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Why Tyagaraja !

M.V. RAMAKRISHNAN

In the altered perspective, the concept serves as an extreme and imaginary example of the intriguing but permissible innovations which tend to be absorbed by Carnatic music.

As mentioned earlier in this column, a very eminent reader (who still doesn’t wish to be identified) had taken the trouble to tell me that it might be a good idea to amplify certain provisos mentioned in the article “Tyagaraja-Jazz Suite& #8221; which appeared on June 22.The sequel was the next essay, “Of credentials and criteria,” which crossed a strong rejoinder from a well-known Carnatic musician, Vijayalakshmi Subramaniam, and they were published together (July 6).

Since the second article anticipates and responds to her main objection, which concerns the validity of the very concept of a Tyagaraja-Jazz Suite, there seems to be no need for a separate reply to her note. However, a specific question posed by Ms. Vijayalakshmi creates an opportunity for me to give a still more convincing explanation of this intricate issue.

“I fail to see the logic behind the thought process of the article" she says, and asks: "Why Tyagaraja?" The answer to that question may clear all doubts arising in this context, because it will restore a missing link in my logic which she has spotted so sharply, and which is an old story.

Extreme example

There was a time, long ago, when we had just started noticing alarming signs of some enterprising Indian and foreign musicians teaming up and trying to introduce Indian colours in Western music and Western colours in Indian classical music. Such unusual and experimental ventures were almost always taking place abroad, and we didn’t have any effective opportunity in India to observe the trend closely and critically. So far as Carnatic music was concerned, with its strong and sacred religious foundation, the very idea of any exposure to alien influences seemed to be a sacrilege, going against the grain of our traditional values.

As a young journalist in Madras and New Delhi in the early 1970s, I strongly opposed such experiments in principle, in a series of sarcastic sketches featuring an imaginary foreigner called Jimmy Hotchpotch. Letting his name convert compliments into contempt, I portrayed him as a versatile American musician who played the horn and led the Jimmy Hotchpotch Jazz Ensemble in Los Angeles and also sang Carnatic music with a dashing Frank Sinatra touch (cigarette included) in the winter season in Madras. His most sensational achievement was a long-playing record called Tyagaraja-Jazz Suite, of which more than a million discs were sold in America. There was no particular reason why Tyagaraja’s name was invoked. What was required for forceful satire was an extreme example of distortion, and TJS sounded absolutely shocking. But several years later I realised, on the basis of authentic impressions obtained progressively, that such a sweeping judgment was not justified at all. No doubt there were superficial ventures which deserved to be condemned, but there were also superior adventures which seemed to be creating some exquisitely beautiful music, such as L. Subramaniam’s Double Violin Concerto and some of his short pieces in Indo-jazz. And freed from my original prejudice, I even began wondering whether some day, somewhere, someone might actually conceive a phenomenon called Tyagaraja-Jazz Suite which would somehow project fascinating new visions of our ragas and rhythms without undermining the sacred spirit of the great compositions.

Intriguing innovation

In this altered perspective, the concept serves as an extreme and imaginary example of the intriguing but permissible innovations which tend to be absorbed by Carnatic music from time to time — such as the assimilation of the Western violin as an intrinsic element of our orthodox tradition long ago, or the introduction of the Italian mandolin, the staccato sounds of which are so miraculously transformed into smooth-flowing musical curves and waves in the magic hands of U. Shrinivas.

While Ms. Vijayalakshmi’s idealism is admirable, she’s also realistic enough to express (in her own website) the following pragmatic view on the casual attitude of many young persons towards Carnatic music today: “It is but natural that the younger generation should be drawn towards immediate gratification, not only in music but all aspects of life... So, munch away on your pizza while you enjoy a ragam-tanam-pallavi in Mohanam, chew on your garlic bread as you let the Surutti padam serenade you, or sip your Coke while the Sindhubhairavi tillana intoxicates you! This is truly a cross-cultural exchange! After all, the world is a small place.”

True, that’s the kind of practical concessions we often have to make these days for getting our children and grandchildren interested in Carnatic music, though we know perfectly well that it has an inflexibly spiritual character and must therefore be heard with reverence and exclusive attention. But wouldn’t you agree that listening with concentration to a properly conceived and sensitively performed Tyagaraja-Jazz Suite in a concert hall -- if and when it materialises -- may give our youngsters a far better exposure to the sacred culture than hearing Carnatic music on their mobile music machines while chomping and chewing their pizza or whatever?

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