Carnatic Classical Music is a heavenly art. It epitomizes the very essence of spiritual awakening in a man and is considered as "Nadha Brahmam," next only to God.
In this page, I will share my random thoughts on this heavenly art, as a connoisseur, nay as an ardent listener, mainly to review its present status and its future. This section will be more or less a discussion forum and will not contain basic information on this art. Several web sites are carrying such information and it is not worthwhile repeating them here.
The review will be done in installments; readers are free to voice their opinion and send their reactions. (For purposes of review, all reputed artists performing before and during the decade 1960 to 1970 are chosen as the benchmark. Reference to individual artists will be for purposes of an analytical study and are not exhaustive.)
Music of Yester-years
One’s interest in classical music in the early years of life stems primarily from family members and the environment; this is probably common amongst most connoisseurs of music. In my case, it is my mother, a reasonably good singer, who created interest in this art. In my young school days, I had no occasion to hear a good singer. The real exposure to Carnatic Classical music came to me during my college days when I attended the Aradhana Celebrations of Saint Thyagaraja at Thiruvaiyaru on the banks of Kaveri River in the year 1946. What a feast it was! For five days, we had free meals and continuous treat to the ears from morning to night.
In all the five days, I saw and heard savants of Carnatic music like Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Semmangudi Srnivasa Iyer, Maharajapuram Visvanatha Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer, D.K.Pattammal, Madurai Mani Iyer and the great Tiger Varadachariar. The accompaniments were also excellent. Apart from T.N.Krishnan, Papa Venkatramayya, Kumabakonam Rajamanickam Pillai, Mayavaram Govindaraja Pillai etc on the Violin, Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subbudu had provided good percussion support.
The melody produced in those five days near the Samadhi of Saint Thyagaraja was so exhilarating and purposeful that it created a craving in me to hear these and other artists time and again. The seed sown there in the holy place began to grow. I started recognizing ragas and even assessing the performance levels. Most of my college friends who attended the performances with me had the same experience.
During the next forty years of my life, I had numerous opportunities to hear most of these and other veterans, like M.S.Subbulakshmi, G.N.Balasubramanian, M.L.Vasanthakumari, Alathoor Brothers, M.D.Ramanathan, Balachandar, Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, the great T.R.Mahalingam, Rajarathnam Pillai, Namagirippettai Krishnan, Karukurichi Arunachalam and the budding artists of those days like Lalgudi Jayaraman and Ramani.
In British India, there was no king to patronize these artists. It is the Zamindars and rich landlords who were their chief patrons. This situation also gave rise to the establishments of institutions called Music Sabhas by enthusiastic and resourceful connoisseurs of music.
The Trinities, Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshithar, and Shyama Sastry,, who gave Carnatic Music the form and glory in the Nineteenth Century, were no doubt products of the district of Tanjore. But the pride of place goes to the city of Madras, which has become the seat of all cultural activities for the entire South India; naturally, it became the "home town" of all Carnatic Musicians. Even today, this city is the centre for promotion of this heavenly art. Standards are set or established at performances in this city and any artist worth the name has first to prove his mettle and make his way up through the Sabhas at Madras. Before independence, Kings of the States of Travancore and Mysore also contributed to the promotion of Carnatic Music by encouraging artists and making them "Asthana Vidvans". The role of these Kings has been taken over to some extent by academies and cultural organizations started by the Governments. Still, the main patronage to this art comes from the public through the Sabhas organized by them.
"Kutcheries" were held mostly in temple premises and till recently there were few good auditoriums. Mike was also a comparatively recent accessory; I have heard very many performances in the forties without mikes. (It does not mean the audiences were few in number and hence mike was unnecessary.) After this accessory was introduced, the artists had to change their tonal outputs to suit the mike arrangements. Natural voice got relegated to the background. The blend of rhythmic sound produced in a concert by the accompaniments without mike was so natural and pleasing to the ears; one really misses such blended music. Today, it is not rare to find the mike adjustments for accompaniments overshadowing vocal music (or the main artist); and the blend so produced becomes more ‘sound’ than music.
