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Music : December 03, 2000
Brave new world
A writer on culture based in Chennai.
"All's well with the world of Carnatic music" is the happy refrain heard today among music aficionados, a sentiment which has been echoed, albeit grudgingly, even among old-timers for whom the golden age is forever in the past. A rather unexpected turn of the tide after the doldrums in the late 1970s and the 1980s when all live entertainment was dealt a blow by the advent of the television.
Veterans like Ariyakudi, Musiri, Maharajapuram, G.N.B. and Madurai Mani were no more. And the next line of musicians, though merit worthy, were languishing for lack of patronage. Concert halls drew sparse crowds. Things reached such a pass that one evening a reputed sabha in Chennai suffered the embarrassment of cancelling the day's concert for only three people turned up as audience. During the December festival the situation improved a bit, but still, the audience consisted mainly of the middle-aged and the old. The fear that Carnatic music would become an icon of the past assumed the tone of a dirge heard over and over again from art-lovers. There was also great concern about the lack of interest for the art form among the youth.
The change came about from within and in the most unexpected manner. August 5, 1985 saw the birth of a new group called Youth Association for Classical Music, YACM for short, which was to turn the tide within a decade. Vijay Siva and a band of youngsters got together to provide music of the youth, for the youth and by the youth. For the first time in the art's history they canvassed for corporate sponsorships and encouraged the notion that music is fun, through a gala festival. There were quiz programmes, Antakshari, treasure hunt and what have you. It was a music carnival which drew all age groups. Anand Siva, one of the founder members, belongs to the ad-world and brought in his expertise in planning and presentation. There were concerts in the evening and several young talents were spotted. The movement grew from strength to strength through the next decade until the youngsters surged to the front ranks proving that they were indeed a force to reckon with.
Several of them are star performers today and draw capacity crowds. Awards and honours have poured in. Sabhas vie one another in featuring them. Their cassettes and CDs fill rack upon rack in music shops where their colour blow ups adorn the walls. Many of them have annual performances abroad. Unlike many of their seniors who never drove a vehicle, the yuppies of Carnatic music arrive at their concerts driving the latest models of cars.
No wonder then that many of them admit that music has become an economically viable profession. There was a time when even senior musicians advised newcomers to arm themselves with a degree to earn their living. For instance take Sanjay Subramaniam who says, "I took up chartered accountancy because my intention was that I should not have music as my sole profession." Vijay Siva had advised him against it. "I was keen that people like Sanjay should take up music as a profession. Otherwise it will send wrong signals."
Sanjay has since given up pursuing a career in accountancy and has plunged full time into music. "I have earned more money from music than from chartered accountancy," he says. This is particularly noteworthy when you consider that he never accepts wedding concerts, which are the real money spinners. You realise that music has been transformed into a profession from being a pastime. So it comes as no surprise when T. M. Krishna who is younger by a few years declares that he never thought of any profession other than music.
The sisters Ranjani and Gayatri who started their careers as violin accompanists, became soloist and vocalists in progressive stages. They are not sure if middle class hide-bound notions can change overnight. "Though my father is closely associated with music, had I been a boy he would not have allowed me to go full form into music. May be the fact that I was a girl..." she trails off wondering and admits "Till two years back I never thought of music as a profession."
Money is only one of the issues. What do some of the younger musicians think about the social status of a musician?
"It is something between a priest and a film star," quips Vijay. The general feeling is that musicians are respected the way they conduct themselves. Today's young musicians are armed with the poise and self-assurance stemming from the secure knowledge that they command the respect of society. And they have certainly succeeded in storming the citadels of Carnatic music where youth was traditionally relegated to the afternoons as upcoming talents and never thought of as candidates for the prime slots.
Sanjay remembers the time when lack of opportunities for the younger generation was a critical handicap. "Basically musicians had to be 40 years of age to enter the stage. That was the criteria and the unwritten code. That was broken by YACM as an institution, we said if you don't give us opportunities we will create opportunities."
In retrospect, it proved to be not a brash challenge but rather a well-thought out game plan. The youngsters went about systematically, first acquiring the knowledge and skill in both theory and practice, which they could employ in propagating music in every possible manner. Then they arranged a series of concerts to showcase young talents. There were the "lec-cons", the lecture-concerts which were presented to a wide cross section of society to build a wider audience. One of the interesting events was the all-night concerts at temples during Sivaratri.
No stone was left unturned. It was hard work, perseverance and unity that won their cause. Above all was the kind of musical values they adhered to and consciously pursued that swayed hearts and minds. There was a determined effort in going back to tradition and eschewing of any kind of compromise or dilution of the art form. "You give the rasikas what you can. What you like you share. As long as you give it with assurance and confidence it will be accepted," says Gayatri. Krishna agrees with her "You build the taste of the audience... I think it is a big lie to say that you have to cater to their taste."
