Now the rich stream of Music winds along,
Deep, majestic, smooth and strong,
Now rolling down the steep amain,
Headlong, impetuous, see it pour;
The rocks and nodding groves re-bellow to the roar.
Thomas Gray, The Progress of Poesy
It is a well known fact that humans have a tendency to view the past through rose-tinted lenses. It is also well known that we dislike most change and are convinced that anything new, anything that is a radical departure from a tried-and-tested way of doing things, has to be treated with suspicion and derision. This is no less the case with Carnatic music, where we have convinced ourselves that its history and evolution from the days of the Sama Veda was one long, glorious golden period of old-fashioned courtesy and graciousness in which its composers and practitioners had but the noblest of intents, were motivated by the highest spiritual values, cared for nothing but the purest musical ideals. Thoughts of money - that crass, degrading, immoral commodity- never entered their minds. And then, alas, this ideal state of affairs crumbled to an ignominious end with the winds of change that gathered force and struck at the dawn of the twentieth century.
It is believed that all Indian music has its origins in the Sama Veda, which dates back to over three thousand years ago, and in which the seven notes of the scale are mentioned along with the idea of the octave. Several musical treatises were written after that, including Matanga Muni’s Brihadeesi from the 9th century, Sarangadeva’s 13th century classic Sangeetha Ratnakara, and Venkatamakhi’s Chaturdanda Prakasika of the 17th century. Of these, only Venkatamakhi’s work, in which he laid out the details of the melakarta classification scheme for ragams, has any relevance to how Carnatic music is learned and performed today. Much as we would like to tout its long lineage and ancient origins, the Carnatic music of today has almost no connection with the music described in those treatises, and these serve mainly as sources of historical interest and curiosity. Carnatic music, like anything else, has evolved in fits and starts, leaps and bounds, steadily at times, veering off in unanticipated and unintended directions at other times, nourishing itself from a variety of sources and elements, its destiny controlled by a sweeping range of events and and twists and turns of fate and fortune.
There is not much detail that we know about how Carnatic music was performed, and what the repertory was, before the flowering of Thanjavur as a major center for the patronage of music and dance from the 17th through the 19th centuries. The literature of the Sangam Period, including the Silappathikaram and Tolkappiam, describes well-developed systems of music and performances in royal courts and temples, but is skimpy on details about the actual repertoire and instruments. In the 7th to the 10th centuries, the Bhakti movement took root in Tamil Nadu, with the Tevarams of the great Saivite saints like Manikavachar, Sambandar, Tirunavukkarar and Sundaramurthi, and the Divya Prabandams of the Vaishnavites, several of which are still performed today in dance and music concerts - possibly, this is the oldest extant music of the Carnatic music canon. In their time, they were performed as part of temple rituals and festivals, and the singing was passed from generation to generation, until they slowly sank into oblivion in the 10th century. Today, it is thanks to the efforts of several scholars of music and dance that some of them have been revived and set with contemporary musical aesthetics in mind.
The world of classical music in 17th, 18th and 19th century South India, was one where royal and temple patronage ruled and thrived. There were three distinct musical traditions of performance: the devotional music of the royal courts and palaces, where the primary form of musical performance was vocal, or on the veena, and the songs performed, particularly in the 18th century and beyond, were those of the great Carnatic Trinity - Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshithar, and Shyama Shastri; then there was the music performed in and for temples, as part of their rituals, ceremonies, festivals, processions and celebrations - the largely improvisatory (raga alapanas, depending on the time and the occasion) music of the nadaswaram, accompanied by the tavil; and lastly, the music that accompanied temple dance, which was performed by a group of musicians including a vocalist, an instrumental accompanist (often the flute) and percussionists, with a repertoire consisting of padams, javalis, thillanas, varnams and other items composed especially for dance.
The center of this universe, as far as Carnatic music was concerned, was the magnificent city of Thanjavur, which lay along the delta of the great Cauvery River. It was - and is - a beautiful, fertile place, criss-crossed with rivers and canals that irrigate the emerald-green paddy fields that stretch for as far as the eye can see. Temples, big and small, dot the land and the mighty Brihadeeswara Temple was a seat of music, dance and learning. Thanjavur buzzed with vitality and the best musicians vied for positions of honor and privilege with the rulers. Thanjavur was ruled by the Nayaks in the 16th and 17th centuries, and by the Marathas after that. Both dynasties, particularly the Marathas, encouraged music in a variety of ways and they attracted the best and brightest musicians from all over South India, who saw in Thanjavur the vessel that would nourish, foster and cultivate their musical dreams and aspirations. The Maratha kings encouraged extensive musical research, and several of them actually authored musical treatises, in addition to composing songs. Shahuji, the first Maratha king (ruled from 1684-1712) was both a composer and a scholar of music, composing padams and prabandams, and writing a book that classified ragas and their attributes, called the Sahaji Ragalakshanamu. King Tulaja I, who ruled from 1728-1736, wrote a commentary in Sanskrit, Sangita Saramrita.
