In the pantheon of Hindu gods, music and dance are revered and relished. The Goddess Saraswathi, resplendent in white, plays divine music on her veena; the music of Krishna's flute is loved by man and animal alike; the earth-shaking power of Nataraja's cosmic dance, accompanied by the enchanting rhythms of the dhamaru drums, carries within it the forces of creation and destruction.
In the realm of mortals, this divine Carnatic music can be enjoyed at kutcheris, or concerts, in sabhas or auditoria around the world. This music, with its sublime poetry, soul-melting ragams and electrifying percussive structures has universal appeal and has delighted and moved audiences around the world.
The world of classical music in 17th, 18th and 19th century South India was one where royal and temple patronage ruled and thrived. 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 alapanas, (free-flowing abstract narratives sung to the notes of a particular ragam) their mastery of 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.
The early 1900s saw the beginning of the end of the royal court as a political influence and musical patron. 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. 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 or kutcheri. This is how the majority of Carnatic music is performed and enjoyed, to this day.
Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, one of the giants of the Carnatic music world in the first half of the 20th century, introduced and popularized a kutcheri structure that included a wide variety of songs and ragams. In his model, the kutcheri began with a varnam to warm up the vocal chords and get the musical juices flowing; this was followed by several “sub-main” songs or krithis, some preceded by alapanas that often merely skimmed the surface of the ragam’s potential beauty. All this built up to the Main Item, which could be a song preceded by an elaborate alapana and possibly even a tanam (an improvisatory form that has a rhythmic pulse and cadenced elements but no actual talam or rhythmic cycle). The Main Item can sprout many branches; there could be a neraval, or a passage where a line from the song is taken through a journey of variations and spontaneous innovations, the singer complementing the composer for a while as new creative possibilities for that line of song are probed; it usually includes kalpana swarams (improvising, in rhythm, using the swarams or notes of the ragam). The Main Item could also be a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi, an item that can push musicians to the far boundaries of their musical ability. The electrifying climax - or, the ideal time to sneak in a coffee break - is the tani avartanam, a firecracker display of the brilliance and complexity of Carnatic music’s percussion element.
It is weighty stuff, the Main Item. And in order to ease matters for the audience, so that they are not overly taxed after the experience of digesting the Main Item, the second half of the program consists of tukkadas, lighter songs that demand no more of the listener than to sit back and hum and tap along to the songs.
This, then, was what Ariyakudi conceived of and it has survived, more or less true to the spirit of the original, to this day. It was flexible and adaptable enough that the musician could choose from a vast range of ragams, talams and songs; it was structurally solid and sound and it appeared that it was here to stay. However, if there is one constant in the history of humankind, it is that nothing survives unchanged forever. And so it appears to be with the Carnatic kutcheri format, itself a relative youngster at less than a hundred years old. The format is morphing, traveling down new paths, exploring new avenues, as people are chipping away at its edges and its very core.
Foremost among the chippers - slasher, or gasher, might be the more appropriate description - is T.M. Krishna, one of Carnatic music’s superstars, its most vocal appraiser, scrutinizer and questioner of the status quo. Krishna says that the current format is too song-heavy and does not adequately emphasize manodharma, or the improvisatory aspect. He even comes close to saying that too many rules about when and how alapanas should be performed can stifle the musician’s creative impulses. Custom prescribes that a song in a particular ragam, Bhairavi, say, should be preceded by an alapana in that ragam. But Krishna sees no need to adhere to that practice. Acutely attuned to urges that are stirring from deep within him rather than to the dictates of the expected kutcheri format, he might sing an alapana in a particular ragam and follow that with a song in an entirely different one. Or he might sing another ragam altogether. The accompanists might be encouraged to follow their inner impulses and play whatever ragam or talam is yearning to come forth. Fripperies like the tukkadas have no place in Krishna’s schema; all music is art music, he avers, all music is serious and should be treated and performed with deep respect, diligence and dedication.
For the most part, Carnatic music audiences are bemused by all this. Comfortably cloaked in established tradition, they are not sure of what to make of Krishna’s words and actions. His words, unfortunately, spewed forth in articles and in a book, A Southern Music, are bloated and long-winded and ramble incoherently, the flow-of-consciousness outpourings of a restless, passionate, sometimes febrile, intelligence. I found it a struggle to wade through the verbose thicket of prose to figure out just what he was trying to convey. He has tackled multiple issues - the Kutcheri format, the Brahmin - non Brahmin divide, gender politics, the role of language - but has not honed his thoughts into cogent arguments and his essays are often an unwieldy mess of opinions in serious need of editing.