Sanjay finds the audience today more open minded than, say, two decades ago. "Fifteen years back it used to be conservative. This alone is music. It has to be like this and this was the attitude. It is not so anymore. Any kind of music which conforms to some basic tenets is encouraged and appreciated." According to him none of the new generation adheres strictly to any bani. "We consciously follow many banis," says he. It is true that some of them have had their learning from more than one guru, imbibing the best of several greats. Those who belong to an established school or bani are, however found to be true followers of the parampara.
Amid today's talent blitz, where every season throws up a prodigy or two, preserving and projecting one's identity and individuality is of the utmost importance. The younger generation is keenly aware of the need for innovation and the dynamic changes brought out over a period of time. "The colour of Todi has changed in 50 years. People are attempting things not done earlier or were confined to lec-dems 40 years back," reminds Sanjay. Sure, the new generation thinks nothing of singing an expansive alapana of Jyothiswarupini or Narayanagowlai, or launching into a pallavi striking different talams with the left and the right hand. Unearthing rare old songs and rare ragams is a favourite preoccupation. They learn varnams by the score and stock up old pallavis in complex talams.
Their concerts are like the bridal gown, something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue (if we may take the colour to symbolise the romantic touch). Indeed these are the Romantics of classical music, reinventing and revalidating the old, while bringing a freshness of thought, approach, content and presentation in whatever they create. Stardom is but a natural corollary to this new approach. But when asked, most are unable to pinpoint any one aspect which elevates a performer to star status. According to Vijay it is communication. A good voice may be a factor but is not the only factor. "Manodharma" or imagination is not seen as a key factor. Sanjay points out that a good number among the audience prefer the post pallavi session of Tukkadas which offers little scope for imagination. Tongue firmly in cheek, Sanjay would put it all to luck and a good horoscope. But all of them are agreed on the point that proper planning of a concert makes a lot of difference in audience appeal.
Some of them admit that the media can play a significant role in the making of stars. The group is sharply divided on this. While some contend that media can sustain a mediocre artist in the limelight for at least 40 years, their counterparts argue that while the media might help initially to bring the audience, the status of the artist is determined by his calibre. "A good review can make a good concert appear as a great one, that is all," says Vijay. In fact, there are instances where artists have survived and forged ahead to take their place in the front ranks in spite of repeated adverse reviews by critics with a bias for or against a particular school or style.
The final arbiter of a musician's career is the audience, that faceless amalgam with music pandits and the general entertainment seeking lay populace marking the two extremes. The audience is the ultimate safeguard against dynastic rule in the world of music.
Instances are legion where an offspring of a star musician failed to make the grade in spite of the initial fanfare and faded out of the scene eventually. The same goes for Parampara of a reputed guru. Coming from a reputed stock can give only an initial advantage to a performer.
"For one year all the sabhas will offer opportunities to perform," says Krishna, "thereafter you stand on your own merit." It is indeed heartwarming to find a democratic spirit thriving in the world of art, where all kinds of wire-pullings go on all the time, as in every other field.
Laughs Veenai R. Jayanthi hailing from the legendary Lalgudi family, "We have only the veenai strings to pull and that we shall do to the best of our ability." She adds further, "Carrying a banner of a reputed family or school is a handicap in a way because the expectations are very high. You have to do better than the best from your fold to be noticed and appreciated. At home also there is a constant watch and critical evaluation from your elders, which adds to the pressure and motivates you to strive towards excellence."
In what is termed as a "boom time for Carnatic music" what are the problems for the youth which are as yet unresolved? It is certainly not a rosy picture all over. There are the second line of musicians who are struggling to come up. The sabhas go after crowd pullers on their priority list. And they also yield to pull and pressure in selection of artists. Candidates with nothing but merit in their arsenal, sometimes fare poorly in the race. Obtaining performance opportunities is an arduous task. The youngsters lament that but for one or two exceptions most sabhas have neither a clearly defined criterion nor a well informed selection panel to select from diverse applicants. Even when there is a panel, it often consists of a number of persons unconnected with the music fraternity. "Basically we feel there should be a criterion for giving an opportunity or an award" is the general comment from the youth. This is followed by the suggestion that sabhas should have a panel consisting of musicians to select and grade the artists, similar to the pattern adopted by All India Radio which has gained universal acceptance. The young are cautious against admitting even a connoisseur on the selection committee because that would provide a loophole for all and sundry to wrangle their way into the panel.