By the time of King Tulaja II (ruled 1739-1787), several musicians had been brought in from neighboring as well as faraway towns, to be court musicians. But it was during the rule of King Serfoji II (1798-1832) that Thanjavur reached its peak as a center for musical excellence and scholarship. He set up a separate division of the palace administration to accommodate and administer to the needs and obligations of his court musicians. The most renowned, distinguished musicians of his court were four brothers, collectively called the Tanjore Quartet. Their beautiful compositions are revered to this day as gems of the Bharata Natyam repertoire. Under Serfoji II’s patronage, they achieved the pinnacle in terms of respectability and eminence as musicians. They trained a number of students, and were responsible for regular performances, both by them as well as by their students.
Royal patronage of musicians was a big feather in the cap of the kings of those days. A king’s honor and prestige, his worth as one who valued and encouraged beauty and spirituality, was closely tied to the size and quality of his musical court. Thus, a king spared no expense or effort in ensuring that he attracted the best musicians he could to his court. In turn, the musicians, especially the better ones, used their musical prowess as tools to procure the best positions in the most prestigious courts. Music - performance, scholarship, pedagogy - flourished in these exciting times and conditions. It was only natural, given the importance and and high status that having the best musicians conferred upon the king, that a highly competitive spirit developed and blossomed in these courts. One-upmanship in artistry was rampant, as musicians vied with each other to outdo their rivals in the complexity of their pallavi elaborations, the variety and imaginativeness of their raga alapanas, their mastery and proficiency in labyrinthine rhythmic intricacies.
In the courts of these kings, time was no bar; the musicians could and did take as long as they needed to elaborate a song, a ragam, a pallavi, until every facet had been explored, every possibility developed and interpreted, the musician’s best bested. The king’s durbar hall was the usual venue, and the audience consisted of the close friends of the king as well as leading musical scholars of the day, who often served as arbiters and judges of who was the best. All-night performances were common, and often a single ragam was the focus of the performance as the musician tried to tease out every last beautiful nuance as he journeyed deep into its very heart and soul.
To give you a picture of what a Carnatic music performance was like in the luminous period of Thanjavur’s heyday, I would like to quote a passage from Rangaramanuja Ayyangar’s acclaimed classic, History of South Indian (Carnatic) Music. He writes of the early 1900s:
The incentive provided by the Maratha Royal house and the landed aristocracy of Tanjore has been noticed in previous chapters. The lavish grants and largess enabled musicians to get absorbed in Nada Vidya. Every one was free to cultivate his own aptitude to its fruition and specialise in the branch of his choice. It was such an atmosphere that produced a Todi Raghavier, a Todi Sundara Rao, a Sankarabharanam Narasayya, a Begada Narasihmayyangar, a Narayanagowla Kuppier, a Dolak Nannumiya and the Pallavi veterans. A Devadanam Krishnamoorti,....could elaorate any Raga for hours. Chinna Pakiri, ….played Begada for four hours. A four-hour Mridangam solo for nine days has been referred to....A procession led by a six hour Nagaswaram recital afforded a sumptuous music fare to hundreds of people filling the streets. This habit of sustained listening had great psychological value. It is in this atmosphere that Carnatic Music acquired its vast dimensions. Revelling in this flood of melody for years, “gas-light” bearers for processions, temple menials, cooks at weddings and even care-free vagabonds, who “had not where to lay their heads”, could present snatches of profound music that they had picked up at random. Such was the glory of those expansive days - before 1920.
This was the twilight of the Golden Age, the last of the utopian years, before this seemingly happy, leisurely world collided with the tumult and upheaval of the early 20th century. The laid-back, excellence-and-distinction-soaked ethos of the previous centuries vanished, supplanted by a multitude of isms - colonialism, nationalism, urbanism, commercialism - that swept the country. All these centuries, Carnatic music had been transformed and transmitted under conditions that seemed controlled and controllable. The winds of change that ruffled it were gentler, but as the 20th century dawned, they gathered force into a veritable storm that buffeted the gentle southern way of life. As the 20th century progressed and a nation was being born, the musical heritage of south India underwent its own rebirth.
The early 1900s saw the beginning of the end of the royal court as a political influence and musical patron. Rumblings of the demise of this system were felt even in the mid-1800s, when Swati Tirunal, the Travancore king, attempted to rival the musical eminence and achievements of the Thanjavur court by spending lavishly on the best musicians from around the country and sparing no expense to ensure the highest standards in his courts. Alas, this extravagant patronage was rudely cut short by the British Resident who represented the Madras Presidency. This over-eager Resident, who saw himself as a future Dewan, ingratiated himself with his bosses by complaining that the King wasted too large a portion of his budget on frivolities like dance and music. Swati Tirunal’s wings were clipped, an echo of the fate that had befallen the Thanjavur court a few years earlier, where, in the absence of an heir after the death of King Shivaji II, a British Resident was appointed, who ruthlessly discontinued the system of patronage. Other courts followed suit.
