Who Owns Thyagaraja?

by Keerthik Sasidharan - Oct 12, 2014 11:00 AM +05:30 IST
Who Owns Thyagaraja?

A music company claims copyright on a Carnatic composition. Very soon we may see similar commercial ownership claims on ragas

O Ranga Sayee…’ is a song-composition by Thyagaraja Swami, the most hallowed of Carnatic composers from the 19th Century. Per tradition, it is the third (and perhaps, the most popular) of the quintet called the ‘Sriranga Pancharatna’, which are dedicated to Lord Ranganatha. The most prominent of Ranganatha temple resides on the island of Sri Rangam, which is surrounded by the waters of the river Kaveri and its minor tributary called the Kollidam.

Together, as they snake past the city of Thiruchirapalli (Trichy), they carve out an islet on which the temples of Srirangam reside in splendor and solitude. In a way, the temple is uniquely blessed — it is geographically separated from the hubbub of the city, yet is socio-culturally close to an important urban center. Over the past century or more, many luminaries have performed this particular composition which is set in Raga Kamboji. From Ariyakudi Ramanujam Iyengar, MS Subbulaksmi, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Sheikh Chinna Moulana to the prominent singers of our times like T. M. Krishna, Bombay Jayashree, Sankaran Namboodiri et al.

Across generations, this composition has been a favourite on both sides of the stage. The popularity of this particular composition is not hard to discern. For the musician, the capaciousness of a ragam like Kamboji allows for more musical elaboration and exploration. That most musicians choose the phrase “bhooloka vaikuntha…” from the song to perform ‘neraval’ (improvisation), to explore the contours of the raga in the upper registers of their voice gives the composition a heightened emotional colour that appeals vividly to all listeners.

Like many of Thyagaraja’s compositions, the words to the song reveals a degree of familiarity, of intimacy, between the devotee and his God. In this particular song, the devotee complains that Sri Rangantha has been neglectful of him, lost as He is in the love of his consort, Sri Devi. This tradition of a devotee complaining about a neglectful God can be found in older literature, such as in the great Telugu poet Annamacharya’s works, as well. Perhaps, this desire to remonstrate about the behavior of one’s beloved highlights an all too human frailty.

Who Owns Thyagaraja?

Thyagaraja’s composition, in its own way, brings together history, belief and song. It acts as a witness to civilizational memory. It also reflects how common cultural and emotional resources are shared, preserved and distributed. Some might say, a musical composition is precisely what ‘civilization’ is.

Yet a new kind of challenge is beginning to reveal itself that endangers the creation, sustenance and distribution of such cultural practices. Thanks to a potent concordance of online technology, copyright law and rent-seeking models of business — recording companies have begun to assert ‘copyright’ to classical compositions such as ‘O Ranga Sayee’. They do so on the world’s popular video sharing sites such as Youtube. This is a similar, but more subtle, form of private property claims, in contrast to rights over seeds and genetic material.

Youtube is an online video and audio sharing platform — where individuals, companies and groups upload their content. From the barbarism of terrorists in Syria and Iraq to the sublime new findings in astrophysics — Youtube is an (almost open) platform for everybody. Naturally, as is to be expected, many abuse it by uploading content that belongs to others. Films, music, other commercially produced content etc — make it into YouTube.

Since American copyright laws are stringent — YouTube and other such online streaming technologies have adopted a technological solution to identify potential copyright violators. Often in the case of new American tracks — there is a clear identification about the creator of the content, who is justifiably allowed to earn royalties from their creation.

These royalties allow artists to survive and hopefully thrive. In a more prosaic sense, such identification with ownership is the creation of ‘private property’. If Marx wrote of medieval English efforts to fence out the tenants from large farms to create a new kind of post-feudal ownership, the present day intellectual private property is created by laying claims to ownership and extracting rents for services rendered. Authors, musicians and other creative artists do that. This idea of ‘ownership’ is easy to identify when the created content is new. But such clear cut demarcations of who the creator is begins to fray when the recording under review is from a classical and a “foreign” tradition like Carnatic music. Any copyright identifying technology system can be manipulated to lay extensive claims on common cultural resources.

