The aesthetics of Carnatic concert music

Veteran vocalist Nedunuri Krishnamurthy is known for his subtle and nuanced approach to Carnatic music.   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

Although the word “aesthetic” may immediately evoke a fuzzy idea, most musical genres have a well-defined and well-orchestrated aesthetic that is readily understood by the initiated. For example, a rock concert is charged by an atmosphere of raw power, high volume, a deep rumbling bass and the wailing of intentionally distorted electric strings, not to speak of sundry special effects on voices, instruments, visuals, lighting and so forth. All this is part of a carefully orchestrated aesthetic that belongs to the genre and is loved by its aficionados. Likewise, the warm, intimate and subtle sounds of a string quartet are part of its intended aesthetic. Any deviation from the intended aesthetic of the genre, for example, an eardrum shattering loudness in a string quartet performance, or quiet subtlety in a rock concert, would be rejected by its followers.

Which brings up the obvious question — is there a well-developed Carnatic aesthetic? The Chennai Carnatic concert experience is most often marked by high volume and it is not uncommon to see a little jostling amongst the performers on stage for individual volume and requests from the audience for even more volume. Consequently, there's an overall distortion and a general loss of fidelity and subtlety. Is all this part of a carefully orchestrated aesthetic or is it the chaotic end result of a thoughtless stampede of circumstances and individual priorities?

Historically, there has been a well-marked place and role for loud and un-modulated Carnatic music. For example, Nagaswaram music, which was performed in and around temples, that is to say, mainly in the open air. Again, the post-trinity, pre-amplification era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the rise of many great Carnatic musicians, mainly male vocalists, who excelled in the art of kutcheri performance. Their performances were mainly under open-air pandals, temple mandapams or sometimes, royal chambers. There was no amplification and from all accounts, they sang in pleasing but un-modulated high-pitched voices that carried far but presumably did not leave much room for aesthetic subtleties. Concurrently, there was also a place in the Carnatic world for soft, well-modulated, aesthetically subtle chamber music performed by female singers, court musicians, vainikas and other instrumentalists.

Flamboyant styles

Today, all these previous sub-genres of Carnatic music have coalesced into an uneasy whole called Carnatic concert music. Further adding to the internal diversity of the genre is the evolution over the last century of new and flamboyant styles of singing and instrumental techniques, as well as the introduction of new instruments.

Amplification has been the chief catalyst for the coalescing. While amplification has led to obviously spectacular gains in many areas, it has not been integrated organically into the genre. It has been approached in a cavalier manner, either willfully or unwittingly, by all concerned parties — musicians, organisers and the audience. To take the most extreme case, Chennai often witnesses, without controversy, the application of full amplification to indoor Nagaswaram and Tavil concerts!

If the Chennai Carnatic concert experience is unsatisfactory from an aesthetic standpoint, it could be instructive to examine other traditional genres which appear to have migrated more gracefully from the pre-amplification era to present times, for instance, Western classical music and Hindustani music. Perhaps the attention paid in those genres to stage décor and creating an atmosphere, at a level unknown to Carnatic music except in rare and elite venues like Kalakshetra, is indicative of an overall preoccupation with aesthetics. But looking at the performers themselves — the level of maturity of a performing ensemble, particularly a small one, determines if the whole (concert experience) is greater than the sum of the parts or quite the opposite. One needs look no further than an average string quartet performance or a Hindustani concert to get a sense of mutually reinforcing team spirit that creates a wholesome whole.

No doubt some of the jostling for individual volume sometimes seen in Carnatic concerts comes from inadequate or absent monitors and thereby an artiste's inability to hear one's own singing or playing, something so vital and indispensable to the artiste, but often totally not understood by organisers. It is not an easy matter and requires highly trained audio professionals to balance vastly disparate voices and/or instruments. Further, confusing the matter, artistes often bring along their own audio equipment which may be incompatible with the overall audio ensemble. Recent economic growth has led to overall improvements in sabha infrastructure and some have invested in good audio equipment but there still remains the challenge of finding and recruiting qualified technicians who have the requisite background in music and sound; there must be an overall acknowledgement that good sound is not a chore or the mere flick of a knob but rather a labour of love of specially trained individuals.

Audience discipline is a serious lacuna in Chennai Carnatic concert venues; some lapses are easier to condone than others. For example, walking in and out between pieces, if done unobtrusively, is more forgivable than ringing cell phones or side bar conversations. Arguably, this lack of focus and discipline leads to a hankering for higher and higher volumes and a gradual spiral of desensitisation.

Things can only get better for Carnatic concert music. There's an aesthetic dimension, of which an occasional glimpse is vouchsafed at the rare intersection of a sensitive and well-coordinated team, a good auditorium, good audio equipment, good technicians and a disciplined audience. If all parties work on it constantly, this can be established as the Carnatic norm and all can be proud of it and richer for the experience.

In part 2, the challenge posed by the internal diversity of the Carnatic genre in being able to define a universal Carnatic concert aesthetic will be discussed.

(The author is a biomedical design engineer with a keen interest in the design of acoustic and wind musical instruments and can be reached at

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 3:12:38 AM |

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