Who Moved My Music?
Carnatic music has historically been linked to bhakti and is an integral part of the Hindu worship system.
Appropriation of the music by Evangelists is unfair, and what is more worrying is musicians playing into the hands of this group.
The recent upheaval in the rather sedate and dignified world of Carnatic music has left many feeling unsettled. The issue was the singing of songs in praise of Jesus by a host of top rung Carnatic musicians. I had vented my ire on the maverick Carnatic musician T M Krishna when he attacked the rationale for the Carnatic fraternity to question the artistes. When I posted it on social media, I just was getting it out of my system.
The kind of chorus that I got from people across the spectrum was something that I was unprepared for. (T M Krishna may be disappointed to know that the support came not from the upper echelons of the Hindu society, but from many friends and total strangers in other communities including the Christian community).
Once the initial dust settled down, I sat down to think why this issue affected many of us in such a deep manner. There have been in the past many such assaults that have been taken rather stoically. So why was this different and why was the reaction so swift?
The Positioning Of Carnatic Music In The Hindu Household
Indian classical music is as old as Sanathana Dharma itself. The seven notes and the octaves in the Indian music are referred to in the Samaveda. Indian classical music, of which Carnatic forms a part, has historically been linked to bhakti and is an integral part of the Hindu worship system.
There is a song aligned with almost every Hindu festival – and there is a musical instrument in the hands of some of our principal deities. Saraswati – the goddess of learning is never depicted without her veena and is known by another name Veena Vani.
There are folklores about the gandharvas (musicians) the celestial nymphs who adorned the court of Indra, the kind of the devas. In traditional households even today a puja ends with a song and an aarti. It is not by accident that most of the kritis (songs) in Carnatic music is in praise of the Hindu gods and godesses, the gurus and in general about the Hindu way of life.
The Positioning Of Carnatic Music As A Public Art Form
The professional rendition of Carnatic music dates back to the royal courts and temples. But the present day concert form was popularised by the maestro, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. The reasons why this music and by extension the musicians are respected and elevated by the listeners include (a) the pre-requisite of sadagam (practice) or professional dedication to their music; (b) their ability to provide a musical bridge to the divine in a three-hour concert; (c) their ability to improvise through an alapana or a Kalpana swara thereby removing it from a structured scientific rendition to an art form.
While an amateur singer at home may know and sing the same kriti, the nuance and flavour provided by the singer was eagerly awaited and appreciated. Unlike the other forms of bhakti sangeet like a bhajan, which was more of an emotional singing, the typical Carnatic musician had to mind the science of the music consisting of the sruti, raga, taal without compromising on the bhava. This required dedication, discipline, knowledge, creativity and bhakti whereby the musician acts as a medium to the Paramatma. (The revered musician M S Subbulakhsmi personified this).
The Usage Of Carnatic Raga In Other Forums
For many decades now, Carnatic raga based film music, folk music and even reformist music has been in existence. But usually when these genres use the Carnatic raga, it generally gets simplified or decoded to appeal to that audience. Hence the inherent rigour and bhakti that is synonymous to Carnatic music is perhaps lacking. While these songs are still hummable, they are never considered serious contenders to be tagged as “Carnatic music”.
The rasikas have never in the past objected to these songs or their favourite Carnatic musicians singing such songs in the past. There have been one off songs sung by some great composers such as Vedanayagam Pillai or in praise of gods from other religions even in concerts. When they are done to provide variety in the concerts they have been received with respect and decorum by the rasikas.
Why TM Krishna’s Argument Of Spreading Music Sounds Hollow
While the controversy on the desirability of Carnatic musicians singing songs on other religions was raging, contrarian Krishna jumped into it, although in this instance (surprisingly) his actions were not being debated. Krishna protests centred around three broad points (1) A Carnatic raga applied to any god or even godlessness will still remain Carnatic music; (2) The musicians had a right to sing what they wanted and (3) These protests were an attempt to keep Carnatic music within a certain group. His rebuttal – to sing one song a month on gods of other religions or even an atheist-themed song.
Krishna’s protests and solution are shallow to start with and, perhaps, indicates his approach to the music that he practises. He seems to think that Carnatic music is some kind of vocal gymnastics. Without the bhakti quotient, if it is a song based on Carnatic raga – it is not Carnatic music.
Secondly, if he is really worried about the narrow-minded attitude of the protestors, he is most welcome to compose songs on Hindu gods based on Carnatic ragas, use a simple raga and beat and take it to the public. It is not as if he has finished spreading the word with the Hindu masses that he has to focus on the masses of the other religions. And as already mentioned the Carnatic rasikas have never grudged the individual preferences of their artistes to experiment with their music.
To say Carnatic music is familiar to the upper crust was perhaps true a few decades ago. The increasing democratisation of the field and the consequent competition has resulted in a spread of Carnatic music across all the geographies where there are Indians are (read Indians and not South Indian Brahmins).
