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MUSIC MUSINGS

THE RECENTLY CONCLUDED annual festival in Chennai is a felicitous reminder that music continues to be a way of life for hundreds of performing artistes and thousands of ordinary people. There is, of course, a refrain heard from music buffs and critics that runs counter to this overall enthusiasm. The golden era is behind us, they lament, because contemporary musicians are predominantly driven by commercial success, not fidelity to tradition. A certain nostalgia is understandable when epoch-making musicians, above all M. S. Subbulakshmi and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, have recently departed. However, bemoaning the transformation of the kutcheri format or the strong influence of different systems of music in our times cannot be the best tribute to great musicians. After all, the kutcheri form itself is not older than 200 years. Historically, there are any number of examples in Carnatic music of interaction with, and adaptation from, other musical systems (the adoption of the violin in the 19th century being the earliest and most obvious instance). The distinctive style, diversity, range that M.S. introduced to singing was itself novel for its times. If millions cherish this music, it is because of the power and beauty of its imaginative and emotional appeal. Great musicians such as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Semmangudi and M.S., were not afraid to innovate and respond to modern times. A failure to come to terms with change runs counter to the spirit of creativity.

The Chennai festival is the world's largest cultural event, larger than the Woodstock festival in Edinburgh. Curiously enough, an overwhelming majority of the population seems hardly conscious of its proportion and size. A possible explanation is that the social base of Indian classical arts generally, and of Carnatic music in particular, continues to be rather narrow. The number of family connections that run through present-day music testifies to this fact. Clearly, much needs to be done to popularise Carnatic music in schools and in ways appropriate to modern times. The proliferation of compositions in Tamil and their regular appearance on the concert stage are highly congenial factors. The objective should be to stimulate and sustain broader interest while remaining loyal to the core values of the art form. The conduct of performances in multiple, perhaps too many, locations could be one reason for the festival not having the feel of a mass event. Concerns have also been expressed about the declining quality of performances on account of an excessive number of concerts needing to be packed into the peak season. Whatever be the merits of this contention, volume ensures wide exposure that younger artistes need; it is just not practical to expect such exposure year round. Volume also contributes to the unique brand value of the festival, which is now staggered over two months by a growing number of music sabhas seeking to accommodate a large pool of upcoming musicians and ensure continuous patronage by audiences.

There is little doubt that the standard of acoustics at most venues falls short of a minimum assured quality. Improvements in this technical area will go some way in sustaining interest in live performances as a socially worthwhile experience in the age of mass-produced compact discs. Moreover, acoustic quality is a real concern to artistes, since the overall impact of a performance depends on the symmetry between appropriate amplification and feedback on the stage. Debate on some of these wide-ranging issues will shape the future of Carnatic music in the 21st century. At the same time, it is vital for the mega event — the extraordinary Chennai music season — to retain the character of a self-regulating enterprise, something it has managed to do over many decades.

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