However, I do applaud Krishna’s efforts to jumpstart a dialogue on Carnatic music, a form whose practitioners and audience often tend to be cushioned in sanctimonious platitudes about the doyens and doyennes of the good old days who respected the purity and sanctity of this ancient tradition. Any art form needs to evolve, to move with the times, to remain vibrant and to capture interest, and it is no different with Carnatic music. It has never been static and it should not remain so now. It has to balance the demands of the audience with the dictates of “tradition”, the composer’s vision with the performer’s imagination, the appetites of older audiences with what appeals to today’s youth, the spiritual with the commercial. And so much more. Obviously, everybody will draw the line at a different point along the spectrum of what Carnatic music is about and often those points are far apart enough that there is no seeing eye to eye.
Every art form could do with a superstar spokesperson who stirs up the existing state of affairs and makes people sit up and take notice. Carnatic music is hugely fortunate to have one in T.M. Krishna, who is both superbly talented and fearlessly outspoken. It doesn’t hurt that he is also handsome and has a flashy dress sense. Think what you might about his music and his opinions (and his fashion taste) but you cannot deny that he has brought to the fore issues that need debating, points that are worth pondering over. There is much animated discussion about the topics he has raised, in articles and letters to newspaper editors, at kutcheris and at social gatherings. This is wonderful, that Carnatic music is being jolted out of its comfort zone.
Those who know me well know that I am all for experimenting with new styles and formats. I feel that Carnatic music is so exquisite, its core and foundations so strong yet abundantly adaptable, that whatever the format or structure of the concert, nothing can dim its luster when it is beautifully performed. There is place in this world for the traditionalists’ ideal, Krishna’s ideal and multiple other ideals of how Carnatic music should be performed. Its universe is not one where only one star can shine, but where multiple constellations can cast their glow. In this context, allow me a few paragraphs to write about a Carnatic music group that I am a part of in New York, the Navatman Music Collective (NMC), and our very interesting debut performance that took place a few weeks back.
I could wax rhapsodic about the wonderful and mind-bogglingly talented singers of the NMC, and I probably will, sometime in the future, but for now I will spare you that and limit myself to our actual Kutcheri. We wanted to showcase the many faces and facets of Carnatic music to a mixed audience, New York style: people who had been steeped in this music all their lives, those who would be listening to it for the first time and everybody in between. We wanted to highlight the astonishing range that this music encompasses, the many spheres of life it is an integral part of . And above all we wanted to dispel the notion that this was music that was inaccessible to those who were not exposed to it, that it smacked of dreary old-fashioned fuddy-duddyism, that it was entertainment fit only for maamas and maamis, not the young ‘uns of the future.
And so we came up with an idea. We would do something along the lines of “A Day in the Life of Carnatic Music”, in which we would show how Carnatic music is a part of so much of life in south India, in circumstances and on occasions that could be intensely private or open to the world, serious or playful, spiritual or secular; all this and so much more - how it is taught, how it is a part of cinema music, how it has made its way into fusion, its inextricable connection with classical dance. We would leverage the synergies and possibilities that set apart a group performance from an individual one; we made use of harmonies, not commonly heard in Carnatic music, we played off each other, we created a living, dynamically evolving entity of our group. And yet if you closed your eyes and listened, even the most hard-nosed purists among you would admit that every song adhered to the bedrock principles of Carnatic music - perfect sruthi alignment, impeccable diction, sublime ragam and song delivery and clockwork-precision talam.
Let me take you through our Carnatic music suffused day, by way of our our program.
Our day began in the predawn darkness with a prayer-slokam, the Govindashtakam. Nine voices in unison, accompanied only by the soft hum of a tambura and the gentle tinkle of a prayer bell. Nine singers with wildly varying lives, opinions, aspirations, goals and obstacles, but finding inner peace and serenity together as the music we made washed over us in waves of beauty.