Anyway, it is not as if the proponents are some secret society practising their music in dark rooms. Nothing is stopping anyone from learning/ listening to Carnatic music both online and offline. The dedication and passion of Dr K J Yesudas is what perhaps made Vidvan Chembai Vaidyanathan to impart his knowledge to his talented protege. Anyone who wants to and is really dedicated can learn and further their passion and knowledge for Carnatic music.
The multiple platforms that are available today provide them enough opportunities to pursue it seriously if they so desire. So this “upper crust art” accusation is nothing but another headline grabbing statement pandering to a select audience.
The Dwindling Carnatic Rasikas – An Excuse?
A few articles claimed that the patronage of Carnatic concerts is dwindling and hence the musicians need to spread their wings in their own interest. And the music season's afternoon concerts see empty halls.
The listener has to make a choice depending on his/her liking. If there are 50 plus Western music concerts or Bollywood film music concerts going on in New York or Mumbai respectively on the same day you are sure to find empty halls.
The patronage for the music also comes with demand in terms of performance. It is only fair that the musician remains on top of the game if they expect the rasikas to be loyal. And frankly there is nothing unique about this – it is true in every field and profession.
Why This Outcry?
The problem started with a series of top line singers suddenly announcing concerts dedicated to a particular religion or doing full albums. The scale of the problem led the rasikas to suspect that this was not a regular musical endeavour but perhaps had a larger sinister dimension.
The presence of certain known evangelical personalities and organisations across these efforts strengthened this suspicion. The rasikas wondered whether the traditional musicians where perhaps playing into the hands or worse endorsing the evangelists. The removal of the soul of the Carnatic music - the bhakti component - worried the rasikas who were uncomfortable with this scale of dilution of this ancient and revered classical music form.
The rasikas (a majority of them) called for a boycott of these singers and they are well within their right to do so. This is perhaps the most non violent protest of all. The simple message the rasikas are giving the musicians is “if you want to go that route in our eyes you may cease to be a Carnatic musician”.
If the musicians want to exercise their choice of what to sing and who they will sing for, the rasikas also have a right to exercise their choice as to who they will listen to. So what is wrong in that? There are enough new singers who are extremely talented, and who will benefit in the process.
Why The Evangelical Connection Is Worrying?
Now is the Evangelical bogey imaginary? I don’t think so. It is common knowledge that the evangelists have been aping Hindu customs and practices in the churches for a while now. Churches across South India follow practices such as lighting diyas, aartis, chariot festivals and host of other practices inherently linked to the Hindu way of worship. There are chants that sound very much like Hindu mantras and there is even a “Me too Suprabhatham” dedicated to Jesus in Sanskrit.
There have been attempts to appropriate the Samaveda for Christianity. The song that Nithyashree Mahadevan sung is presented by Jeeva R Pakerla whose site has many albums on Christ and evangelical work done by him across South India as a servant of Christ. O S Arun’s concert Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetham was organised by T Samuel Joseph (Shyam).
A music director in Tamil and Hindi, his avowed purpose is to get Christian songs sung in Carnatic ragas. Dr Jegath Caspe Raj with whom Aruna Sairam is seen releasing an album on Jesus is famous in the political circles of Tamil Nadu. Wikipedia talks about his association with Tamil Maiyam and Chennai Sangamam and also of his role as an intermediary to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
His association with Radio Veritas (RV), a non-profit organisation, is also known. According to the Asian Tribune, RV is committed to proclaiming god’s love to the people of Asia by producing Catholic evangelisation programmes. The entire spectrum of Carnatic artists suddenly spreading communal peace (as Nithyashree claimed) through singing songs on Jesus cannot be a coincidence.
In the Carnatic tradition, the practice of music is termed nadhopasana (worship of the nadha or the sound). There are references in the ancient scriptures that refer to the Lord as Nada Tanu meaning one whose body is sound. The Carnatic rasikas who are proud of their heritage and tradition have a reason to be upset. While each individual artist has a full right to sing whatever they want, if they go down the road of evangelism, they will have to run the risk of losing their core base on which they built their career, name and fame.
Protection Of Intellectual Property
There is a discussion on whether songs of the musical trinity of Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri and other songs of the Carnatic music genre can be protected using intellectual property rights or other legal means. There is no harm in evaluating it but it is akin to controlling the ocean with a lid.
Would like to end with the words of Rabindranath Tagore (a musician himself): “For us, music has above all a transcendental significance. It disengages the spiritual from the happenings of life, it sings of the relationships of the human soul with the soul of things beyond. The world by day is like European music, a flowing concourse of vast harmony, composed of concord and discord and many disconnected fragments. And the night world is our Indian music, one pure, deep and tender raga. They both stir us, yet the two are contradictory in spirit. But that cannot be helped.
At the very root nature is divided into two, day and night, unity and variety, finite and infinite. We men of India live in the realm of the night, we are overpowered by the sense of One and Infinite. Our music draws the listener way beyond the limits of everyday human joys and sorrows and takes us to that lonely region of renunciation which lies at the root of the universe, while European music leads us a variegated dance through the endless rise and fall of human grief and joy.”
In conclusion, would like to submit to the Carnatic musicians to listen to their music, which is, perhaps, their god and conscience. At the end of the day, the music is bigger than the musicians.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.