Carnatic music’s recent discordant note!

In the ultra-fast moving news cycle these days, the rage over few Carnatic musicians singing songs on the Christ, is already behind us. Have not seen any vitriolic or otherwise WhatsApp forwards or posts on Facebook on this, in the past few days. Except for an update that, a group of volunteers from Washington DC have managed to organise a concert of T.M.Krishna at the same date and time as his earlier cancelled concert at Maryland temple. The organisers at the temple unilaterally cancelled his concert after Krishna tweeted out that he will from now on release a new Carnatic song on Allah, Christ,… every month!

To back up a bit, the trigger for Krishna’s announcement was the uproar among Carnatic music rasikas and right-wing apologists on social media over a proposed concert of O.S.Arun (titled ‘Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetam’ on the 25th of August in Chennai and its aftermath.  Arun quickly announced that he was backing out of the programme. The controversy didn’t end there. Other Carnatic musicians like Nithyashree and Aruna Sairam were also dragged into the muddle, citing some past instances of them singing Christ songs. They had to issue disclaimers, which they did.

One person who went against the grain was T.M.Krishna. As we all know, Krishna has been the rebel with a cause in the classical music scene these days. I don’t agree with him completely on some of the issues he has raised over Carnatic music but we will keep that for another Sunday afternoon blog! On this issue though, I tend to agree with him. He went on to say that there is nothing wrong in Carnatic musicians singing on non-Hindu Gods.

The furore over these Carnatic musicians were around few points and the goal post kept changing as the debate ensued.

First, it was about how can Carnatic music be used to sing songs on other religions? Is it not blasphemy? I understand completely where this argument is coming from. Carnatic music has its strong moorings on the Bhakti rasa. Invariably the compositions of the Great Trinity of Carnatic music – Thiagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri are all on Hindu Gods. For that matter even the other composers outside the Trinity like Swati Tirunal, Bhadrachala Ramdas, Annamacharya, Papanasam Sivan and so on basically sang on Hindu Gods. This doesn’t mean that Bhakti rasa of Carnatic music cannot be used to invoke Gods of other religions and cultures.  If we accept that Carnatic is a form of classical music and music is universal, we must be open to it being adopted by other cultures.

While we are quick to denounce Carnatic musicians adopting other cultures, our hearts swell with pride when others adopt our culture. While on this, the oft repeated example is of K.J.Yesudas a born Christian who learnt Carnatic music under Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and till today revered as a top notch Carnatic vocal singer. As I know, his rendition of the famous Harivarasanam song is used every day in many Ayyappa temples in India and may be outside when the temple nada (door) is closed in the night after the day’s proceedings. And I have lost count of the times, I have been forwarded the clip of him singing the song live at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala as a matter of extolling the virtues of our tolerance and secular credentials.

And who can forget John Higgins, originally a famous Jazz musician who learnt Carnatic music out of his passion and love for the art. There is a story of him being denied entry into the Udupi Krishna temple because he was not a practicing Hindu.  The authorities relented after he sang the popular Kriti ‘Krishna Nee Begane….’ sitting outside the temple! Until fate snatched his life too soon, Higgins Bhagavathar, as he came to be known, was a celebrated Carnatic musician in India.

Similarly, when we forward the clip of the Malay-Chinese singer, Chong Chiu Sen singing ‘Ninnu Ko ri…, with the associated diction, body language of a veteran Carnatic singer at Puttabarti, we do that with a sense of pride and happiness that our culture is being adopted by others. So if the reverse happens, why the insecurity?

When these were logically pointed out, the argument then shifted from blasphemy to plagiarism. That these singers of the like of Arun, Nithyashree,.. were plagiarising songs of the great Thiagaraja by replacing the word Rama with Jesus/Yesu and so on. As much as I heard those songs, I didn’t find this. The songs were indeed based on ragas of popular Thiagaraja Kritis on Lord Rama but I didn’t see the virtues of Lord Rama being mapped to the Christ. While I accept that swapping words of Hindu Gods with others is a matter of gross impropriety, lifting tunes (ragas) isn’t such a big crime. In matter of composing music, imitation is the best form of flattery!

