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December, 2001

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Music & Dance

Bhakti and sadhaka - pillars of excellence

Expertise in Carnatic music is acquired not by intellectual superiority over the great masters, who, as music practitioners, stood head and shoulders above those who take pride on musical intellectualism, says SVK.

IN THE prevailing Carnatic music scene, the question that agitates true music lovers and the numerous listeners during the December season is whether the pessimism of poor standard of performances is really justified or is only a reflection of romanticism of anything past. One cannot brush aside the impressions gained by listening to great exponents. To consider the state of Carnatic music today, a look at the contribution of a succession of vidwans of yesteryear becomes necessary. That provides the yardstick to understand how today Carnatic music presents a different complexion. If glorification of the past is roundly criticised in some quarters as shackling creativity and innovativeness, similar glorification of the present claiming that youngsters are, in fact, more intelligent than artistes of an earlier era, is equally open to scrutiny. Expertise in Carnatic music is acquired not by intellectual superiority over the great masters, but only by dedicated sadhakam for the nuances of the beauty of Carnatic music are absorbed by the ear and not certainly by the brain. The veterans of the past might have been less intelligent, but as music practitioners they stood head and shoulders above those who take pride on musical intellectualism.

The blame cannot be laid fully at the door of the youngsters. They have had no occasion to listen to the expository greatness of veterans when they were in the peak of their career. It is this cleavage between rasikas whose ears are filled with ecstatic music heard long ago and stored in their memory and the musicians of the present who have cent per cent to depend on their own critical capacity to get a true insight into the grandeur of Carnatic music, that has led to the difficulty in the meeting of the minds between them.

In music halls today young artistes occupy the dais and only grey-heads fill the auditorium. If at all any satisfaction can be derived from the oft-touted enormous interest in Carnatic music shown by the youngsters, it is only as performers and not as listeners. In this context, a remark heard after a performance by the new generation is worthy of notice. ``The song, `Seshachala Nayakam' the boy sang to-day, how would Ariyakkudi sing!''-- such a comparison becomes inevitable in the situation when the listeners are sixty and above and the performers are either in the twenties or thirties. When an old rasika was asked why, if he felt dissatisfied, he should attend the concert, he replied ``At least we can hear the songs sung by the great masters and live in the pleasures of memory." So that is the kind of rapport between musicians and listeners that has induced the complacency that Carnatic music has not been as kicking and alive as it is to-day.

Two factors have contributed to the fragility of Carnatic music -- the lack of practice (or as it is tellingly termed in Tamil `Uzhaippu' by the artistes and the vociferous campaign to unearth new and rare compositions. Some organisations take pride in fostering the latter trend. When new songs are sought to be brought to public notice the musician engaged must have learnt them well to make listeners know there are other great compositions besides the songs of the Trinity. When even well- known kritis of Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri are rendered with the aid of sheets of paper, what can be said about the propagation of the familiar pieces not well-learnt. So Carnatic music suffers mainly because the monumental kritis of the Trinity are getting gradually displaced by new songs which stand nowhere in quality or weighty depth before the Trinity's.

Rightly or wrongly the impression is that the assiduous sadhakam of the Trinity music was the bedrock of the excellence of the old-world vidwans and the new generation is still to find an equally effective substitute for it. That amount of dedicated practice is not reflected in the way youngsters sing, for dependence on sheets of paper under the mike is more than faith in memory.

With offers from cassette producers, tight recording schedules, electronic image-building exercises, sponsored serials on TV roping in classical artistes for title songs, the need for aggressive public relations to grab the plums in the rate race, the lure of entry into film music and the gathering sishya parampara around popular young artistes -- those leave little time to musicians to practice regularly. In all frankness, a young artiste admitted that he learnt new songs mostly while in flight from Madras to the U.S. That is how repertoire is being built up.

On the part of the rasikas, it is claimed that frequent seminars, lecture-demonstrations, face-to-face interaction and workshops have helped to educate them. As a wag commented, ``The educational benefits of all these are truly reflected in the way rasikas clap in concerts." It is constant hearing of the performances of great exponents (now tapes) that moulds taste and musical appreciation. In fact, in the early era, the nadaswaram recitals by giants for hours together during temple processions in the stillness of the night were responsible for the creation of sensitive taste particularly in the Thanjavur region. The workshop, lec-dems and seminars are hardly a substitute for the ennobling vidwans fostered. In the light of the uninspiring situation is there any room for optimism that Carnatic music would recapture its past glory? It certainly can only if the musicians are actuated by bhakti -- not bhakti to any God -- but bhakti to Carnatic music that has conferred on them wealth, prosperity, popularity and social status, not even dreamt of by the vidwans of the past in spite of their musical eminence.

What do we see instead? The sabhas in Chennai religiously hold the Tyagaraja aradhana every year in January or February. The same faces of musicians appear in almost all the sabhas. Can they not memorise the Pancharatna kritis in a year's time to avoid looking into book. This is not the kind of dedication that can keep aloft the grandeur of Carnatic music. Awards, titles, reviews in journals, opportunities that the sabhas offer and other favourable environment can only act as catalysts. Improvement in the quality of music is entirely in the hands of musicians and none else.

The first step towards this is ``Uzhaippu''-- practice of time-tested kirtanas. ``Throw away the books and hug the tambura at home daily for two hours at least'' seems to be the only nourishing tonic that a debilitated Carnatic music is in dire need of today. As it is, Carnatic music has gained only by way of interminable speeches on Remembrance day occasions of great vidwans.

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