M.V. Ramakrishnan

Musicscan - The ‘fusion trap’

L. Subramaniam, performing violin recital at Port Kalavani. File Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam   | Photo Credit: C_V_Subrahmanyam

Long before the concept of ‘globalisation' began forcefully governing the economic and financial concerns of the world in the second half of the 20th century, exports and imports of goods and services had become an important feature of international relations. And such contacts had inevitably created social and cultural connections also.

On the commercial front, the trade exchange was originally very uneven; and the flow of silks, spices and raw materials from East to West far exceeded the flow of factory-made goods from the Western world to the Orient. The social and cultural influence, however, was exactly in the opposite direction. And so far as music was concerned, while Western military and even classical music tended to be actually performed in distant colonies in the East, the Westward flow of oriental music took place only in the form of ideas discussed in occasional academic exercises undertaken by some European scholars.

An illustration of this intriguing trend is provided by the fact that the Western violin and harmonium have become basic elements of the Carnatic and Hindustani musical traditions as these have evolved during the past 200 years or so, but there has been no significant impact of any element of Indian music on Western musical tradition, whether classical or modern.

Evolution of integration

It is worth noting in this context that such extension of traditional Western music in the Indian environment has been possible only in the case of instrumental and not vocal music (except, to some extent, in the case of Christian choirs). Of course, some serious effort was made in the second half of the 20th century by the legendary sitar and sarod maestros, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, to disseminate instrumental Hindustani music in the West; but although very impressive, these were just isolated endeavours which couldn't have any significantly wide influence.

Regarding Carnatic music, there has been still less scope to disseminate it in Western music circles, because the whole edifice rests on a formidable foundation of vocal music, and even in solo instrumental recitals there is an obligation to echo the lyrics of the vocal music, which makes any authentic performance extremely esoteric.

In the light of the above facts, it would seem that the only way Indian classical music can have any spectacular impact on popular music circles in the West is to integrate it with Western music (classical or modern), creating an exotic brand of music which effectively combines the characteristics of both systems. And that's the direction in which things have tended to evolve since the last quarter of the 20th century.

The finest exponent of this genre is L. Subramaniam, whose sensational efforts to amalgamate some basic elements of Carnatic and Hindustani music with those of jazz or symphonic music have won him world-wide acclaim and the flattering title, ‘The Hindu Paganini'. It also got him the eager collaboration of the famous classical and jazz violinists, Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grapelli.

But the very success of Subramaniam has led to the emergence of unimpressive and harmful imitations by many, not so accomplished, Indian musicians and their frivolous foreign associates, who seem to be in a great hurry to ‘globalise' Carnatic music, often violating the very fabric of the classical tradition. Far more alarming is the fact that even some reputed and accomplished Carnatic musicians tend to fall into a ‘fusion trap' and embark on such ventures without a proper perspective, the damage caused to the culture of Carnatic music being in direct proportion to their high accomplishment and reputation.

One can say, “Go slow on going global!” But who is to confront them all and enforce restraint, and how? That's the vital and intricate question to which we need to find the elusive answer.

(To be continued)

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