meaning as far as the sabha secretary assumes or as far as the music critic is concerned — endless streams of a multitude of meanings. These meanings may have little or nothing to do with the actual musical beauty of say a Begada alapana or a Shyama Shastri masterpiece in that raga! In trying to unravel meanings in music, specifically with reference to the December music season in Chennai, let me take you through a partial deconstruction of the musical superstructure along two of its vertices.

As a symbolic fact, music has a powerful potential to refer to something. It is in this referential horizon that I place Carnatic music vis-a-vis south Indian cultural identity. And more particularly the December Music season and its workings with the south Indian Brahminical identity, mostly the Tamil Brahminical. When a particular section or stratum of the populace undergoes rapid change in terms of professional/occupational success (and the consequent changes in economic class and lifestyle modes), geographical re-location (and the consequent need to align and live in a new “alien” cultural setting), there is an underbelly of original identity which despite very successful assimilation of new environs and its parameters, seeks to be re-affirmed. The size and difficulty of the question of cultural and linguistic identity as an important musical meaning that the December music season imparts is highly underscored by the fact that Chennai sees a huge inflow of rasikas from Mumbai to New York, and Sydney to New Delhi. And this trend is on the increase year after year despite higher travel and other logistic costs. This need for re-affirmation of identity and re-establishment of cultural linkages is the key impetus for the diasporic drive that elevates cultural elements that were once considered as “natural and casual” to newer levels of “the carefully considered and purposeful”. There is a renewed zeal with which Individuals and families seek out Chennai in December as an opportunity and means to reaffirm their original identity and order. Not only does Carnatic music flow into this matrix of affirmation quite beautifully, it also effortlessly fills up the gaps in the “old order’ of linguistic, literary/poetic, religious and philosophical identities through its essentially composite nature. Seen through this manifold the December Music Season assumes an important meaning beyond its immediate musical characteristics, beyond a brilliant violin essay of Bahudari or a complex korvai in khanda nadai! In this diaspora seeking reaffirmation, albeit subconsciously, are also those of us who remain geographically rooted but have “moved away” in significant measures from what our original identity entailed in terms of the “original order” of culture and lifestyle moorings. The December Music Season provides a most fertile and unobtrusive setting for this re-affirmation too.

December season, a tirtha-yatra

The other interpretant that I associate with the December Music Season in Chennai is the religio-social institution of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage as an institution holds fort across all regions and sections of society, not only in India but elsewhere too. In some form or the other, almost every Indian regularly goes or has gone now and then on what is called a “tirtha-yatra” — a journey to sacred places at river fjords. The modalities of a tirtha-yatra may vary widely across geographic regions, caste and class sections, but few would deny the central role that a Varanasi, a Tirupati, a Sabarimala, an Amarnath, a Vaishnodevi, a Pandharpur, an Aarupadaiveedu or Chaar dhaam and countless other pilgrimage circuits play in the consciousness of many Indians. Seen from a sociological perspective it is much in the same vein that I see Chennai as a tirtha sthala during December. Hordes descend upon this city during this month not unlike devotees thronging to Amarnath or Kashi! Is this too far fetched a metaphor? I think not.

At the sociological core of the institution of pilgrimage is the need of the human being to anchor himself/herself in a community — a community whose members share a common worldview, which in turn has established modes or axes through which this solidarity is articulated and expressed. This solidarity is most conventionally realised and organised along lines of what we generally refer to as religion. Pilgrimage is one of the significant modes by which this religious solidarity is articulated. Whether it be a person of Islamic faith undertaking the Haj to Mecca or a person of Jewish origin from the United States travelling to Zion or a Jasbinder Singh (who now lives in Vellore) visiting the Golden Temple at Amritsar, the institution of pilgrimage is of universal significance. In more recent times, especially with respect to the more “western” educated sections of society, having professions, careers and social lifestyles that are more or less insulated from the religious matrix, one or two particular aspects of the “lived” culture take on this role of the anchor. In modern times I see music and sport as two of the major anchors along which people tend to assemble together and “re-organise” themselves into communities. For members of one such “community” which we may for the time being call the “Carnatic Music lovers” community (people from all over the globe and a significant number of non-Indians too belong to this community) Chennai's December Music Season fills the exact slot in their lives as pilgrimage does for the “religious” Indian. Both come to ferment at a fixed time of the year, both require preparation and discipline for participation, in both cases you have to undertake travel, in both there is the all important element of community congregation where every individual expeiences a sense of belonging, stories are exchanged in both, relationships are forged, hierarchies are established and so on and so forth. For the Carnatic Music Lovers community, Chennai is the tirtha-sthala, the most auspicious time is the month of Margazhi, the sabhas are the shrines or places of worship, the performing musicians are the archakaas (the medium), the principal deity is, of course, Carnatic music!

Even if one were to look at the geographic subtext of almost all Carnatic music compositions, they too are located in the institution of pilgrimage. Whether it be Tyagaraja, Shyama Shastri or Muthuswamy Diksitar — all of whom travelled to hundreds of kshetras from Madurai to Jalandhar (in present day Punjab), or Purandara Dasa or Tirugnanasambandhar, the central thread of their compositions is almost always the kshetra and how powerfully the deity and everything about the kshetra meant to them. Since the kriti (and every other compositional genre) — with its lyrical-religious core - is the centre piece of every item in a concert, at a subliminal level — but not marginal or trivial at all — compositions in Carnatic music take both the performer and the listener on a “virtual tour” of these kshetras. Thiest or not, one has no choice but to travel with the saint-composers to Tiruchendur, Chidambaram, Bhadrachalam, Udupi and everywhere else! Most importantly, travel is free! Provided of course that you are inside the concert hall listening keenly and that the singer is enunciating the lyrics correctly and effectively!

Why do we like Carnatic music?

The “why” in “Why do we like and listen to Carnatic Music” is, as I said earlier, a complex issue to understand. But try to understand, we must. In that understanding and acceptance lies the future of Carnatic music and our future in it. In unravelling some of the complex workings of our minds and attitudes lies the possibility for the music to shine better and for us to delight in it better. In a true celebration of our wonderful identity and illustrious legacy lies the key to the wholesome consolidation and growth of Carnatic music. Once we begin to understand the very significant roles that the Classical music actually plays in our lives (other than the obvious joy it brings to our senses and souls), we would probably not take it so much for granted. Our respect and reverence for it would definitely increase. If we as musicians truly understand that we are the blessed medium for the music, if the sabhas truly understood that their venues and halls are nothing less than veritable shrines, if the rasikas understand that they are the chosen devotees without whom the entire edifice of Carnatic music would crumble, how more glorious would the Chennai December Music Season be! In the meanwhile, let beautiful Kambhoji continue to play on...

Sriram Parasuram is a leading Carnatic and Hindustani vocalist and violinist. Email:

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 12:41:52 PM |

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