Then after, the discussions took more ominous turn. That of Christian organisations using Carnatic music and thereby musicians for their long-standing agenda of “conversion” in India. The whole issue of conversion is a complex topic with social, economic and cultural overtones. So, without getting into justification of the same, my limited point would be – To popularise Christianity and promote the religion, will not a more popular and mass music/art form be more effective than Carnatic which, as we know today has a limited following and reach? So, I find this conspiracy theory a bit far-fetched. Here again, I would like to point out that for a country which has withstood the onslaught of different cultures fairly successfully, the kind of insecurity is bereft of wisdom.

I am an ardent follower of Carnatic music and the subject matter of the composition doesn’t come in my way of enjoying the same. As we know there are many compositions in Carnatic music overflowing with Sringara rasa, patriotism and so on and we do enjoy all of them. In any concert, compositions of Subramania Bharatiyar which are not necessarily on Hindu Gods are a big hit!

The unfortunate part is, fearing a major backlash, except for T.M.Krishna who held his ground, all other musicians apologised on social media. It was tragic to hear a viral audio clip of a telecon between O.S. Arun and a Right wing activist who threatened of dire consequences if Arun didn’t mend his ways. Arun, who in that call initially tried to justify his position, later cowed down!

In this context, it is heartening to see that there are more mature and level-headed supporters of Carnatic music who managed to organise an alternate concert of T.M.Krishna when his original programme was cancelled.

Music has no boundaries. Carnatic included. Listening to his piece by T.M.Krishna on Allah which he sang in Mumbai in raga Behag is a case in point.

As a closing, I would only like to invoke the words of the great Thiagaraja in his fine composition – Pibare Ramarasam, Rasane,.. the translation of which goes like this:
“Drink the essence of the name of Rama, o tongue!
It will help you remove or be distant from association with sin or be distant from those who cause you to sin and you will be fulfilled with many kinds and types of rewards/gains”

If only those who took offence, follow this in letter and spirit and cut the bile.

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“Notes” from the “Season”!!!

For long as I remember Chennai or for the romantics – Madras had 2 seasons – Summer (for almost 340 days) and the “Music Season” for a month straddling December and January.  But since the 90’s, “Season” has come to mean the Music Season and is quietly giving Chennai its place under the Sun due to its uniqueness and unparalleled virtues in the entire globe.  The last time I was in Madras during the Season was I think in the late 80’s before the evolution happened. So when I got an opportunity this time over to be in Madras last week, though just for a couple of days, I was excited and was keen to record for myself the notes emanating from the streets, sabhas, well practically from all over!

I don’t think there is any other geography in the world where there is such a confluence of artists and their music as in Madras during the Season. Such is the carpet bombing of concerts of artists of varying hue that one is spoilt for choice.  Since I was there only for 2 days I didn’t face that problem and had to pick up from what was available on the calendar. Which is made simple these days with the many “Season apps” on your smart phones where you can search by date, time and the artist. So there I was on the 1st day of the New Year at the Music Academy at 9.00 am for the 1st programme of 2015 (surprisingly Free Entry) – A Flute recital by Shashank another child prodigy of our times.

Academy

While I leave it to the musically erudite to write about the nuances of the Gambira Vani ragam and Evari Mata Kriti,..,… he played that day, let me stick to the interesting things happening around the Season itself.

