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Music : December 03, 2000
The religious connection
T. M. Krishna
The writer is a Carnatic musician based in Chennai.
Religion plays an important part in the life of any Indian. Religious beliefs and faiths are imbibed by us from birth. We live in an atmosphere, which relies on the Supreme, and our whole psyche draws a lot of strength from this connection. Gods and goddesses or faith is needed to justify decisions or give explanations for happenings. This is not a new phenomenon. This approach to life has existed probably for hundreds of years. I am not trying to debunk it or glorify it.
Against this background, it is interesting to analyse the role of religion in Carnatic music. Many questions arise in my mind; has Carnatic music always been religious in content? Is religion required for the understanding or appreciation of Carnatic music? What is bhakthi in music? Can we separate religion from music?
Just like in any respect of Indian history, in Indian music too, it is difficult to look back beyond a certain period because mythology gets woven into the reality. Indian music is said to have originated from the Vedas. From this point, religion has become part and parcel of our music. The content of Carnatic music is probably the only aspect that has remained constant in the last 15 centuries. One of the earliest musical forms, the thevarams which belong to the 7th Century, are religious lyrics, as are the divya prabandams which formed part of temple music. Temples were the earliest patrons of music along with the royalty. Temples were the hub of all cultural activity and artistic expression. Culture itself was rooted in religion. Music was considered one of the best forms of worship. Nadopasana is considered a path to enlightenment and a method to serve the Supreme. The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas all contain references to music.
Carnatic music evolved from sacred music but though it moved through time into the realm of "art music" the content never changed. It is interesting to observe here that western classical music too had its beginnings in church music but it has evolved a completely independent identity. This has not happened to carnatic music.
In the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, the bhakthi movement helped to disseminate Carnatic music to the populace by introducing bhajana sangeetham. This encouraged congregational singing in the temples and thus was an effective community building exercise. Composers of this period like Sadasiva Brahmendra, Bhodendra, Narayana theertha, all composed music in praise of the Divine.
The musical trinity Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyamashastri were all religious people who composed on their ishta devata or on the temples they visited - on the whole, mainly compositions on gods and goddesses.
The only musical forms that were non-religious in nature were the padams and javalis. These compositions were erotic in content and many times non-religious. During the pre-independence days, songs were written based on the freedom movement.
The treatises on Indian music show that a lot of scientific thinking has gone into the analysis of carnatic music. At the same time, some texts contain references to gods and goddess as great musicians along with the men of music. Many ragas are named after gods and it is believed that each god has a favourite raga. This is a unique feature because it shows the existence of both scientific and religious thought on the same platform. Is not science opposed to religion? But, in Carnatic music they have coexisted and grown together.
Even with the advent of Kutcheri music in the late 1800s, the lyrical content remained the same.
Why? Is it because Carnatic music is gospel? Is it because religion is the best way to attract more people into the fold? Or is it because religion gives music a halo and respect to the art?
May be Carnatic music has to have a religious link to survive? It is sacred. Vijay Siva (carnatic musician) feels "today music and religion are inseparable. The link is very vital as it is the religious background that makes it exist in spite of competition from the media".
Religion definitely does add a halo to our music and has helped in increasing its reach. Religious festivals and functions have always included concerts on their agenda. But does the religious background have a negative connotation? First of all, we have to accept that religion is a block to get people of other communities into the art. May be, but as in any field in India, we automatically sanctify and ritualise everything which makes the whole context different. This can be avoided.
The religious connection also affects the perspective of the people in the field. At times the priority tilts towards the religious rather than the music itself. The problem with this is that we forget that Carnatic music by itself can be a very deep and moving experience. There are concerts that have moved me to tears not because I understood the lyrics or because I pictured the gods or goddesses but because of the power of the music.
Religion also influences our view of the artiste or the composer. Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshithar or Shyama Shastri were musical geniuses and their compositions are masterpieces because they were extraordinary musicians. Their understanding of the musical idiom was par excellence. Their religious choices were personal which brought forth the lyrical outpourings. We sometimes tend to give the credit for their compositions to the Divine rather than to the individual. Only a change in this view can increase our understanding and respect for them.
This leads us to another closely connected area - bhakti. There are occasions when a rasika approaches a musician after a concert and tells him that the rendition of a song brought to his mind the Lord himself. Here we see bhakthi towards the Divine in the package of music. Now the question - was the artist deeply devoted to the god while singing? Yes, it is possible. But there is another possibility. The devotion could have been only towards the raga, the music and the art. The complete involvement and dedication to the music - devotion - bhakthi itself can be a spiritual experience. Bhakthi exists in our music irrespective of content. If not, a non-believer will never make a deep impact on the listener. It would be equal to saying that your religious choices make your music.
Music itself is a religion to some. "If religion is a system of faith and worship, that is what music is to me. It is possibly something that I have all my faith on, something that I do and think about most of the time," says Bombay Jaishree Ramnath, Carnatic musician. For a sculptor, it does not matter whether he is sculpting a bird, human or Siva. To him the experience of the medium of his expression, "sculpting", is the divine. This is something we seem to forget with regard to Carnatic music.
It is more important that we understand Carnatic music as an art form, if it has to spread and flourish in the new millennium. Respect and reverence has to be given to the art for its depth, intensity and grandeur, as art music. Its lyrical content is a personal choice made by the composers and does not define the music.
The raga, tala, thanam and the aesthetics of the krithis constitute Carnatic music. The spirituality that we derive from the music is by itself a journey of bliss. Carnatic music is definitely an art that gives us emotional and intellectual satisfaction.
The growth and development of Carnatic music through the centuries is a testimony to the greatness of the Indian mind. The way the music has changed, adapted but at the same time retained its core, is a wonderful feature. From the days of the thevaram to today, Carnatic music has had a glorious growth and will continue to do so. It needs to be taken to the international arena parallel with any other classical form. This can be achieved if we understand it in the right perspective and don't lose it to religion. This is not a call to discard religion from music but a call to understand carnatic music independently.
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