Where music is in the air

It is that time of the year when Chennai resounds with strains of Carnatic music, classical arts performances and even Hindustani concerts. Aficionados, artistes and sponsors team up to offer a feast to music lovers. T. S. Raman on the unique Chennai music festival, an occasion hard to come by elsewhere

Come December, Chennai ceases to be just the political capital of Tamil Nadu. For over a melody-laden month stretching weeks beyond the New Year, the metropolis becomes the capital of South Indian music.

As the two years meet and the coastal air is filled with strains of the Carnatic music, proud aficionados throng concert halls to pay their tribute to its classical purity. It is the time for many to celebrate the capacity of the Carnatic music for contemporaneity. It is also a time for some controversy, with a small but significant and sensitive section of opinion stressing the need for the further transition of this school of music to a non-elitist future.

As in Europe's spring festivals, the best climatic season of this part of the country is also its famous "music season". There is nothing quite like it, perhaps, anywhere in the West or in India.

The "season" is an annual socio-cultural event, Chennai's equivalent of Kolkata's Puja. In this Tamil month of Margazhi, not only do the streets of Mylapore ring with the sound of group hymns in the hazy mornings. The afternoons and evenings are devoted to music, too, for the middle class. The sabha (the music association and, derivatively, its concert hall)) then replaces film theatre as the setting for family entertainment and outing.

The media is full of music, as well, with special issues and pullouts for the "season". Websites join in. Music scholar V. Sriram has his well-informed www.sanqeetham.com and, from this week, Chennai’s Music Academy its www.musicacademymadras.in. Then, of course, there is the prestigious Shruti, the periodical for the pundits.

This is a time for artistes of every stature, from titans to tyros. Doyens like D. K. Pattammal are honoured at kutcheris (concerts), while kathakuttis (learners) get arangetrams (debut performances).

This year, Chennai has 300 kutcheris and 2,000 participants. Pattammal's Chinese student Chong Chiu Sen returns to the city for three months of classes and to listen to N. Vijay Siva, the new star.

There is a concert in most suburbs every night. The young throng where Yesudas, Unnikrishnan, Bombay Jayashree sing and U. Srinavas or Anandan Sivamani play and TCS and Infosys are sponsors. A sabha like Hamsadhwani has 3,000 members and, for more than a decade, it has organised a fest for NRI musicians.

It is from the young NRIs that the best innovations in Carnatic music are coming, say many critics.

Only a few organisers like the Bharani Gana Sabha offer free concerts. "All our sessions are packed as we do not charge any entry fee. Our source of income is from sponsors. The real rasikas (connoisseurs) who cannot afford to buy high-priced tickets in the big sabhas come to us and we offer quality music", H. Ramakrishnan of the Bharani tells the media.

It is not economics alone, however, that has taken the Carnatic music away from the masses, Notes George Hart writing on pre-Sangam and Sangam poetry: "`85the low castes whose primary function was to control sacred power were musicians (the Panans), drummers (the Tutiyans and Paraiyans), or dancers (Velans) for music and dance are highly ordered and can control the forces of disorder the first thing that had to be done when a man was wounded was for a bard or drummer to stand next to him and to play the bard was supposed to play the lute and sing in the houses of high class people in order to create an auspicious atmosphere. Thus music had ‘pans’, the same as modern ‘ragas’, each of which fit a certain situation and certain time of day."

This is a time for artistes of every stature, from titans to tyros
This is a time for artistes of every stature, from titans to tyros. A musician only arrives if he has performed at the Chennai Festival. (Top) Yesudas, (Above) The Bombay Sisters

Critic Garimella Subramaniam makes a similar point: "The ghatam, the mridangam, the veena and the khanjeera are still made by those lower in the caste hierarchy, but from these communities a contemporary kutcheri star can hardly be found." The elitisation of the Carnatic music has gone ahead with its emergence as big business. The leader in the business, valued at Rs 400 crore, of course, is Chennai’s Music Academy which initiated the Madras intelligentsia into the sabha culture in 1927. Eventually, there came a time when a Carnatic musician, who could not manage a performance at the Academi, had not "arrived".

All this a far cry from the origin and evolution of the Carnatic music with and through the Bhakti movement. This was a movement of social democracy and anti-elitist in its essence.

Centuries ago, the Vaisnavaite saints or Alwars and the Saivite Nayanmars, writing hymns in Tamil, brought a Sanskritised religion and culture, including music, closer to the masses. Perialwar's hymns and Andal’s compositions, known as Tiruppaavai, were first chanted in the villages of Srivilliputur during Margazhi before dawn painted the
eastern sky.