This issue was most vividly seen recently, when a video channel on Youtube called ‘Parivadini’ uploaded an hour long concert. Youtube’s automated ‘copyright’ identifying mechanism flagged the classical compositions as violation. The technology informed that the composition ‘O Ranga Sayee’ was owned by a third party (in this case a company called ‘Lahari Music’) and the content was disputed. It is important to note the difference: it is not that company is claiming ownership of a particular recording by a particular artist. It is instead claiming ownership on the composition itself that has come down over centuries. What followed as a response was also symptomatic of our times: a petition on change.org, a short report in The Hindu and some online heckling at the company’s rapaciousness and Youtube’s naiveté. Beyond this, the outrage slowly died down.

What is however clear is that in the years to come — this sort of appropriation is increasingly likely to occur. And this won’t solely be the fault of international mega-corporations like Google (which owns Youtube) but also thanks to the connivance of opportunistic small scale recording houses that operate an old business model in an new online-sharing environment. These small firms predictably will seek to monetize all of their assets and convert each track into a revenue stream. Competition and market forces nudge firms into this direction. Such issues like Parivadini versus Lahari Music is increasingly likely to come to the fore as more of Indian classical traditions, which are by definition ownerless, are consumed across the world by the Indian diaspora. Every online click can have a dollar value attached to it.

The consequences of using such indiscriminate ‘copyright’ labels is then easy to discern. Those companies, or artists, with capital, human resources and technological wherewithal will move onto lay claims on common cultural resources. Soon, any time you play a particular kritivarnam or khayalover and beyond the revenue from online advertisements, they will also make claims on that particular music in perpetuity. Just as gharanas or banis are associated with particular compositions, we could end up in a dystopian world where firms own copyright for songs.

At present, firms like Youtube allow for dispute resolution, but this is a tedious and tiresome process. It is easy to see that in face of concerted efforts to assert ‘ownership’, most artists or sabhas simply do not have resources or time to fight such online claims of ownership. Another decade or two of such dubious claims to ownership, and we could well have “privatization” of public, cultural, resources. When T.M.Krishna says in The Hindu: “Every rendition of a song in Carnatic music is a unique creation. I could sing the same song 1000 times on different occasions. But each rendition would be a unique creation” — it is based on the belief that such variations are recognizably different to non-Carnatic listening audiences. When such adjudicating mechanisms are technological algorithms and far-removed technocrats — we are soon face to face with a dystopia where committees of managers will determine the originality of artists.

The solutions to such problems is not in an anti-copyright stance or to deny companies the methods to make money — but to collective negotiate with large online technology firms to protect our common resources. Youtube and other such platforms are here to stay; but so are India’s common cultural resources. Organizations like the The Music Academy in Madras, Sangeet Natak Akademi or ITC Sangeet Research Academy ought to take leadership to help Youtube et al agencies do their homework in such matters. Failing this, there is probably need to legislate into our laws provisions that deny such ‘privatization’ of cultural properties.

More importantly, this particular issue reveals a deeper and more troubling reality. Tools determine how we comprehend the world. Maps were invented in the northern hemisphere, and hence we have representations where Europe is “up” and Australia is “down”. There is no ‘real’ need for this particular representation except for the cartographical innovations that flowed from the West to the rest of the world. Centuries later, but all too similarly, when technologies are invented in the West and adopted in culturally different contexts like India — we lose our ability to assert our independence to represent ourselves in ways that matter to us.

Online platforms like Youtube with its grammar of copyright and rules of ownership evolved from an American cultural context. Its world-view of how technology interacts with the world is rooted in the world it was born in. Over a period, as technologies are adopted (often blindly, helplessly), we slowly lose our ability to think and see for ourselves. The world comes filtered, mediated through mechanisms of representations. Filters, in whose production, we have no say in. If India, and Indians, are to protect their own heritage, their own unique cultural past — it will have to influence, if not invent, technologies that bow to our collective imperatives as a Nation-State and more importantly, our civilizational ethos. For this end, our governments must actively foster technology incubators and R&D efforts — as often argued since the days of Professor Paul Romer since the mid-1980s — provide tax relief for business who adopt new innovations, facilitate engineering and business competitions for Indians to invent the tools, firms and processes that are more amenable to Indian contexts and demands.

That, more than anything, is the lesson we must learn from such ‘clash of civilizations’.

(This piece was originally published in Malayalam in The Mathrubhumi.  Picture Courtesy – Thyagaraja Aaradhana)

Keerthik Sasidharan was born in Palakkad; was educated in Canada and lives in NYC. His writings have appeared in The Hindu, The Caravan and other publications. He is working on his first book, to be published by Aleph Book Company.

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