The Season is unique in many ways. One shouldn’t be surprised if

  • you get to see a packed house at 9.00 am on the New Year day that too for a typical old world Classical music programme!!!
  • in what has become a sponsor driven entertainment industry, you see a clean stage as I saw that day at the Academy without any ugly sponsor branding elements
  • outside the concert hall, you see somebody talking loudly (no surprises here 😉 ) on the mobile phone about the gradations in the rendition of O Ranga Sayi in Kamboji raga by so and so artist which he just heard
  • you see an elderly wishing well – (Nanna Varuve) to a young lad may be all of 10 who would have just finished his concert ofcourse in the morning slot
  • you catch many young things taking notes assiduously while the concert is going on and discussing among themselves in what beat the song was played or such technical stuff in between the programme yes mostly in Yankee accent 😄
  • the mama sitting ahead of you rudely turns around and scoffs at you, “We have come to hear his music and not yours” 😒.  This is when you slightly got carried away by the performance and started humming along in your lesser mortal voice!
  • you see elderly men during the concerts displaying emotions as if they achieved multiple orgasms 😃 😃
  • mobile phones don’t ring at all during a 2 hour concert or you don’t get to see people talking on the phone during the programme like we are used to in movie halls!!!
  • the person sitting next to you appears to be in deep slumber but wakes up at the right times to clap his hands to express his appreciation 😃
  • you repeatedly hear words like Baley Baley and Besh BeshTamil words which have otherwise disappeared from everyday lingo
  • you heard that folks attend concerts not just for the taste of music but also for that of the food served at the Sabha canteens. So don’t be surprised also if you see ads in newspapers prominently displaying the name of the caterers alongside the day’s programme during the Season. Caterers like Pattappa (Padmanabhan at the Academy) and “Mountbatten Mani” (what a name 🙂 ) have become brands in their own right.
  • you observe the sabha canteen food getting discussed and also reviewed in the magazines doing the Season beat. “The Canteen Kaapi was better than the Kaapi (ragam) rendered by the singer” was a popular line of late music critic and sharp wit Suppudu. Today don’t be amused if you hear – “innikku kacherila rasamey illa” (No rasam in today’s concert). It could very well be about the canteen menu rather than the concert 😃 😃
  • you mistook a concert hall to be a godown of silk saree clad mannequins 😃. For, in these days of Televised concerts (Marghazhi Maha Utsavam in Jaya TV, Chennaiyil Thiruvaiyaru in Vijay TV,…) mainly sponsored by Silk Saree vendors is it a crime if you want to look good on camera and where the programme is beamed across continents???
  • the media completely misses the mass “Gharwapsi” which happens every year in Chennai during the Season!  I’m talking of the visiting NRIs, PIOs, Pravasis and what have you who religiously come back to their roots in Chennai to revel in the Season’s proceedings. In the process also fill up all the hotels, service apartments,.. in and around the music catchment area!
  • you happen to catch bureaucrats, police officers,.. who are otherwise stiff necked wearing a relaxed look in Veshtis occupying front rows in sabhas and catching up with the latest in music!
  • the hardcore Carnatic music notes which hitherto heard only within the hallowed walls of sabhas like the Music Academy, Narada Gana Sabha,.. are now heard even in slums that too during the Season. Yes, in an attempt to take the Carnatic music outside the ring of a certain elite – few musicians like T.M.Krishna, Unnikrishnan,.. have for the 1st time come together to stage concerts in and around areas where fisherfolk live. Read more about this novel effort – Urur-Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Festival here.

Carnatic music has not transcended class barriers” has been a refrain of many including musicians like T.M.Krishna. I don’t think this was result of some grand Design or for that matter by Default. It could be due to plain exposure or lack of it. In that sense the global awareness of the Season thanks to the NRIs on the one side and taking the “Season to seashore” as in Urur-Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Festival on the other side could help in transcending all barriers I feel or so one hopes. In fact this was the dream of one of India’s finest filmmakers K.Balachander (KB) who in one of his many hit films – Sindhu Bhairavi weaved this thought of taking Carnatic music to the masses. KB who passed away few weeks ago must be a happy man to see his dream taking actual shape.

On that note,”Season’s Greetings” and until the next Season, have an awesome year 🎵🎵

111204-Sunday Mag-Chennai Music season Toon Credit:Keshav