In those days, there was no recording system worth the name and we have lost an opportunity to hear again the heavenly music of the great savants. Think of Rajarathnam’s Thodi, Shanmukhapriya and Kahmboji. The 3 minute- arrack records produced by HMV were apologies to the great master’s rapturous alapanas, krithis and swara prasthara. Can we hear again the kutcheries of Ariyakkudi , Tiger, Maharajapuram, GNB or Musiri? Are we missing them? Are today’s artists as good as yester-years’ great artists? Are the standards established by them being maintained today or are they deteriorating? These are the questions I would be addressing in these columns.
Today, the Kutcheries (concerts) are of shorter duration. We can probably forget about four or five hour performances of yester-years. Most performances are now limited to three hours are less. Within these hours, laya vadyas (thani aavarthanam) take away 30 to 40 minutes; introductions and garlanding of artists take away another 20 to 30 minutes. These reduce the effective time for the main artist to 90 to 100 minutes. After the completion of a main krithi or major raga which is usually done in the middle of the performance, thani aavarthanam follows and the artist begins his thukkadas.
Though unfortunate, people have no patience to sit through the thani aavarthanam. in which many rasikas of Carnatic classical music have no interest. As no major raga is usually taken up after this, they prefer to leave the performance. If only the artist spaced out his major raga alapanas to intersperse them between thani avarthanam and thukkadas, many rasikas would perforce make them wait for the ragas or krithis after thani avarthanam. This would also serve the purpose of creating interest in "thani". Till the audience evinces interest in laya vinyasa, the time allotted for it should not exceed 15 minutes.
And, cannot the organizers of the Sabha do the ritual of garlanding at the beginning of the performance or push it to the very end? Why do they come in between the performance and interfere with the tempo built up by the artist? This is the very reason, why the novel idea of interval in the concerts is rejected both by the artists and the audience
These days, "Ragam, Thaanam, Pallavi" is rare; even elaborate aalapanaas get restricted to one or two ragas. By the time the artist gets into the mood to render the krithis and do elaborate aalapanaas, his time is over; he has to catch a train to go back home. What a pity!
There is an argument against long performances. Today it is said, people have no time to hear four-hour performances. I do not subscribe to this view. If thukkadas and "thani" are excluded, the real time of an artist gets restricted to three hours or less. Do not people sit patiently in a theatre for three hours without options to break in between or go away early? If performances were good, rasikas would not grudge long hours. I have experienced this several times in the performances of Madurai Mani Iyer, and M.D.Ramanathan, two of the few artists who had enjoyed music while singing and would not be limiting the performances to specified hours. Rasikas would sit with rapt attention and enjoy music till the end.
By restricting the performance hours to three or less, I feel we are not promoting talents and good listening pleasure. In the days of "fast food”, some say, is there no need for ‘capsule music’? Such a question underrates the very nature of Classical Music, be it Hindustani, Carnatic or Western. Creating tempo in a performance and the desired musical effect amongst the audience is a slow and difficult process. The "pantha" adopted in a music performance is specially designed to take the audience slowly to realms of ecstasy and enjoyment. Capsule treatment will kill the very sanctity attached to classical music.
The Artists and Music Quality
Look at the past; are the artists of today of the same caliber and talents as those of yester-years? One should be frank here. In my view, the quality of Carnatic classical music has not suffered at the hands of youngsters. When you hear Sudha Raghunathan, Bombay Jayashree, Neyveli Santhana Gopalan or Sanjay Subramanian, you get the celestial glimpses of the music one heard from the savants like MLV, GNB, Semmangudi, Aruakkudi etc. There are many artists who are excellent in rendering krithis and ragas, Briga sangeetham has not completely faded away with GNB. Trichur Ramachandran, Sudha and others are still holding up his tradition. (One should admit, that it is not very popular with artists.)