Nammalwar's Tiruvaimozhi hyms (eighth century) were first sung in the temple-town of Srirangam, and the spiritual leader Ramanujam arranged for the first 21-day concerts for the deity here.

"Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer used to reminisce about the way villagers walked along the streets in the mornings, blowing conches and singing bhajans. This is still done around many Tamil Nadu temples", says Shobha Warrier, a media kutcheri-watcher for a decade. However, there is no denying that Margazhi music is on the decline across rural South and Carnatic music has moved to upmarket Chennai.

There is an interesting story about how the last alwar, Thirumangaialwar, arranged to have 4,000 hymns of Thiruvaimozhi sung to Srirangam's resident deity and Nadamuni resurrected many of them centuries later. Seldom are researched and rare compositions given publicity in Chennai's kutcheris.

Evident is the tendency to date classical music, as if "tradition" is only 300 years old, arriving suddenly out of nowhere with poet-singer Thyagaraja (1767-1847), who for 80 long years took the keertanas to the masses in the true tradition of Bhakti music.

Attempts are being initiated to modernise the themes of the Carnatic compositions to widen their appeal.
Attempts are being initiated to modernise the themes of the Carnatic compositions to widen their appeal. — Photos by A.J. Philip

The Bhakti movement began in the South and, by the 14th century, Haridasa Purandara Dasa from Karnataka, singers in Kerala’s sopanam style, Ramdas of Bhadrachalam all contributed extensively to music. The padas of Annamacharya (born 1406A.D.) were first sung on the Tirumala hills and he is said to have composed 32,000 keertanas, not many of which reach the kutcheris.

This long tradition of Bhakti music was behind Thayagaraja (in Thiruvarur), Shyama Sastri (1762-1827) and Muthuswami Dikshitar (from the Maratha court in Thanjavur).

"The kutcheri culture is because of the growth of the metropolis", says Subramaniam. With the advent of the British empire was born Madras city and the rich Mudaliars and Chettiars became the new patrons of art and culture.

Once music was only an accompaniment of dance, with slow alaaps as in the khyaal, just three or four lines were sung and re-sung; an artiste had to demonstrate his virtuosity. But, in the 19th century, when they needed mass acceptability, this changed and musicians tried to balance both alaap and the song, say music historians.

And Carnatic music was not always concerned with ‘purism’. "Even Thyagaraja and Dikshitar came to Madras and heard band music", Subramaniam points out. "They saw the violin in use for the first time and soon violin and mandolin became a part of Indian classical tradition. That is when the secular adaptation of the Bhakti movement began".

By the 19th century, temple musicians had begun to realise that the new rulers were Queen Victoria and the Governor-General and songs were composed in their praise partly in English, partly in Telugu. Carnatic went fusion that long ago.

Anti-elitist, too, was the Tamil Isai Iyakkam (Tamil Music Movement). It was a conscious effort to liberate Carnatic music from the stranglehold of Sanskrit and then Telugu and take bhava to the Tamil-speaking masses.

Around the same time, attempts were initiated to modernise the themes of the Carnatic compositions, dealing mostly with religious devotion. The kutcheri could not keep out Vande Mataram and Subramania Bharati's songs during the freedom movement. Carnatic music was evolving with the times.

But, after Independence, "there is a conscious effort to remove all memory of engagement with the colonial culture which is a fact of history, and no one wants to talk about this", Subramaniam says.

With more kutcheris, management of music went completely into the hands of the upper castes. Concerts often became just complexity competitions, as if Carnatic music were meant only for the ears of the pundit and ticketed audience.

The kutcheri format became rigid, too. It is today just two-and-a-half-hour long, not the four-hour performances of the 19th century. It consists of what is known as a varnam, a warm-up exercise, a small song, a longer composition, the ragam-tanam-pallavi feature, and lighter songs. Carnatic music, according to some critics, needs to be liberated from this framework, too.

So rigid are establishment critics that even today they fail to give unreserved recognition to singers like Yesudas, while many other playback artistes with classical training, supposedly polluted by their cinematic association, are kept out of kutcheris. This elitism has prompted the rise of the exotic Other Festival and made Ruhaniyat, a Bangalore organisation, bring an annual Sufi and Mystic Music Festival to Chennai in Marghazhi.

Coming Decembers will, hopefully, witness an increasing transformation of the main event from an elitist extravaganza for the middle class into a music festival for the masses.