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Ramayana Rock?


Imagine the epic sung, opera style…

“The music-loving public’s acceptance or rejection of innovation depends largely on the character and well-established values of different musical systems and cultures. It may be all right for modern Westerners to appreciate and applaud a rock opera such as Jesus Christ Superstar. But what would we modern South Indians say if some clever and enterprising musicians came up with a musical play called Ramayana Rock?”

That was the question I had posed in this column two weeks ago, suggesting that earnest readers might take a fresh look online at some earlier essays on the concept of ‘Tyagaraja-Jazz Suite’ before venturing further with me to explore certain intriguing aspects of this issue. For the benefit of most readers (who aren’t perhaps likely to have taken the trouble!), let me recall some of the main points which had emerged in that context:-

(1) Improvisation is the essence of the ‘swaraprastharam’ in Carnatic music, as it is of all jazz. (2) Therefore, if jazzy elements are introduced in such improvisation in Carnatic music (at the swaraprastharam stage), they will not go against the conventional spirit and norms of the system, as long as such variations do not alter the structure and character of the given melody or rhythm. (3) It would be easier to achieve such diverse effects in purely instrumental music. (4) The excellence and justification for such innovative ventures will ultimately depend on who exactly undertakes them and how. (5) All this will be true even if unorthodox musicians happen to be rendering the sacred songs of Tyagaraja.

Literature and music

In this connection, it is necessary to make a clear distinction between the literary tradition of the Ramayana and the traditional music inspired by the epic, as sources of musical inspiration. So far as the purely literary aspect is concerned, we have not only the traditional literature which has survived from ancient times, but also modern works of prose and poetry which re-tell the sacred story in many different styles; and such new literary efforts do not clash in any way with the traditional literature as long as they are in conformity with the spirit and substance of the tradition.

Take, for instance, the book, Samkshipta Ramayana (‘Concise Ramayana’) in which Dr. Mallela Ramaiah re-tells the whole story in a series of Telugu verses which glow with beauty and can be understood by anyone who knows the language well enough to understand the popular kritis of Tyagaraja.

Let me just quote a single stanza for the flavour of Dr. Ramaiah’s poetry. Sumitra tells her son Lakshmana who has resolved to accompany his exiled brother and his consort to the forest:

Seetha neeku talli, Sree Raamude tandri,

Ghora kaananambe Kosalambu --

Ani-talanchi vaariki ati-bhakti sevinchi

Tirigi-rammu neevu, vara-kumaaraa!

(To you Sita is mother, Rama is father,

And the horrendous forest is Ayodhya --

Thinking so and serving them with great devotion,

Come back, O noble son!)

I have a feeling that these poems have a delicate musical quality and can perhaps be recited in various ragas. I wish to stress two important points here. (1) The fact that such beautiful verses have originality — and spring from a sensitive modern poet’s imagination — does not affect their authentic character or undermine the ancient and venerable literary tradition of Ramayana in any way. (2) The fact that they might also serve as lyrics of a musical composition does not alter this fundamental truth.

Question of perspective

That’s why there would have been nothing wrong at all if Verdi or Mozart or some other great European composer had chosen the universally inspiring story of Rama and Sita as the theme for a grand opera, and depicted the whole drama in the classical idiom of Western music.

Obviously then, there will be nothing wrong if some accomplished and enterprising rock musicians today visualise and perform an ultra-modern opera called ‘Ramayana Rock’ — in the same way as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had conceived and composed ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ — with rolling lyrics in English rendered by rock singers accompanied by electric guitars, saxophones, synthesisers, drums and whatever else they have in a buoyant rock band.

Well, that’s the sober conclusion which emerges, provided one considers all relevant aspects of the question logically and unemotionally.

But why do we music-loving South Indians tend to be absolutely horrified at first when we hear about an imaginary modern opera called ‘Ramayana Rock’? It is so because the image and mission of Lord Rama pervades the whole spectrum of Tyagaraja’s songs — which are among the most profound and inspiring sources of Carnatic music today — and naturally our initial fear is that the rock musicians may recklessly maul and make a mess of those sacred lyrics.

But if and when we discover that the rock opera has nothing to do with Carnatic music at all, and is inspired only by the literary tradition of the Ramayana, our fears will subside — and some of us may even want to hear the music. In fact, we may then have no objection even if the rock opera depicts the life and mission of Tyagaraja and is called ‘Tyagaraja Supersaint’!

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