Carnatic Music: Cultural Appropriation Or Integration?

by Krithika Sivaswamy - Aug 26, 2018 12:11 PM +05:30 IST
Carnatic Music: Cultural Appropriation Or Integration?
  • Is musical art sacrosanct, or can it be woven into forms that seem untrue to its origins?

    In light of the recent controversy over the ‘secularisation’ of Carnatic music, Krithika Sivaswamy speaks to noted Chennai artist Palghat Ramprasad to get the lowdown.

Indian classical music finds its origins in Sama Veda. The word sama means ‘sweet note’ or ‘tune based on harmony’. The Gandharva Veda deals with the science of music, delving at great depths into sound and its nature. The word naada means to vibrate or pulsate. It refers to the larger universe in a vibratory form. There are references to the correlation between Aarohana and Avarohana patterns of a raga with the flow of energy from the Mooladhara to the Sahasrara chakras. Naadopasana (worship using naada) leads to self-realisation, which is the ultimate aim of Hinduism.

As an avid follower of Indian classical art and coming from a family, which has been associated with Carnatic music for three generations, recent controversies surrounding this world (which was devoid of any such until now), has urged this writer to dwell upon opinions and perspectives of rasikas and other artists who don’t subscribe to the narrative a certain section is trying to set. While the argument between cultural integration and appropriation has peaked, society has finally woken up to the dangers of cultural dilution.

Cultural integration and harmony do not happen when the two involved are not in sync with the “core ideology”. It then becomes merely a propaganda tool. Not waking up to the underlying agenda is something this writer is saddened by, whether it is artists, sportspersons, bureaucrats, or any common man. While there may be a never-ending debate on the concept of artistic freedom, Palghat Ramprasad, grandson of legendary mridangam player Palghat Mani Iyer, gives his perspectives on some fundamental questions this writer had raised.

Noted Carnatic musician Palghat Ramprasad.
Noted Carnatic musician Palghat Ramprasad.

Krithika Sivaswamy (KS): What is your take on a rasika’s involvement with artistic freedom? Do you see that as an interference, and is it on a right note to assume that the average rasika is ignorant of music, especially in Chennai?

Palghat Ramprasad (PR): As much as there is freedom for artists to perform as they wish, rasikas have the freedom to express their displeasure in a dignified manner. The social-media rant is all about how people from both sides have expressed their respective positions. Like it or not, getting the acceptance of rasikas (particularly from Madras) is important to establish oneself as a performing artist in Carnatic music.

During an artist’s formative years, one seems to not really place much importance on the rasika’s familiarity with Asaveri or Gangeyabushani. Similarly, artists, when praised for a brilliant Kedharagowala, don’t question rasikas’ knowledge base. However, when they do not approve of what we as artists present, we start questioning their familiarity with the art. Personally, it is unjust to throw a blanket statement that rasikas are not knowledgeable – some of them can even point out when an artist sings Dwijawanti sangathis in a Narayana Gowla alapana.

These remarks on rasikas also beg the question of whether artists are the epitome of knowledge and whether they can comment on others’ knowledge, or if they are beyond criticism. Honestly, if artists of today were conscientious, then, in more than nine out of 10 instances, they would admit that their popularity was disproportionately greater than their vidwat (knowledge) or calibre.

KS: With respect to the current controversy, in which rasikas have objected to Carnatic musicians singing on Christ to a church gathering, the rasikas are labelled the right-wing fringe, narrow-minded and intolerant. Personally, I felt that the tone set by some artists conveying that we are not clued in to cultural integration is appalling. Do you agree?

PR: I feel this is a matter of individual choice and liberty. An artist has every right to choose his or her platform for expression. However, at the same time, it is also about the emotions and the sentiments of the listeners. Ideally, there must be a balance and mutual respect between what artists present and the rasika’s preferences. Instead, taking a “holier than thou” attitude by arguing, for instance, whether Thyagaraja himself would have had an issue with “Raama Nannu Brovara” being replaced with a “Karthar Nannu Brovara” is no worse than rasikas using vilifying language to express their emotions.

KS: What are the sentiments of senior artists on this matter?

PR: Some seniors feel in similar ways, that respect for a rasika is of primary importance as they are the raison d’etre for an artist’s fame and reputation.

KS: I have observed over time and through various comments that the fan base is not against creativity. The fact that we have so many of Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s Carnatic music compositions being given an electronic twist stands testimony to it. The greatest concern people have raised is the design of evangelical groups that are trying to use Carnatic music to spread their agenda of religious conversion.