At the same time, the city of Madras was growing into a major commercial center, and many wealthy merchants lived and worked there. They started their own system of musical patronage, and as early as in the 18th century, several distinguished musicians made their home in Madras, including Veena Kuppier, Pattnam Subramania Iyer and Tiruvottriyur Thyagayar. At that time, George Town was the hub of all musical activity. Visiting musicians from the courts of Thanjavur, Bobbili, Mysore and Trivadrum often stopped over in Madras and stayed with local musicians and merchants. Music concerts took place in affiliation with the temples of George Town, Mylapore and Triplicane, and were also sometimes held in the homes of the musicians or their merchant-patrons.
These were stirring times in India, high on sentiments of nationalism and anti-colonialism. There were other, deeper currents running through the social fabric of India. The Indian intellectual elite were keen to lay claim to the existence of a system of music that transcended mere religious ritualism and royal patronage, one that boasted an ancient lineage, history and tradition, that met the highest standards of artistry, finesse, virtuosity and rigor. The separation of temple dance and dance music from the functions and rituals of the temple also played a role in how Carnatic music was perceived and performed. It was now up to the new patrons of music - the wealthy merchants and the intellectual elite - to define the new rules of performance aesthetics.
The life of a commerce-driven city like Madras was very different from that of the royal courts of Thanjavur, Trivandrum, Mysore and others. There were businesses to run, offices to go to. It was time to jettison the all-night concert, the endless exposition of a single ragam. Unable to rely any longer solely on patronage, musicians had to turn to another way to make a living: the commercial concert. Rangaramanuja Ayyangar viewed these developments with dismay. In the History of South Indian (Carnatic) Music, he wrote:
Western science and technology with their pragmatic materialism brought about a swift, hectic movement of time and tide. Hurry and tension pervaded the entire life of the community. The social and economic set-up jolted heavily. The psychological turmoil upset old attitudes. It disrupted human values of personal loyalty, sense of duty, respect for tradition, tolerance and good fellowship. The landed aristocracy which had been the bulwark of culture and fine arts was looked upon as social parasites.......The Gurukula system had died, and so the new-comers in the field had no link with the past culturally or emotionally. Professionalism, competition and absence of esprit de corps marked the neophytes......a branch of national culture, developed for more than 2000 years in sheer dedication to intangible higher values of life, was transformed into a market produce.
Make what you will of Ayyangar’s words. His was a commonly articulated sentiment and time and time again the “crass commercialization” of this deeply spiritual, time-haloed system of music was bemoaned and decried. But one has to look at these developments dispassionately and recognize them as the inevitable outcome of market forces that responded to a vastly altered econo-socio-cultural milieu.
One of the most important phenomena that came out of all these changes was the development of music sabhas, which were cultural organizations that arranged music and dance performances, and that members of the general public became part of by annual or seasonal subscriptions, or by buying tickets for specific performances. According to Professor P. Sambamoorthy, the renowned music scholar, the first sabha in Madras was started in 1895. The earliest sabhas were in the George Town area and included the Krishna Gana Sabha and the Bhagavath Katha Prasanga Sabha. The Parthasarathy Swami Sabha opened in Triplicane in 1901, followed soon after by the Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore.
Then, in 1928, came the birth of the blue-blooded King of Sabhas, the elite Music Academy. Inspired by the agenda of the All India Music Conference in Baroda in 1916, it set for itself the exalted task of promoting and disseminating Carnatic music for the modern era, with contemporary sensibilities and prevailing thoughts and ideals in mind. It tackled the vastly important mission of redefining the universe of Carnatic music, and of establishing a modern concert format.
Debates raged in newspapers and music circles as music lovers and critics praised or deplored the new developments: a fascination with rhythmic virtuosity; the diminishment or total jettisoning of the Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi; the growing interest in Tamil songs. E Krishna Iyer, a person of great eminence in Madras music circles, spoke out forcefully against the inclusion of the pallavi, stating that few musicians had the expertise to do it justice. Through all the arguments, fluster and flurry, it became apparent that there was a compelling need to come up with a standard format for a music performance that showcased the best of the music as well as of the musician.
News sabhas sprang up all over Madras; they had to vie with each other for audiences and also with other newly popular forms of entertainment like the cinema and radio. Ticket sales were the only means by which the sabhas - and musicians - made money, so they had to make sure that what they were offering was worth the price of the ticket, without, at the same time, compromising on quality or tradition.