We should remember here the great Vidwans Maharajapuram Santhanam and D.K.Jayaraman. Santhanam’s unblemished pure Carnatic music was not merely pleasing to the ears, it had a grandeur making the audience feel as if the are sitting in a king’s court. The richness of his father’s music and his gifted metallic voice produced a musical concert unparalleled in the later half of this twentieth century. Jayaraman gave us the pleasure of hearing the best of classical music; the krithi sudhdham, the rich swaras, the undiluted music with immaculate laya sudhdham made his concerts unique. T.V.Sankaranarayanan, Madurai Mani Iyer’s nephew and disciple, has kept up his masters’ band high ; his swarprastharas full of manodharma are a treat to the rasikas. Madurai Seshagopalan can take you to heights of ecstasy if he is in good mood. And you have Unnikrishnan; his mesmerizing voice and soft tone makes the concerts most enjoyable. (Are we loosing him in the Carnatic world? In recent years, he is said to be concentrating on film music.)
Well-equipped auditoriums and better acoustics have no doubt contributed to significant improvements in the quality of performance. But the main credit should go to the artists who are keeping up the traditions and producing good music.
When we look at the artists playing instruments, we get the same feeling that Carnatic classical music has not deteriorated. Take Violin; it is now both an accompanying instrument as well as an independent one on the platform. The credit for the promotion of Violin as an independent instrument should go to the great Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu. Lalgudi Jayaraman gave a big fillip to it. What a scintillating experience one gets from his instrument! I remember once at a Bombay, one lady offered her only gold necklace weighing about 50 grams as her present to him at the end of the performance; this lady told him that she was ashamed at this meager reward for his priceless music. Today, the accompanying artists as well as independent solo players are giving such wonderful treat to the ears that one begins to wonder whether this is an instrument specially devised for Indian classical music. Frankly, I don’t miss the great Violin maestros of yester day, like Mayavaram Govindarajan, Kumabakonam Rajamaickam Pillai or even T.N.Krishnan who plays solo today. Apart from Lalgudi, there are several excellent performers like M.S.Gopalakrishan, Kanyakumari, Ganesh-Kumaresh, Mysore Nagaraj, L.Subramanian etc., etc., Several youngsters like Lalgudi G.J.R.Krishnan are giving excellent performances.
In Veena, however, we don’t have as many top ranking artists. There are a number of artists playing this instrument; but still, none matches the great Vidwans of the past. Gayathri probably is an exception.
This is true of Nadhaswaram too. Where are the great Vidwans like Karukirichi Arunachalam, Rajarathnam Pillai, and Namagirippettai Krishnan? During the Rajarathnam days, I have heard of his rendering one single Raga for three to four hours and rasikas sitting with rapt attention and listening to him. His aalapanaas were models for several vocal artists of those days. The only great Vidwan Sheik Cinnamoulana Saheb in our recent memory has also been snatched away by God.
This is an unfortunate trend, despite the fact that this instrument is the most popular one in South India and is played on all auspicious occasions. Is this because, people are casual listeners and would not consider this instrument as good as Violin or Veena? Or is this because, few organizations are patronizing this instrumental music for their regular concerts? Tamil Isai Sangam in Madras used to encourage Nadhaswaram Vidwans; I have not seen many others following this example. In Bangalore, where I live now, no music Sabha has included this instrument in its annual performances. I am disheartened to see the deterioration in the quality of nadhaswaram Vidwans and the lack of support to them. Probably it is a vicious circle.
The newly introduced instrument, Mandolin, in Carnatic music is so beautifully handled by U.Srinivas that you begin to wonder why none thought of this instrument earlier. You later realize that it is not the instrument, it is the artist, who is producing such enjoyable music from this least known instrument. I should not forget here the Saxophone of Kadri Gopalanath. It is a delight to hear him play this instrument. Not many have chosen this instrument for learning Carnatic Music.
To sum up, the standards set by the Vidwans of yester-years in Carnatic Classical Music is being maintained today and we have no reason to be skeptical about it. It is encouraging to see more and more highly educated young people showing interest in learning music and making it their profession. The finest feature is, like the past, the present Vidwans have a style of their own making monotony a rare occurrence.
And, despite violin and other instruments being played solo increasingly, vocal music reigns the day.