I would like to mention here about Ravikiran’s tweet on “cultural integration” and his reference to “Abraham Pandithar” as a “phenomenal musicologist”. A lot of rasikas were quick to put things in perspective on how Abraham Pandithar connects Christian theology with the idea of naada, praising Biblical characters as if it were the source of Carnatic music (not mentioning Sama Veda at all). They also exposed the sinister theory being put forward that Brahmins did not know how to scientifically use the system of music, and eventually stole “original music” from the Tamils. The rasika finishes his comment by saying “Abraham Pandithar was the starting point for Christian appropriation of Carnatic music for their agenda” by giving original reference to the book in his reply. Ravikiran finally acknowledges the source and says he has “not much of an acquaintance with the actual book”. At this point, don’t you think performing artists should be more involved with current issues plaguing society? Aren’t we all a part of the same mess?

PR: I will not agree to the point that artists are totally oblivious to the repercussions of our choices. Honestly speaking, I feel that being in public life, we artists have a certain responsibility towards society. These repercussions could be in the form of real or (potentially) perceivable consequences of conversion, audiences’ reception to kritis sung by certain artists, or participation in certain events that are not mainstream. For example, rasikas, in general, did not have issues with Carnatic musicians singing for movies – not the kind of resentment to the current issue in hand – so, there is a give-and-take.

KS: Meanwhile, I am amused by the twist certain sections of the national media are trying to give to the issue in the form of an ‘artists-versus-listeners’ narrative. Don’t you think we from the Carnatic music world, comprising artists, organisers, connoisseurs, rasikas, and students, have unfortunately given way for them to comment on it and make it political? I see many people who would have perhaps never covered the world’s largest festival, the December Music Festival, condemn this. I don’t think it is in good taste.

RP: It is surprising that artists who have no tolerance for the views of seasoned rasikas (regardless of their actual ‘debatable’ knowledge levels) are welcoming of the views of a section of people who, as you mention, may not be familiar with Carnatic music at all. I might have to concur with the general opinion that these days, the media cares more about “entertainment value” of news at the expense of “content value”. In this regard, unfortunately, the artists who opine on such platforms seem to be equally interested in it – knowingly or inadvertently. Their arguments seem more political than music-based.

And to answer the media’s question as to whether all artists, if presented with such opportunities, will lap it up, the answer is a definite “no”. I stand testimony to this, by rejecting an offer to sing in praise of a non-Hindu faith system simply because I cannot internalise it, while singing the kind of music I sing now and not particularly due to the implication of conversions. Hence, to portray as if all artists will take up such opportunities, is totally untrue and blasphemous: of course, we artists all are united in condemning the kind of language slung at us.

Also, it is very tricky to take a complete ‘rationality-based stance’ to a sentiment-based issue. If so, we could create a scientific algorithm or a computer program which can produce, say, a Dhanyasi, with the same kind of feeling and emotions which an artist brings alive. At best, it can be a mechanical reproduction, and nothing more.

KS: What do you feel about casteism being brought into this? Do you think such debates really address inclusiveness? What do you suggest we do, if you see a genuine problem?

RP: Firstly, this is a fine art and it is not confined to Brahmins alone. Have we exhausted all the options to expose people from the so-called marginalised communities to Carnatic music? Like, make tens or hundreds of people from these communities sit through mainstream concerts? In response, are there documented references of what their interest levels are, maybe to learn for the sake of performing or for merely listening? This way, artists need not tamper with the art form per se (dilute the art to cater to the masses), but familiarise people who may not have had exposure otherwise, to the original form.

And, by the way, this may include people of the so-called upper castes, many of whom are not drawn to Carnatic music at all. In fact, the connotation here is that the Brahmins are all into Carnatic music. This is incorrect. I do not understand people painting a caste angle here. Shouldn’t our efforts be towards making this art form reach more people, irrespective of caste barriers? And, in addition, why tamper with the art form (which remains a fine art because of the fineness aspect) to artificially increase its value? Merely because it doesn’t reach billions, does Carnatic music become any less valuable? Moral obligation and responsibility to include more people should not come at the expense of people who have made the artists famous.

KS: Any concluding thoughts?

RP: Personally, I find it almost impossible to associate or practise Carnatic music outside of the Hindu religion/Sanatana Dharma framework. It becomes very easy for me to take references from what exists around my ecosystem and openly say that this music is relatable to a particular faith system, an example being Shankara Abaranam. At the same time, I do not hold any moral high ground to condemn or disapprove of those artists who may have a different viewpoint – to each his/her own. I conveyed the same viewpoint to a certain rasika who asked me to ‘advise’ certain singers (professionally junior to me), who sang in praise of the other faith system.

As a practitioner of this art form, I also want to reiterate that artists are united in the view that it is an individual’s choice to perform in a certain way, and that it is unacceptable for rasikas to be using condemnable language to express their opinions. But to portray that all artists are united in the view that they will take up such opportunities to perform is as misleading and indecent as certain media projecting the headline that it is an “artists-versus-rasikas” situation. This is not a zero-sum game.

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