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Discordant notes

Carnatic musicians today have more avenues to prove their mettle than artistes in general had even a few years ago. Yet, for those who are unestablished, gaining recognition in the profession is a tough journey. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN writes on the conflicts and challenges faced by classical performers.

A DANCE guru once explained that when Bharatanatyam was a hereditary pursuit, boys in the family were trained to teach, girls with good looks were groomed in the art. The plain Janes were married off.

Asked why he opted for Carnatic music, a celebrated senior replied, "Because I had a good voice and was also deemed unfit for the family business." He went on to narrate how, when he became an acclaimed performer, anxious parents came to him with the request that he "save" their good-for-nothing offspring who had no talent except for music!

In today's complex world the choices are not so simple. The possession of talent alone is not a deciding factor in your becoming a classical Carnatic musician. True, with the opportunities offered by the recording industry and the NRI market, there is more money in music today than ever before. But until you establish yourself, the field is fraught with uncertainties. Many male artistes feel constrained to continue as bank clerks or chartered accountants, even though they know that a career in music demands full-time effort.

The conflicts mount as you make your way up the popularity chart. Unlike yesteryear's small, homogeneous, discerning audiences, the artist performs to big crowds in vaster auditoriums. Heterogeneous tastes must be satisfied if he is to pack the hall again.

There are few patrons for the fastidiously classical performer. The past saw its M. D. Ramanathan or T. Brinda, or a scholarly S. Ramanathan, on lonely treks. You rarely get that uncompromising conviction today. The artiste is unable to resolve the opposing demands of high classical and bestseller music. She tries to hold on to as much genuine stuff as she can while pandering to fancier tastes. She knows fireworks are inimical to the contemplative spirit of the art. But what can she do when the crowds applaud the explosions — and yawn through the quiet moments?

While we are happy to see our top musicians zooming past in Santros and Accents, each with his own website, ready to discuss anything from cricket to the global economy, we also wonder if this lifestyle is in some way inimical to the quality of music they should strive for. Somewhere along the line, music becomes a means to the end of a good life, it is no longer the good life in itself. We see it in the styles changing to suit audience demands, instead of evolving towards originality in an upward process of maturation.

Fluffy, filmy touches are cultivated, consciously or unconsciously. Hindustani phrases enter for effect at first; before you know it they become the mainstay. Some artistes march on two tracks — Classical and light. In the past M. S. Subbulakshmi, D. K. Pattammal, G. N. Balasubramanian, even the venerable Musiri Subramania Iyer, ventured into the celluloid world, but only in short spells. This was in scores based on the classical style. Today's artistes do it both for greater income, and for crowd-pulling glamour. Do they wilfully shut their eyes to the fact that such listeners crave lightweight crooning in their concerts? Besides, the artistes may believe they can keep the two strains apart, but long-term listeners can immediately perceive changes, which the performers themselves try not to heed.

Conflicts are also generated by changing audience tastes. Some abandon their own grand schools in favour of ritzier fare. Often, the musician does not know whether to work for a local, national, NRI or international festival audience. In tailoring his art to the occasion, he pleases neither himself nor his listeners. How can he, when he is not giving his best?

"To fuse or not to fuse" is the dilemma of the day. Musicians attempt fusion, not in spontaneous effusions, but mostly in desperate attempts to catch the public eye, stay in the news.

While both Hindustani and Carnatic musicians hope to bust charts with fast, flimsy stuff, the latter also feel impelled to release new "items" in every concert. Repertoires are increased hastily, without time for absorption, or even retention. "Reading" the lyric from a book is a common sight today. How then can one expect depth, or emotional appeal?

In the south, a major source of conflict is between the artiste and the organiser. The quintessentially Chennai institution, the sabha, prides itself on being the custodian of the performing arts. However, the same sabha forgets that the artiste is greater than the organiser, and that the sabha's function is to link the artiste with the audience.

Getting into the sabha roster is a strenuous, often demeaning task for the fledgling artist, requiring time-consuming self-promotional skills that many simply do not possess.

The remuneration is pitiful, even for the big guns. Seniors can hope for Rs. 2,500-3,000 at top sabhas in Chennai during the peak festival season. For the rest of the year it is far less. Junior, sub-junior and debut artistes are lucky to get enough to cover transport costs. There are times and places, when artistes pay for a stage slot.

Payments are higher in some industrial towns of Tamil Nadu, as in other Indian cities with better sponsorship. Most lucrative are the foreign tours. The musician makes his name in Chennai, performs minimally in the city to keep himself in the picture, and makes his moolah elsewhere. In this hectic travel schedule he often sacrifices his creative growth. Improvement is minimal, he is content so long as he gets the stage regularly.

Organisers don't realise that unless artistes get a decent living out of performances, they can never become professionals. As amateurs they will be forced into making compromises. Sadly, the organiser thinks he is promoting the art by diverting funds into building the biggest affordable auditorium (note that lights and acoustics are not prioritised).

Insecurities breed their own conflicts: more than once leading organisers have had to back down and hike rates for boycotting artistes. For their part, artistes get jittery if their names are left out of major festival lists. Since organisers have no panel of selectors, all choices are arbitrary. Few organisers spare a thought for quality resource management, or improving the proficiency of young artistes through year round phased out support.

Tussles with critics? Naturally, as the artiste believes that the critic is prejudiced, inconsistent and uninformed if he does not dish out pure eulogy. But performers cannot afford to keep reviewers out. Press publicity hikes their market value.

The struggle and incertitude do not put out the light in those who are driven by their own passion for the arts. Finally, the extraneous circumstances cease to determine the growth of the artiste. His own inner urge keeps him going. Sometimes even those who make compromises for survival, return to the harder route, cultivate the authentic and the profound. They realise that innovations cannot be artificially grafted, they must be part of a measured, organic evolution. Others still their restlessness to strive for tranquillity.

A very few strike the right balance between entertainment and what pleases their own souls. Then they discover that their creative quest not only generates conflicts, but ultimately, it offers the sole means of rising above the discords.

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