Carnatic Music’s “Ageing” Conundrum!

The ‘Season’ has almost drawn to a close in Chennai. Of course, the ‘Season’ here implies the Carnatic music season, also called the December music season or the Margazhi festival. When the Season comes to an end in Chennai, offshoots of the same prop up in other cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, etc… In fact, as I write this, Margazhi Mahotsavam – a mini-Carnatic event is going on in Mumbai, where I live presently.

The last time I attended the Season in Chennai was in 2019. The 2020 Season got marred by Covid.  The Season made a comeback in 2021 and one could almost enjoy the season “online” except for the canteen. So, this year’s festival (2022) is a return to the Season we all know in its full pomp and glory – Full-fledged Kutcheries in sabhas and auditoriums where we can see the artists in flesh, listen to the music in real and of course savour the delicacies in the canteens in person.

I don’t know how the Season went off in Chennai this year. From whatever little I gathered from the media, it seems that the response from the rasikas was quite overwhelming and the Season has been a roaring success.  Yet, I feel that Carnatic music is in the throes of an “Ageing” conundrum which is what I want to talk about in this post.

Are today’s youth attending Carnatic music concerts? I don’t have a conclusive view on this yet but, my question arises from the signals I get while attending concerts. In Mumbai, in the last few years whenever I have attended Carnatic concerts, the audience comprises freshly minted senior citizens mainly, some super senior citizens, a relatively smaller bunch of those in their 50’s, and then kids in their teens who are probably still learning Carnatic music (before the 10th/12th bugs hit them). One can hardly find people on the right side of youth (the 20s/30s) or the wrong side of youth (the 40s).  Even if they are, they will be few and far in between. But you can find these groups in cinema halls, in live music shows and stand-up comedy gigs.

Now, I am not sure if the scene is any different in other cities. When I used to attend the Season in Chennai, the situation was quite similar. Having said that, it is not my case that Carnatic music has no appeal among today’s youth and hence it has no future. In fact, it is the contrary mainly for two reasons.

One, in the last two decades, there has been a huge influx of exciting talent in Carnatic music which is a very encouraging sign. This has completely demolished the arguments of the 80s that Carnatic music faced an existential crisis. Today, Sanjay Subrahmanyan who is only in his mid-50s is looked upon like a veteran a la Dhoni in CSK. That Sanjay keeps evolving himself to be in tune with the rasikas of today and tomorrow with his engagement style is another matter. The Sabha schedule is packed with concerts by those who are in their prime youth. So, it is not that the youth are not taking to Carnatic music.

Two, as I mentioned before, the younger generation of today is taking up learning Carnatic music in a more enthusiastic way than it was in my generation. So, it is not “uncool” anymore to learn Carnatic music. Particularly the NRIs have been trailblazers in this regard with a lot of fresh talent in Carnatic music coming up from among the NRI youth.

It’s clear, therefore, that while Carnatic music is not an anathema for the youth, I find them reluctant to spend time attending typical Carnatic concerts. Therefore, the questions are – what are the reasons for this phenomenon and what can be done to correct the situation?

One of the main reasons I have heard is that Carnatic as a style is too slow and so not so cool to follow. And it is also difficult to appreciate the nuances of the music unless one has some basic knowledge. I agree that there is a need to de-mystify Carnatic music among the masses. Here I find attempts of some of the mainstream Carnatic musicians like Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Sikkil Gurucharan, and Vijay Siva to constantly explain the influences of Carnatic music on film songs in a simple, lucid manner through their YouTube channel, very laudable. This creates interest even among those who don’t know Carnatic music. The availability of social media platforms has also helped them to reach their content widely. Another person who has been putting conscious efforts to de-mystify Carnatic music is Subhasree Thanikachalam. She and her team have been doing these themed concerts where they present a typical Carnatic Kutcheri format but with popular film songs with simple explanations.

Then there is the “Agam Model”Agam is a rock band that came into the scene ten years ago and soon earned the epithet of “Carnatic Progressive Rock”. Today, I find that this band is extremely popular among the youth. In their concerts, Carnatic is nicely blended with metal to give a very high energy and frenzied experience which the youth of today seem to lap up. On stage Agam’s lead singer, Harish Sivaramakrishnan is like the pied piper of yore making the audience sing along to his tunes which are even Carnatic based. I was surprised to see youngsters finishing the lines of popular kritis like Ranga Pura Vihara ( A Muthuswamy Dikshitar Kriti immortalised in our souls by M.S.Subbulakshmi) and Manavyalakinchara (A Tyagaraja Kriti in the mellifluous raga – Nalina Kanti) (Check out the clip here) which are of course the band’s most sought-after numbers. Their rendition of these kritis has garnered huge hits on YouTube as well. I am told that Agam has a cult following among senior citizens as well. So, is creating a Carnatic-based genre where Carnatic vocal is fused with Western music riffs on guitar and western percussion an answer to the conundrum?

I am certain that there is no one answer.  With the advent of technology and with Senior citizens increasingly relishing watching concerts online from the comfort of their homes, soon Carnatic music may be facing the same “Theatres VS OTT” conundrum as the film industry. It is therefore high time that the practitioners of the Carnatic genre gave some thought and find ways and means to get the youth to the Kutcheri halls and solve this “ageing” problem.  In Tamil, one is called a Karnatakam type, if he is old-fashioned. Carnatic music should not slip into that definition if it is not already.

Cartoon courtesy – Keshav from The HIndu

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6 thoughts on “Carnatic Music’s “Ageing” Conundrum!

  1. emkay007 says:

    If carnatic music changes only with the aim of getting more youngsters (?) To concert halls, it will fail. Kacheri has gone a different route already, online, streaming, etc. Fusion (of carnatic & other music) can try, by holding outdoor concerts. But there is no guarantee of consistent interest/success. It takes years to become a good carnatic artist. Equally, it takes years of listening to appreciate that music. It cannot happen in a short time, with tweaking the format.

    Liked by 1 person

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