It was then time for a music lesson as I “led” the group through a brilliant jatiswaram-like composition in the ragam Gavati, composed by two precociously talented sisters, who accompanied us on our performances on the violin and mridangam. The “class” was divided into two groups that each sang separate lines of notes that harmonized together which, with the scintillating rhythmic cadences of the song made for a sparkling item that revealed new facets of Gavati. Our “class” had them all - the inveterate mistake maker, the eager beaver, the day-dreamer.....
Next was a visit to a temple, to pay obeisance to the Goddess Ambal, and what more sublime song to express one’s devotion than Muthuswami Dikshithar’s Kamalamba Bhajare in Kalyani?
We followed this with a “traditional” kutcheri Main Item in microcosm, with a ragam alapana, “serious” song, neraval and kalpana swarams. The climax was a dazzling tani avartanam by our mridangist that brought the audience to its feet.
Matters switched to a lighter vein as we enacted the age-old ritual of winning a spouse through one’s musical prowess. Only, in a twist to how things are (or were) normally done, and with a nod to customs of yore, we had a fun swayamvara scene where three groups of “suitors” attempted to capture the heart of the prospective young bride by singing Subramania Bharathi’s lyrics, Suttum Vizhi Chudardaan, in three styles: the Kollywood suitors singing the cinema version from Kandukondein Kandukondein; the Carnatic traditionalists singing a Carnatic version; and the “north Indians” singing a Hindustani version that was our own in-house creation. Such fun, and an only-in-New York-scenario where married and single women and gay and single men vied for the hand of the young lady!
Many people have some idea about Carnatic music thanks to movie songs. This is only natural, given that most Indian movie music is based on classical ragams but without being bound to many of the structural strictures of the form. To display the rich synergies between classical and movie music, we performed an Anthakshari-type medley of movie songs. The A.R. Rahman and Ilayaraja camps were both well represented, as were Hindi songs, and there wasn’t a person in the audience without a smile on their face as the medley wove through movie favorites old and new.
After this came an R&B - Carnatic “mash-up” that showed just how versatile our music can be, how soulfulness, love and longing can be expressed in any musical language.
And to cap it all, the sparkling thillana in Hindolam composed by Dr. Balamurali Krishna. What fun we had with that thillana! It practically begged to played around with and we incorporated harmonies, beatboxing, lightning-fast taans and konnakol. It was all we could do to stop ourselves from actually dancing along!
That was it. We performed for three nights in a row; the vibe and energy were different each night but so many people came up to us and said that they loved it, that they were inspired to want to learn more about this music. Just for that, all those long nights of rehearsing, the seemingly endless repetitions of a single phrase till we got it right, the sore voices, the sleepless nights, the stress of juggling the demands of school, work, home and rehearsals were so worth it. This, too, is as legitimate a kutcheri format as any.
Let me finish with a few facts and observations that people not acquainted with the kutcheri scene might not know about.
The performers in a kutcheri come together and make music that is created on the spot from whatever synergies are present at that moment between the musicians, between the musicians and the audience, and from within themselves. Organized, planned rehearsals are rare and so an audience never quite knows what to expect. A delicious hum of anticipation pervades the scene: what will the musicians be in the mood for that day? Will the violinist and vocalist click, or will they drift down separate streams of music?
While on the stage the musicians attempt to capture that elusive magic that will elevate their performance to something transcendental, the audience is often engaged in a variety of not-so-transcendental activities. There is the talam cabal, a band of rhythm-challenged maamas and maamis who do not let that fact deter them from putting the talam, loudly and conspicuously, to a rhythm that only they can fathom. There is the ragam-guessing clique whose loudly hissed discussions of what ragam the musician might be performing can be heard at the far ends of the auditorium; the tiffin gang who waits impatiently for the percussionists to start their solo to then trample over toes and umbrellas in their rush to reach the aromatic haven of the canteen. Let’s not forget the sharp-eyed maamis in their rustling Kanchivaram pattus and glittering diamonds who appear to be paying keen interest to the music, but are actually paying keener attention to the matrimonial possibilities present in the hall. Watch out - you might be next on their radar!
For sheer joy and entertainment, there is nothing in the world like a Carnatic music concert!
As a reward for having made it through to the end, here are two offerings: one a "commercial" for our show "starring" yours truly as an ill-tempered cook; the other, a link to where you can get a recording (not from our kutcheri - just voices, no instruments) of some of us singing the Hindolam thillana.