What is art music?

Carnatic vocalist T.M. KRISHNA voices his thoughts on Carnatic music, its format and the experience it offers.

Published - February 09, 2012 06:38 pm IST



Over the past few years, I have tried to look at the Carnatic music performance structure in ways that are not common with regard to our memory of Carnatic music. I don't consider my interpretation of a concert an innovation; they are all questions, which I am posing both to myself and the community at large. This discussion is not about the appreciation (or not) of these changes. These are open to varied reactions depending on one's own conditioning and perception of music or even life.

The questions that bother me are “What is art music?” and “Is music and a performance of music the same? Is the experience of art music (I consider Carnatic music as art music) an entertainment or something more?”

The ‘something more' here does not refer to religious or spiritual experiences. In some ways, even they are part of the entertainment package. Therefore what I refer to here is openness to the experience of music and the freedom to accept and perform art music as an expression beyond the confines of a format.

Art music is a shared, intense aesthetic experience for all, and in my opinion, not a service of spiritualism, religion or entertainment provided by musicians to the audience.

In the past 100 years, we seem to have brought music and the performance to mean the same. This has happened to the extent that we view music only from the prism of a kutcheri. This has affected the music of many artists over the past century and the trap of a performance (by this, I mean to please and entertain an audience) has become the driving force of Carnatic music. People may feel that once you are singing in front of an audience, you are an entertainer, and you have to look at giving what the audience wants and perform according to conditioned norms.

I beg to disagree. To me, the space of performance is immaterial to art music. The music that I believe in is the same whether I sing in the private space of my home or in front of an audience.

The problem with the concert format that we hold so sacrosanct is that we have conditioned our experience based on the format rather than the music. This does not mean that we are not critical of the content but, by and large, the conditioned single paradigm concert has become the basis of our experience. The format is a convenience that gives us a method of presentation. The fact that it is very well conceived is not being argued but is it the only or even the best expression of the music? It is a fact that the format is only about a century old and does not define Carnatic music, which is a beautiful space of compositions and improvisations within a spectrum of ragas and talas. This is the music, its history and identity that we need to experience.

This does not mean anything and everything goes. To understand where presentation liberty ends and content integrity begins, every musician must respect history and understand it. As an example, let us look at alapana as a singular presentation. Any serious musician who has looked at the history of alapa/alapana will find that it shows in history a form that is far more fixed and structured than what we perceive of it today. Even notations from the Saraswathi Mahal Library show very fixed structures. Alapas have been notated for ragas without necessarily following it up with a composition. They have been presented as a piece with a beginning, middle and an end with clear subdivisions within. A complete form on its own.

Over the past couple of centuries or so, we have made the form fluid, less structural, more improvisational and fixed its place only before a compositional presentation. This does not negate it as a possible, complete presentation on its own. In fact, in some khayal traditions, the alap is presented independently.

What about niraval and kalpanaswara? History clearly shows us that both these forms have always developed as an exploration involving a composition, and therefore presenting them as independent presentations, is totally out of place. On the other hand, presenting a padam, varnam, or swarajathi (its older form), which are serious compositions, as central pieces has authenticity as these were some of the forms that dominated the sphere of compositional music in the past.

While any change to the kutcheri format seems to disturb us tremendously, it is astonishing that nobody seems to be bothered when ragas are massacred, compositions are given scant respect and all that is the aesthetic basis of the Carnatic experience is ignored.

Carnatic music's identity lies in its ragas, talas compositions, and creative forms. Who said a raga must be sung with these gamakas or that only some swaras must be used as anchors in a raga? People ask such questions.

The answers to all these questions are available if one is willing to dedicate time to understand ragas, their changes and present state. Every raga has within it a story of a few hundred years or more, for us to discover through serious exploration. We are happy to justify ragas being destroyed as new interpretations, innovations. The fact is they are not. The raga is far more than the swaras they are made of. Their identity has been created by centuries of travel, but even today they hold within the essential thread and the various characteristics that give them their form. Therefore, these innovations are nothing but irresponsible actions of self indulgence.

What about the quality of compositions presented today? Many times, they are equivalent to nursery rhymes. In fact, they only titillate and that seems to be enough. How many look for compositions that are multi-layered in sahitya and sangita?

Niraval singing and the various ways of exploring this form is dead today. Does anyone care about the position of the syllables while singing niraval? Kalpanaswaras are used only for two things, mathematics and a climax. Everything in between is irrelevant. Most of the time, tani avarthanams are mere displays of virtuosity with practically no aesthetic or intellectual value. We applaud vigorously to all this and more.

All the above accusations hold good for me as a musician. Have I raised any serious objections to all this? Where do my sensibilities lie? Is this not the real sampradaya that we are destroying? We, the musicians, the new age rasikas and even those who have heard the masters and take great pride in the past, have lost the basic sensitivity to feel the difference. The musical character of alapana, niraval, kalpanaswara, tanam, numerous compositional forms and tani avarthanam, need serious thought, questioning and discussion. All the above mentioned abuses of Carnatic music happen very much within the haloed precincts of the kutcheri padhathi.

It is important that we also recognise that these are not issues that were created today but have been accentuated by the social environment of the last decade. The fact is that they are a result of hundred years of kutcheri music. Any serious questioning of the masters of the past does not reflect disrespect; it actually reflects introspection and the deep influence of the greats on music. They still remain the masters and will always. I do question them but much before I do that I first question myself.

What is the difference between watching a variety entertainment programme and a Carnatic music concert? What is the difference between namasankirtanam and a Carnatic music concert? What is the difference between watching a trapeze artist and a singer? We do need to seriously question the Carnatic art music experience. These are only questions and it is for everyone to look for answers if they so seek.

Every question I have raised is relevant as much to life as it is to Carnatic music. The battle between the confines of social structure (concert format) and the experience of the sensitive, aware self (ragas, talas, compositions, etc.) is part of our core, is a similar struggle. May be our perception of life itself needs inquiry for us to get some answers to the questions. Until then, at least for me, these questions will remain and the journey shall continue.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.