The dividing line between progress and perversion in all visual and performing arts is so thin that it is often almost invisible. There’s no hard-and-fast rule and every manifestation of change must be judged on its own merits.
As we live through the gradual transition from one century to another, what can be more natural than our looking ahead and trying to visualise what’s likely to happen in our scheme of things in the next hundred years? And while scientists and s
tatesmen are wrestling with such critical issues as climate change and nuclear weapons, surely it would be a good thing for lovers of Carnatic music to devote some thought to the shape of things to come in our music.
But when we review new trends in the light of traditional values, we must clearly understand what constitutes pollution and what constitutes progress in classical music, and shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that some of today’s innovations may become tomorrow’s tradition.
In this context, let us imagine what saint Tyagaraja himself would think of his music as performed in a normal kutcheri today.
First of all, there will be the elaborate raga alapanas which Tyagaraja would never have rendered when he went round his ancient village singing the sacred songs composed by himself. But if he begins to like these colourful preludes to his songs, he is quite likely to acknowledge that we have made some useful progress since those days.
Then comes, let us say, a flowery and free-flowing swaraprastara. Tyagaraja may be surprised by the importance our musicians accord to merely juggling the seven notes so extensively after singing his songs. But if those exercises delight him, he may well declare that there’s some more authentic progress!
Looking at the violin, the saint is bound to ask the sabha secretary:
“What is that new instrument?” The violin will surely puzzle him at the first sight, but it may also please him eventually. And there can be no doubt that Tyagaraja will be highly intrigued by the loudspeakers and microphones. But if he is thrilled to note that these strange devices do somehow manage to magnify the sound and convey his music to very large gatherings of rasikas and devotees, he is not likely to raise any objection.
Similar may be his reaction to radio broadcasts, recording machines, compact discs and i-pods. Perhaps the only things he may condemn will be television programmes with frequent commercial breaks, and roving video cameras which ruin the concentration of the whole assembly in the Tiruvaiyaru aradhana.
So then, if Tyagaraja himself wouldn’t be shocked by the shape of his music and the manner of its performance, dissemination and preservation today, why should we be shocked by future variations in the modes of its presentation and interpretation?
Of course, many new trends can be extremely damaging and must be discouraged. But the dividing line between progress and perversion in all visual and performing arts is so thin that it is often almost invisible.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule in this regard, and every manifestation of change must be judged on the basis of its own merits. And naturally, you must be a very imaginative and fair judge if your verdict is to be valid and valuable.
As we all know, the legendary Western violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916-99) was a great lover of Indian music, and had performed experimentally with Ravi Shankar sometimes. On such occasions he had gladly allowed the sitarist to take the lead because while his own art was rigidly constrained by the written works of the composers, the Indian’s music invariably took off on a free and fanciful flight of his own charting within very broadly-defined boundaries.
More or less the same thing happened when Menuhin teamed up with the distinguished jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.
In his autobiography, Unfinished Journey (1977), Menuhin confessed:
“Naturally I am a novice in the matter... and when I play with Ravi Shankar, I must learn my lines beforehand. But even at this subordinate distance from improvisation, participation in Indian music means much to me.” And in a BBC television interview in 1981, he expressed an earnest wish that very young students of music in the Western world should first be trained in improvisation before they learnt the written works of the classical repertoire.
That was the kind of cultural re-orientation which crystallised ultimately in the mind of this supreme master of Western classical music, making him seek a new dimension of musical experience altogether at a very advanced stage of his glamorous life and career. Then why shouldn’t we appreciate and encourage constructive and adventurous innovations in music which draw inspiration from our own classical system and tradition?
So let us ask ourselves a simple question: “What harm will be done to Carnatic music if some accomplished and versatile musicians visualise a performance called Tyagaraja-Jazz Suite?” And the truthful answer will be: “No harm at all, provided they have an adequately wide musical vision, absolute spiritual integrity and true musical genius.” Indeed, if they have the proper credentials, saint Tyagaraja himself may bless the project and pray for its success!
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