The usual statement made by a connoisseur of Carnatic Classical Music is that in the context of creative talents exhibited in Film Music, Classical Music is drawing fewer crowds these days. This is not true. However, one has to accept the fact that the number of people enjoying Classical Music forms a small percentage compared to the listeners of Film Music. This is the trend in the entire world and not peculiar to Carnatic Classical Music.
The next question is how disciplined are we in a concert. Here, the audience reactions to the concerts vary from Sabha to Sabha and from place to place. In an open and free concert, audience discipline is the least, whereas in large Sabhas like Music Academy at Madras and Shanmukhananda Sabha at Mumbai, it is much better. My personal experience is the audiences in the City of Madras (now Chennai) are on the whole more knowledgeable than their brethren in other parts of the country. The question is, are they better listeners?
Unfortunately, some of the Sabhas in India are meeting places for people and in the concerts arranged by them, it is somewhat rare to find audience assembling at performances only for enjoying music. An audience which is tolerant to the musicians, less noisy, and which encourages and supports them is the one liked most by the performers; the level of music rises amongst such audience. After all, the performance levels are dependant on the moods of the musicians as well as the audience. A non-receptive and disinterested audience will never get the best out of any musician.
The late Mahavidwan Shri Maharajapuram Santhanam told me once that, among others, he liked the Bangalore audience because of their discipline and sincerity in appreciation of Vidvath. Many other artists have also openly acknowledged this. Even in the open and free concerts arranged at the Rama Navami celebrations at Bangalore, I have witnessed the crowd showing exemplary discipline and rapt attention. Probably, there are many such Bangalores in the country.
Remuneration to Artists
An oft often voiced complaint in the music circles is that the remuneration made to the artists is very low and does not adequately compensate them for their rich talents and years of learning. Unlike the olden days, we find highly educated (technically qualified) youth taking up music as their profession. This is so despite the poor remuneration paid to the artists. Why is it so? The only explanation to this is that these youngsters are drawn to the music profession on account of their inherent love for this great art. Should we not recognize this and try to make this profession more attractive financially than what it is? It would then attract better talents and more artists than it is today.
It is not the Sabha that is to be blamed for this. It is the patrons of music and connoisseurs like you and I. We are prepared to pay Rs. 30 or 40 per person for a movie, but we will not pay even Rs 10 for a performance for an entire family. The Sabha volunteers and management run up from door to door seeking contribution for festivals. The response is poor. The monthly membership fee of Sabhas is very low in most cases. Any attempt to raise the fee is met with a big hue and cry. The organizers have to naturally restrict their expenses within the small budget. In this process, both the artist and the sound system are affected and we do not get the best out of the artists’ talents. The sound system is pathetic in most public performances.
The question is, are we promoting soul-stirring music and encouraging the artists? Public awareness should be created to make the audience responsive to the financial needs of Sabhas and promoters of music festivals.
When we think of true critics of Carnatic Classical Music, my nostalgic memories take me to the yester-years when, in the pseudo name ‘Karnaatakam’, the great writer Kalki was giving his comments on performances and artists. I don’t know whether we have such good critics after him. Unbiased and expert opinion of a performance is as much necessary for the growth of musicians as an enlightened audience. The critic should neither be destructive in his approach nor prosaic only narrating events and eulogizing artists and arrangements. The artists should be encouraged and not found fault with. Deficiencies should be pointed out with constructive suggestions for improvement in skills.
The true quality of a critic, as portrayed by Kalki, is to pave way for improvement in the level of performances through balanced opinion and positive thoughts on the artists, as well as organizers. How many critics will fulfill this criterion today? Probably few. The “sharp-tongued” attacks on artists, we see today, by some critics will hardly promote this heavenly art.
Do we have enough number of schools to teach Carnatic Music? Was the "Gurukulavasam" prevalent till the first half of twentieth century better to inculcate knowledge and promote talents in a young musician? There are heavy arguments both in favour of and against these two methods of learning music. My thoughts on this and other subjects will follow. I also propose to share with the readers, the songs I enjoyed in the Compact Disks brought out on Carnatic Music.
For those who do not have any idea of the web sites on Carnatic Classical Music, I refer here to one of the well-publicized sites: