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Changing realities

ANIL SRINIVASAN responds to the article “Between tradition and evolution” by T.M. Krishna, published last week. .

I read T.M. Krishna's piece, “Between tradition and evolution” with great interest. The writer puts forth a very passionate case towards preserving the integrity of the Carnatic tradition, specifically with respect to its inherent aesthetic flavour. He further elaborates on some of the instruments that have made their presence known in the South Indian classical context in recent times, and discusses their suitability. He concludes that certain instruments such as the electronic keyboard and the saxophone fail to make the cut.

As an instrumentalist who has been trained to perform Western classical music for the past 30 years, I can only add my unstinted support for some of Krishna's observations.

Every tradition is defined by features specific to it. An anthropologist friend of mine defined tradition beautifully when he said that a tradition is an ethos; it is a habitat for a certain way of thinking about life.

To most of us, tradition has become indelibly linked with the past.

This is where the problems begin. We get autoregressive when discussing the preservation or conservation of a tradition. Trapping it in a time capsule and not allowing it to breathe or acquire newer characteristics is antithetical to the very notion of an intergenerational transfer. For this, the proof is all around us. The way we eat, the way we speak and the way we address problem-solving or even decision-making today is not the way our forebears would have conducted the process of life. If human life were an art form, we have learnt to paint its tapestry with newer colours more suited to our way of thinking and today's context. And yet we do not consider ourselves as having completely violated any tradition. At its core, certain fundamental aspects of social interaction still remain. At the root of it all, we are still who we were meant to be. Different from what our grandparents would have liked us to be, but certainly not poorer players at the game of life than they were!

Beyond labels

Historically, traditions were largely oral and were passed on from one generation to another. In recent times, I have seen the rampant use (and misuse thereof) of the phrase the Carnatic music tradition. While this is partially true (as in the handing over of a set of musical values from one generation to another), I think we are doing ourselves a grave injustice by continuing to classify it so. Music cannot be classified. To the human mind, the illusion of control or self perception (see psychologists such as Bandura) leads it towards instant and automatic categorisation. We want to label everything we encounter because it makes us feel at least temporarily in control of the environment. And hence terming Carnatic music a tradition becomes a hook on which we hang our approximations of what we think South Indian classical music ought to be.

The piano itself originated from the Santur, an instrument that came from this part of the world. It travelled westward, modified itself across the centuries to become the modern piano. Had the Western classical world rejected this West Asian/Indian instrument outright, the world would not have seen the brilliance of a pianist such as Rubinstein or the grandeur that a Steinway piano can create in a concert.

I am pretty certain that the violin would have met with resistance when it first came into the South Indian classical context. I know from my own childhood memories as to the resistance that maestro U. Srinivas first faced before the world realised that his genius could not be refuted just because his chosen instrument was not one that our ears were attuned to at that time.

To our sensibilities at this present time, certain instruments (such as the ones Krishna names) seem unsuitable. But labelling efforts by artists who are using their chosen form of self-expression as insults to Carnatic music is questioning the very intent of an artist's right to survive and I strongly condemn it. Seeking refinement of aesthetic sensibility or even exhorting students to aim for higher standards is certainly welcome; but asking them to subscribe to parochial and temporal stereotypes is not.

Who knows what the future holds? Are we getting too intoxicated with what classical music ought to be and therefore limiting a musical form that is actually limitless in reality? Are we daring to classify something that is actually unclassifiable?

I believe that music itself will give us the answer. The times are a-changin.

The author is Executive Director, Brhaddhvani (Centre for Research and Training in Music).

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