Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC & DANCE : December 05, 1999
The Gap generation
Once I tried to get Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the 92-year-old doyen of Carnatic music, to talk about the differences between the music of his peers and successors. After praising today's artists he did muse aloud, "When I was young, the Carnatic musician had a dress code. He wore panchakacham, angavastram, his forehead and chest were streaked with namam or vibhuti, his hair was knotted in a tuft. In appearance, speech and manner, he embodied old fashioned virtues. Today's youngsters . . . Well, you know what they look like!"
"But tuft and kacham would be fancy dress today," I objected. Semmangudi was not convinced. He informed me doggedly that, if I wore the nine yards saree and used henna instead of nail polish, I would command more respect as an authentic Indian woman!
Was Semmangudi getting at something less superficial than apparel? Did the changes in sartorial and hair styles indicate changes in the ethos, and therefore in the approach, presentation and values of the art he had practised for over seven decades?
While it is impossible to turn the clock back, it may be interesting to look into the what, why and how of some of these changes, in the arterial vocal tradition of Carnatic music.
Among Semmangudi's role models and peers were Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, the Alathur Brothers, Chitoor Subramania Pillai, G. N. Balasubramaniam, T. Brinda, M. S. Subbulakshmi, D. K. Pattammal, et al. Each had an absolutely unmistakeable style, with a personal stamp on what had been imbibed from the guru.
Classicism was ascendant, even through the swara storms and brika flashes that characterised a Chitoor or a GNB. For example, both Semmangudi and Alathur revelled in swara singing. But how dissimilar their techniques! How utterly distinct was the slow speed in Musiri and Brinda, and to what different purposes was it put! A younger M. D. Ramanathan could develop this tempo into a search for the sublime in the most original - if mannered - style we have heard in our times. Despite the presence of all time greats like Veena Sambasiva Iyer and Flute Mali, vocal music reigned supreme.
With the next generation, the popular vote was for instrumental music, especially as honed by the violin trio of T. N. Krishnan, Lalgudi Jayaraman and M. S. Gopalakrishnan, whose sweetness could and did veer into sentimentality, especially in their blind followers. The catchiness of a Chittibabu or Balachander cast its own spell. Instrumental solos and ensembles found ready applause. Vocalists of stature found that unless they lightened the load, the audiences deserted them for the sparkle of vadya music. A peculiar trend developed around this time. Instead of the instrument following the vocal lead, vocalists began to imitate instrumental techniques - not only in swara singing, but in alapana as well.
While Carnatic music always had its Chitoors and Alathurs who revelled in rhythm mazes, the nouveau vidwan did not want laya complexity as much as fireworks. The razzle dazzle of swara exchanges with the violinist was cast in the tani avartanam mould. The jazzed up volume and velocity of sound, stripped of the melodic quotient, stunned the audience into echoing the thunder in applause. Music became circus, with performers on and off the stage.
Instrumental music throve on the new ragas of limited malleability which became a craze at this time. Bindumalini, Karnaranjini, Revati, Rasikapriya . . . The trinity's compositions in rare ragas were dredged out and polished, while new compositions in Nasikabhushani and Niroshtha were avidly promoted. Hindustani music provided novel methods of phrasing and glissandos, and some of the southern vidwans trained and performed in that genre as well. Nothing could be done with Todi or Mukhari, but Kalyani and Mohanam were treated like their north Indian counterparts Yaman (with jarus and phrases without the panchama), and Bhoop (allowing the nishada to peep in). Suddha swaras (straight notes) reigned in the alapana.
A D. K. Jayaraman and a K. V. Narayanaswami survived with classicism intact, on the strength of their bhava music, with their sound pathantara as a major draw. M. Balamuralikrishna crafted special effects in voice modulation, in which the heavy classical went for a sixer. Maharajapuram Santhanam converted effulgent oil paintings into pallid water colours. Heavy stuff found few buyers. Some vocalists went off track midway in their career, and got lost in blind alleys. Those who refused to change, found themselves in empty halls.
The tide has turned in the Nineties. Audiences have returned to the matrix of vocal music because, once again, they are offered a range of styles and variety in timbre. In fact some of the top class violinists want also to perform as singers - R. K. Sriramkumar, S. Gayathri, S. Ranjini, Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi and Sriram Parasuram (who sings Hindustani) come at once to mind. While the lure of Hindustani music is by no means overcome, many youngsters keep it within limits in their exploration of the Carnatic heritage.
Many of today's younger musicians are still in the process of evolution, still experimenting, though none has as yet reached the heights of a Semmangudi or a Brinda. To their credit, quite a few have directed their seeking towards the enduringly classical, arduous though the trail.
The very ethos of Gap and Levi's is against them. The increase in the audiences, the year-round festivals, the foreign trips to disburse culture in weekend doses to NRIs, are not an unmixed blessing. Unlike in the past, the listeners are not a homogeneous crowd content with burnished gold. They can be fickle, craving for everything from platinum to plastic. The more unfamiliar the fare, the more excited the listener. Vidwans find it not only tiring to cope with this demand, but are unable to polish last minute ware before stage display. Let alone internalising the raga and the bhava, often they cannot even recall the lyric without book in hand. But they cover such lapses by glitzy packaging.
