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Articles on Carnatic music

Popularity of Carnatic music


by Raghavan Jayakumar, PhD

[I have a reason to brag about this one: it was written by my father, a singer/ musician as well as an avid rasika. His comments are written from the USA. This article is Part 1 in a series:]

Popularity of Carnatic Music

It is with some trepidation that I approach this topic. One reason is that a dedicated listener may legitimately question whether we should be concerned at all about the popularity of any art form, as long as it is understood, appreciated and nurtured by such dedicated listeners and the practitioners. Yet, human pride and weakness is one obvious reason why some like me would be concerned about the popularity. But perhaps a more pertinent reason is that if there are a large number of listeners (a) there would be a sustained attempt to preserve and foster the musical tradition (b) there would be increased opportunities for innovations in the music. I being a strong believer in the power and beauty of Carnatic music, contend also that if the popularity of Carnatic music increases, it will give rise to new genres of music worldwide and will imprint itself in many existing musical forms of the world. My qualification for addressing this topic is that first I have an eclectic taste in music, revere all classical traditions and enjoy all forms of popular music. I have not met a form of music I didnt like. The second is that I have heard Carnatic music for 30 years and to some extent I have learnt it.

But before I go on, I apologize in advance if words below offend anyone. If the words are offensive it is only because of the inadequacy of my expression and not my intention.

*The Carnatic, the Traditional Music

Carnatic music is the oldest classical musical form from India and has survived many turbulent periods in Indian history. But resilience is not necessarily a characteristic of a popular art form. One could even argue that popularity leading to license can alter or dilute the form such that it either fades away when fads change or that it would survive in a completely different form not true to its roots. While in the north India, music rooted in Carnatic music was influenced by Muslim traditions and was perhaps compelled to take more secular paths because of the need to perform in the court of Muslim rulers or in western India, the music was changed to fit popular arts and cultural taste, in the south it was preserved mainly by jealous guardians who revered the music as a medium of worship. Again while Hindusthani classical music has different gharanas (schools), Carnatic music remains monolithic and the only differences between practitioners may be related to small differences in the way a specific composition is rendered. This steadfastness and jealous guardianship of the original Vedic tradition has, by no means, prevented the musical establishment from accepting innovations which are truly additive, such as adopting the Western musical instruments. Even today, most practitioners of Carnatic music are proud of their adherence and respect to the classical traditions and any direct innovation in the music is evident to only to the well trained ear.

*Carnatic Music is Popular only with South Indians

Generally Carnatic music finds only south Indian audience. A typical connoisseur of Carnatic music would happily attend a Hindusthani concert and indeed enjoy a Thumri during Thukkada, but it is hard to find a corresponding example among north Indian music listeners. My experience is that Hindusthani musicians and listeners do not bother with Carnatic music and would be impatient with the rigor and complexity of Carnatic music. Even a typical well-heeled Hindusthani music listener would admit to not finding the Carnatic stylization pleasant to hear and does not take the trouble to cultivate an interest in the music. Has any one heard of a Carnatic piece being sung in a Hindusthani concert? In the West, particularly in the United States, where music of different kinds are appreciated, Carnatic music has not made any inroads except for performances attended by academics. Even westerners who are aware of Indian music, would probably only know the Hindusthani form. While Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Amjad Ali Khan, Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Zakir Hussain attract non-Indian audience and have significant name recognition, no south Indian musician is known for his or her own art. A few like L. Subramaniam are somewhat known only because they have (to their credit) attempted a fusion of east-west music. Again, my experience is that Americans find Carnatic music intriguing and find similarity with jazz, but are yet unable to grasp the musical content in order to enjoy it.

*So, what if Carnatic Music is Popular only with South Indians

This has, at first, one serious impact. The lack of a broad appeal affects the professional Carnatic musicians. A medium level Hindusthani musician perhaps earns 3 to 4 times the amount earned by a top Carnatic musician. The attendence and accolades received by the artists are correspondingly diminished. And the lack of broad audience limits the opportunity to increase the popularity of the music. But the higher price is that the Carnatic musician with a powerful and magical art to share feels powerless to do so in the face of a marketing oriented culture.

As far as popularity in India is concerned, one could argue that Hindusthani music is northern and since there are more northerners, the attendence and the remunerations are consistent.And why worry about the popularity of Carnatic music when many other musical forms such as Chinese music are in the same state? For a fan of Carnatic music like me, such an argument would be fallacious. I believe that Carnatic music holds many keys to the hearts and intellects of the people of India and the world over. Indeed, it is one of the most sophisticated forms of music, integrating simple and complex melodic and rhythmic structures for a whole composition or in a complete elaboration of an improvization. It uniquely evokes a sense of fulfillment in the listener, balancing the intellectual,. contemplative and spiritual aspects. Unlike in other forms of music, the semantic content of compositions is beautifully and inseparably incorporated with the music and the listener is emotionally rewarded as well. Which music can lay claim to all this? Yes, the western classical music can evoke emotions with its harmony and majestic use of instruments and invoke intellectual aspects in its counterpoint and melodic structure. Yes, Hindusthani music can excel in deepening the meditative mood of the listener and even establish the atmosphere the listener intends, but I claim that Carnatic music does all this, all the time. The tears that well up in our eyes involuntarily, when we hear an aptly stated musical phrase, are a testament to the awesome power of the music to move our spirit. The care with which we must listen to the adroit rendering of the shruthi and raga bound swaras in the constraints of Tala is the proof of the intellectual content of the music and finally when the same music soars with joyous freedom even within these constraints, one glimpses the meaning of life itself. It is imperative that at least all the people of Indian origin, who are united in our sensibilities, should have an opportunity to experience this.

*Bhakthi - Foundation and Strength of Carnatic Music, Is it its Burden too?

One aspect which might be intrimidating to the casual listener is that Carnatic music is steeped in Bhakthi rasa (devotional aspect). While some compositions associated with classical dances may incorporate Shringara (romantic aspect) or Vatsalya (affection), even these are forms of worship. Even songs of national pride have reverent aspect. In these days of discomfort regarding religious sensibilities, sensitivity to cultural /regional/sectarian biases of religions, the emphasis on Bhakthi may at least initially be a discouragement to a broad audience. An increasingly secular society must view any music that is founded on worship of Hindu Gods, with suspicion because the music might offend someone. But, this very Bhakthi and reverence is one of the pillars of Carnatic music and some would even say that it is its foundation. There is one other particular worry I must share in this regard: Carnatic music seems to be practiced and learnt more by people of Brahmin caste and less by others. I believe that there is not much truth in this perception.. This perception arises partly because how Carnatic music is performed, promoted or exhibited in the south and secondly because admittedly Brahmins have incorporated Carnatic music as a requirement in their learning. On the other hand, people of other castes have incorporated Carnatic music in their daily worship, in popular music and practice with great joy in their day to day practices. Yet, some could argue with reason that people, particularly children, of other than Brahmin caste do not place sufficient emphasis on learning Carnatic music with rigor and dedication.

So what does one do?

Part II


R. Jayakumar is a physicist based in San Diego, CA. He is an amateur singer/songwriter. say_cheese74@yahoo.com


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updated on 03/20/2009