Another common grouse relates to the poor remuneration given by the sabhas. "Their attitude seems to be increasing the corpus fund" rather than giving a good remuneration to the artists. This is a sore point with younger as well as senior artists. There are sabhas whose expense on printing of souvenirs exceeds the total remuneration paid to all the artists participating in a fifteen day festival. The worst hit are the accompanists in this respect. Not only are they paid a pittance by the sabhas, but their own peers fail to treat them on the level.
J. Vaidyanathan, the mridangam vidwan does not mince words when he declares, "Among the vocalist and other main artists there are but a handful who deal honestly with their accompanists." The figures which he cites are appalling. In wedding concerts where the main artist is paid a five figure remuneration, ranging from Rs. 25,000 to Rs. 50,000, the accompanist is given no more than Rs. 750 by the main musician. The violinist as well as the mridangam artist are meted out the same treatment. Upapakkavadyams like ghatam and kanjira fare much worse. He says that even among youngsters and his own age group such behaviour is not uncommon. "From Sangita Kalanidhis to Yuva Kala Bharatis, the attitude is the same."
Ranjani and Gayatri who have given up their career as accompanists for over a year now, echo his sentiments. "If you dare ask for more, the main artist takes offence." And there goes the accompanist's career once the word is spread that he like Oliver Twist, "asks for more."
"Now the main artists are ruling the roost and the crowd flocks to the concerts for their sake." Hence they are in a commanding situation and it does not matter to them who accompanies. "It is enough if someone sits just holding a violin," rues Ranjani. The sisters voice another concern about the tacit discrimination against female accompanists. "Given male and female artists both playing exceedingly well, you will find that in course of time the male artist will soar to great heights while the female will languish way below."
Anuradha Suresh agrees that it is necessary to build a good team. "I don't believe it is a one man show. It is team work. You should have a good team." She also stresses the need to pay the accompanists well and enlist their loyalty and commitment. Perhaps this factor explains the reason why the present scene does not throw up extraordinary talent or even showcase the existing ones among the accompanists. The sense of frustration seems to run from the top to the bottom. The accompanists are given short shrift by the reviews as well. In this the violin comes off better than the mridangam. The latter often receives a single line mention in a two or four column copy. Vaidyanathan says, "Even the other day there was this critic sitting in the front row. He got up and walked away just as the Thani Avarthanam (Mridangam solo) began." For an artist who has given his entire life to the pursuit of his art nothing could be a more galling ignominy.
There are minor complaints against the indifference of the sabhas to the need for a good mike system and competent personnel to handle it. For the musician it strikes at the root of his communication. Jayanthi would like the whole presentation including the ambience, the mike system and the whole aesthetics of the concert to be given due attention as these aspects also contribute to the concert pleasure.
As a veena artist, Jayanthi calls our attention to the fact that the supremacy of the vocalist is a phenomenon peculiar to Madras. "All over India and the world, instrumental music has a wider appeal even among the uninitiated as against verbal form of music." Here in Chennai the sabhas hesitate to offer the prime slots to instruments. One still remembers the crusade launched by S. Balachander to secure due recognition for the veena.
On the other hand the proliferation of interest in Carnatic music has transformed the art form into a truly international phenomenon and most of the musicians today are globe-trotters. Nevertheless the youngsters would like to see a lot more done to improve the visibility of Carnatic music. Krishna is firmly of the opinion that "the status of Carnatic music has to go up. Even at the national level it is singularly lacking. Carnatic musicians are treated as second grade. That HAS to change." He points out that "Ravishanker did it for Hindustani music almost single-handed. He created an international status for music all over Europe, all over the world. Carnatic music has never done it for itself. A conscious effort has to be made by people involved in our field. Our presence has to be felt in every field, over all. It has to be done and I think we are capable of doing it."
This confident assertion is neither an empty boast nor a bid to overreach. The group's forays into various fields include the use of the latest technology to advance the cause of the music they hold so dear. Sanjay Subramaniam has launched a web page which gets nearly 45,000 clicks a week. "It is a forum to exchange ideas" on music. Sowmya and Sasikiran have launched another web page. They have also brought out a CD ROM as a teaching aid for Carnatic music.
The silver screen has been invaded by musicians like Unnikrishnan and Nithyasree who seem to adapt effortlessly and excel in both types of music. Unnikrishnan had some reservations in the beginning about the kind of music and lyrics he would opt to sing in films. But a busy career has led him to the conclusion that it does not really matter whatever you sing as long as the music is pleasing and you sing it well.
Anuradha Suresh Krishnamurthy enjoys her role as the anchor-person in a Carnatic music show in a private TV channel. New vistas are opening up all the time and Carnatic music is poised for a Renaissance with new worlds to be discovered. Taking stock a decade later scholars may attribute the phenomenon to the newfound Unity, Equality and Fraternity among the musician community. And in this, the young are leading the way.
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