The listener of the Nineties is used to being passively entertained. A flashy Latangi where the singer races up and down the scale is more fun than an expansive Khambhoji which demands close engagement of mind and ear.
We know that music is of three kinds - that which pleases the ear, which rivets the mind, and touches the heart. The first has a temporary impact, the second cannot fully satisfy, the third enriches our whole being. Their union produces the best the art can offer.
All three require talent and technical skills, the last needs self transcendence. Then the quest is not what can be attained and displayed, but how deep and high can one joyously explore.
Many of the young musicians are aware that a pleasant tone and alluring modulation are irresistible to the entertainment seekers. Many have opted for crooning.
Those who do better don't bother to develop the voice beyond the middle octave. Why should they when the crowds come thronging to hear them, especially with hits in film songs adding to the glamour? The volume is low and thin and the voice is lost without the mike. This is precisely what has happened to highly committed artists like Unnikrishnan and Bombay Jaishree. Rajkumar Bharati and S. P. Ramh have sentimentalised the rendition. Artists like Papanasam Ashok Ramani try both avenues, the solid and the light, ending up in no-man's-land.
There are others who have taken Route Two of intellectual stimulation. They are happy to choose Suvarnangi or Paadi for their crossword puzzles. They rely on hurricane speed delivery of everything from raga to swara, varnam to viruttham. Their accompanists too seize the chance to whip themselves up to a frenzy of speed and volume, because they know that a Sudha Ragunathan and a Sowmya can hold their own and challenge them further in any undertaking, however tough. Such singers have an astonishing knowledge and control over the medium. Combined with an attractive voice this is nothing short of exhilaration. But as the concert progresses, a deja vu feeling numbs the ears, and you start longing for something less clever or contrived. True, their lighter numbers have sincerity and polish, but they still tend to lack that indefinable component we term spiritual, that we had encountered in an M. S. or a Pattammal or a Muktamma, though each belongs to an entirely different school.
Take Nithyasree Mahadevan who has everything going for her - phenomenal talent, powerful voice, command over melody and rhythm, an extensive repertoire in all the concert genres. Lack of restraint and maturity prevent her from transcending the levels of entertainment and intellectual appeal, to reach soulfulness. Concert music is certainly audience dependent. But some artists achieve an unconsciousness of everything except the need to sing for the self within. Even at her best, it seems that Nithyasree is still unable to forget the external factors.
N. Vijay Siva and Sanjay Subramanian are among those who try to balance the needs of both heart and mind. This makes their concerts exciting and unpredictable. Siva has the advantage of a grounding in a weighty tradition. After all, the inimitable gems of Carnatic music are its kritis, polished to perfection in the D. K. Jayaraman school in which Siva was trained. This makes him emphasise the values of the lyric. Knowing how to vary the mood and tempo of each composition has also influenced this singer in contouring the raga differently to suit the song, and to be circumspect in his total conception of the recital. Laya exuberance has savvy outlets which don't swamp the show.
With Sanjay we confront passion. In his first three years as performer, this passion pushed him headlong into excellence on the stage. The raga was conceived as a living, organic whole, not as a structure to be assembled brick by brick. The imagination had sweep, depth and grandeur. The choice of ragas for expansive treatment showed a catholic judgement. The swara singing was no fusillade, each note brimmed with melody which spilled over to link it to the next.
The kriti got cavalier treatment though, as if it were only a frame for the raga, the lyric was given scant respect in enunciation and in the breaking up of syllables for embellishment. More recently, Sanjay seems to have hit a plateau. His experiments to craft a new style for himself have as yet resulted only in superimposing the brika style of GNB on the Semmangudi bani, with sporadic success.
Among the younger singers T. M. Krishna seems to be gaining in magnitude though he too has not yet firmly grounded himself in an individual style that he can grow with. But it is heartening that he has stuck to the highway of classicism. Refusal to compromise has not kept the crowds away from his recitals, any more than it has affected Sanjay's popularity. Those who blame the audiences for adulteration in classicism can chew on this fact.
Carnatic music has always had its share of eccentric practitioners. Neyveli Santhanagopalan's stubborn temperament refuses to tailor the product to suit anyone except himself. But his concerts tend to be poorly planned, with no concept of building tension through suitably chosen, varied and contrastive ragas, compositions and tempos. Each item is sung as if it were a whole in itself. This makes parts more attractive than the whole, especially as this singer too has launched into experimenting with stylistics. Santhanagopalan is also not able to vary the rendering of the composed piece from the improvised aspects. To him the kriti is a peg for his own raga expression.
Santhanagopalan wears the kacham dear to Semmangudi's heart. But though the music is truly classical, it has to communicate to an audience vastly different from the doyen's. The question is whether it has - or strives for - a spiritual quality.
The college-educated young musicians of today have picked Carnatic music among other career options. It is heartening that some of them have chosen the high classical mode and achieved stardom. And despite the compulsions of the consumerist age, they are willing to review the paths taken, even to retrace their steps to the tougher tracks. A few who had opted for easier routes have come to wonder whether they should now concentrate on the music that has a meditative tenor.
Audience tastes indicate that though tinsel music has its advocates, serious music will also fill the halls, if it fulfils at least the needs of the ear and the mind, while attempting to achieve that ripeness - where the music, musician and listener become indivisible in self-forgetful joy. Then vibhuti and vastram will cease to matter . . . .
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