In 1944, Professor P. Sambamoorthy wrote a paper called “Our Concert Programme: Some Underlying Principles” in which he stated that the concert format had to be “based on certain aesthetic princples” honed by centuries of musical tradition. However, he allowed that it was no longer feasible for the vidwan to expound on a ragam for several hours, in light of the new type of audience that frequented concerts. In another, later essay called “Kaccheri Dharma”, Sambamoorthy advised against preceding each song with a raga alapanam - this would lead to monotony and boredom, the bane of modern audiences. Sambamoorthy added that the performer should include a variety of languages, ragams and tempos to keep the audience engaged and interested. He enunciated rules of audience and performer behavior - professionalism and respect were stressed.
It is also interesting to note that the word used for a Carnatic music concert - kaccheri - traces its origins to Arabic, and means a court of law, and also an “assembly for vocal and dramatic entertainments” and suggests the presence of money. The public kaccheri was seen as the best way to showcase Carnatic music without diluting it with lighter, cheaper elements from the cinema and other undesirable influences. There was a commitment to the popularization of the music of the Trinity. Each member of the Trinity had a clear-cut guru-shishya lineage, which transmitted these songs with their original spirit and musicality intact. Thus the purists could be assured that they were authentic, worthy representatives of a proud musical tradition. But it was also agreed that now, a major function of the music concert was entertainment; too much adherence to high-level intellectualism in musical performance and interpretation would turn away the common man, and ever mindful of their bottom lines, the sabhas could not allow this to happen. It was a fine line that they toed, straddling the old and the new, the serious and the light-hearted, the heart and the head, the hide-bound “purists” and the modernists.
The musician credited with the development of the modern concert format was Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. He was a remarkable person, musically brilliant but also shrewdly practical, with his finger firmly on the pulse of the audience. He realized that the age of hours long raga alapanas was dead, and that the time was ripe for a new type of concert format that catered to the new type of audience and the new economic realities of the day. There was also the new technology of the day - microphones - and the musician’s voice and repertoire had to be adapted to make the best of it. He was a hugely popular performer, and the adulation of his audiences lent him further encouragement to experiment with the concert format. Ariyakudi was deeply involved with the goings-on of the Music Academy from its very inception, and he was thus able to influence it, and as a result, the entire Carnatic music world with his suggestions and ideas. Ariyakudi’s genius lay in his ability to bring together two seemingly incompatible elements - entertainment and classicism - without compromising either, but in fact with each bringing out the best in the other.
In 1933, the Music Academy decided by a resolution that no music concert should exceed three hours. This was thought to be adequate for the performer to demonstrate the best of himself and the music. Ariyakudi declared that it was best to start a performance with a varnam, the ideal way to relax the voice and gently but surely warm it up and expand its range. The varnam should be followed by several kritis of the Trinity in a pleasing range of ragams and tempos, a few preceded by crisp alapanas and followed by scintillating swara kalpanas. There would be a main piece - either a shortened pallavi, or a “heavy” song, complete with raga alapana, neraval and swara kalpanas, followed by the percussionists’ tani avartanam. Then came the lighter, second half of the program, with shorter, easier pieces commonly called thukkadas; these could be padams or javalis or some of the newer Tamil compositions or nationalist songs.
Ariyakudi’s composition-driven concert format, with a heavier first half and a lighter second half, stressing variety and freshness, survives to this day. Today there might be a Hindustani piece thrown in, and Abhangs and other musical forms from other parts of India are becomingly increasingly popular. There is the odd, daring attempt to break away from this format (by starting with a javali, for instance) but thus far, these have failed to dislodge the Ariyakudi format. There has been endless debate on what is a “proper” raga that is fit for elaboration or for pallavi singing, and there have been other path-breaking musicians, like Balamurali Krishna, who have both delighted and appalled audiences with their innovations and experiments. It is people like him who keep the music fresh and alive, and it requires a mature understanding of the true nature of Carnatic music “tradition” to appreciate and accept his contributions.
With the burgeoning of home entertainment systems and the availability of a wide range of music at the click of a key, with ever-more competing sources of entertainment, shrinking free time and other assorted realities of the 21st century, I often wonder if and how Carnatic music will respond. I have no doubt that it will adapt, as it always has, gracefully, intelligently, through the ages. Something as beautiful and uplifting has to, and will, not merely survive, but emerge stronger and lovelier, in gracious harmony with the world.
Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Post Colonial Politics of Music in South India, by Amanda Weidman
New Mansions for Music: Performance, Pedagogy and Criticism, by Lakshmi Subramanian
One Hundred Years of Music in Madras: A Case Study in Secondary Urbanization, by Kathleen L’Armand and Adrian L’Armand
History of South Indian (Carnatic) Music: From Vedic Times to the Present, by R. Rangaramanuja Ayyangar
The Reinvention of a Tradition: Nationalism, Carnatic Music and the Madras Music Academy, 1900-1947, by Lakshmi Subramanian