Tradition can be a strict taskmaster. It requires rules, boundaries, conformity. As the elder statesman in the room it demands acquiescence to its strictures and norms. In its home territory, it commands respect and a certain awe, an implicit understanding that it is not to be tampered with, that it has been honed to perfection over the ages.
But then what happens when tradition travels abroad to set roots in alien soil where people, especially those of succeeding generations, may not instinctively “get” it and everything it stands for, or don’t care for it, or worse still, have scorn for it? When tradition is taken abroad, it is shorn of history and context and can become a pale shadow of its old self, withered down into mere exotica, jostling for attention and the limelight along with other similarly enfeebled traditions from other cultures. It can, and often does, evolve into something that is either a monstrous freak, or a thing of beauty, depending on whom you ask.
A case in point: Carnatic music, the classical music of southern India whose origins are traced to an ancient religious text, the Sama Veda, which is believed to have been written three thousand years ago. It is a breathtakingly beautiful musical form that is also fiendishly complex: its thousands of ragas or melodic modes, mathematically labyrinthine rhythm cycles and microtonal intricacies can take years of training to learn and master. It is often held up as the exemplar of all that is traditionally, purely, quintessentially South Indian, something that has stood the test of time of many centuries of practice. Unchanged. Unchanging.
Peer into history’s mirror, however, and a more nuanced reflection emerges. Much as we would like to tout its long lineage and ancient origins, the Carnatic music of today — the pedagogy, repertoire and performance — has almost no connection with its earliest incarnations. Like anything else, it 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, fate, and fortune. Much of how this music is performed and taught would be unrecognizable to practitioners and students of just a few generations ago. A lot of what is considered “traditional” today — and therefore timeless and ancient — actually only came into being less than a hundred years ago, which is a mere blink of an eye for a music that had its birth in prehistoric times. And this tradition itself was youthful not so long back, ruffling feathers, pushing boundaries, breaking barriers, provoking angry mutters. But, this is what became accepted as the norm for much of the 20th century through the 1980s. As those who came of age in those years grow older and watch the winds of time blow through their precious memories and notions, they cling ever harder to the idea that this way of doing things should be preserved.
While it is fascinating to study how Carnatic music evolved over the centuries in India, it is just as interesting to witness and examine its development as it crossed the seven seas and tried to establish itself in the United States. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, which abolished ‘national origin’ quotas for immigrants. This opened the floodgates to waves of immigrants from around the world. Indians, most of whom were highly skilled professionals and frustrated with the limited opportunities for professional growth and progress in their country, immigrated in ever larger numbers to the US, bringing with them their food, language, customs and music. A large proportion of them were from the south of India. Homesick and eager to keep alive their culture and impart it to their children, they tried to make Carnatic music a part of their lives, organizing concerts that were attended only by other fellow south Indians who often drove for miles to them, arranging lessons and trying, desperately, to open their children’s ears, minds and hearts to this music that meant so much to them.
I have listened to the fruits of the efforts of the earlier years, when the population of south Indians was a fraction of what it is now, when the children, mortified perhaps by their parents’ accents, anxious to just blend into their peer group and talk, eat and behave like their friends, either rejected this strange music outright, or took to it with anemic reluctance. The teaching methods — no praise, no questions, endless repetition, no moving forward unless complete mastery was achieved — that worked so well in India butted heads with the very different philosophies of American pedagogy and had to be jettisoned. The parents reasoned that something — even if that was an eviscerated, offkey, wobbly version of Carnatic music — was better than a complete absence of it, and it showed in their offspring’s performances. In India, Carnatic music in America became synonymous with mediocrity and was mocked at and treated with scorn. Indians griped that the NRI (non-resident Indian) kids from America got opportunities to perform only because their parents’ dollar-stuffed wallets opened doors, and there was more than a nugget of truth in that sentiment. Take something away from its homeland and plunk it down somewhere else with nothing from its new terrain to nourish and enrich it, and it shrinks into a shell without a soul, a form without substance, a show without meaning.
But as new waves of Indian immigrants continued to settle down in America well into the nineties, the entire dynamic began to change. Carnatic music found its feet in the new milieu of Indians who took strength from their large numbers and who were proud of their heritage and flaunted it. Acculturation began to happen in the most productive of ways, through integration, and successive generations of Indian Americans absorbed and internalized the great strengths of the nations of their birth and of their heritage.
Fast-forward to the present, and the talent, skills and passion for Carnatic music of young Americans of Indian origin — and also a growing number of people who trace their roots to other parts of the world — is wonderfully heartening. Many of them have spent their summers in India, training hard under the best gurus. Brought up in American schools where they have been encouraged to question everything, they do not blindly accept what is told to them by their music teachers, no matter how elderly or dignified they are. The gurus, steeped in the traditions of yore, are adapting, opening their hearts and minds to these students with their incomprehensible accents, non-stop questions and terror of mosquitoes. Their probing, their quest to go beyond the surface, has gifted them with a deeper understanding of what their music is about. They respect tradition, but are not mindless slaves to it. Many of them are on par with the best of their Indian contemporaries and with the world as interconnected as it is today, the enrichment happens from all sides.
Which is why, in Chennai, in New York City - my home -, around the world, there are so many wonderful collaborations happening today, between Carnatic music and jazz, Carnatic music and Hindustani music, and within Carnatic music itself, which is building an ever-increasing fan base. Here in New York City, an eclectic amalgam of the traditional and the contemporary, the Navatman Music Collective (NMC), has been exploring how a group of singers can further enhance the beauty of Carnatic music, traditionally sung by a solo artist. They understand tradition to be a dynamic entity that needs fresh ideas and innovation to thrive; they respectfully treat its boundaries as unfixed and flexible; above all, they embody the ideal that music is all about joy and beauty that must be shared with the world.
For their debut concert in November 2014, NMC 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. They aimed to highlight the astonishing range that this music encompasses, the many spheres of life it is an integral part of. And above all they were eager to dispel the notion that this music was inaccessible to those who were not exposed to it, that it smacked of dreary, old-fashioned conventionalism, and was fit only for grandmas and grandpas, not the young ’uns of the future.
So they came up with an idea, that they would do something along the lines of “A Day in the Life of Carnatic Music,” in which they 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: 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. They would leverage the synergies and possibilities that set apart a group performance from an individual one; they made use of harmonies, not commonly heard in Carnatic music, they played off each other, they coalesced to create a living, dynamically evolving entity of their group.
In the hands of musicians like them and so many others, Carnatic music has a dazzling future and has truly made itself at home in America. Tradition, that epitome of the unlikely synthesis of timelessness and transience, is smiling, satisfied, that its protégé is in the best of hands. After all, it is a testament to the strength and beauty of Carnatic music that it has taken wings, journeyed far and blossomed to a vibrant new life in its new homeland.
This piece appeared in Guernica Magazine in April 2016.
I am delighted to be a member of the Navatman Music Collective. Here is a sample of our work: a song composed by our very own members.