'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Our Music, Their Music

This longish post has two main parts and a 'tail-piece'.
Part 1:
Read in some newspaper recently some exponents of Hindustani classical music complaining of not getting sufficient opportunities to perform in the south - especially in Chennai, the Carnatic 'headquarters'. One of the comments - by a noted Vocalist -was something like "there is a lack of awareness of the Hindustani music in Chennai and the south in general".

Mr.Vocalist is plain wrong there. Hindustani music is far better known and appreciated in the south - Chennai included - than Carnatic music is in even *almost south* Pune (not to speak of the north proper). I myself, as much of a southie as anybody, acquired a strong liking for Hindustani music (and actually grew to enjoy it more than Carnatic) while a student in Chennai. And my 'initiators' were some other Southies and not evangelizing immigrants from the North. The music melas of Chennai may not give prominence to Hindustani but then how many Carnatic musicians get to perform at, say, the Sawai Gandharva festival in Pune? So, if at all anybody is playing 'us and them' with music, it is not (just) the Chennaiites (*).

But I do feel the remark at the top does highlight a deeper and wider fact - our classical art forms have generally shown great inertia in (or met with strong resistance while) percolating thru regional boundaries. To give an example: Kerala has produced arguably the richest variety of classical percussion instruments and musical forms *in the world*. But the brilliantly sophisticated percussion-based ensemble art-forms like 'Panchavadyam', 'Tayambaka', 'Panchari', etc.. are seldom heard by non-Mallu Indians (Firangees seem to love them), not even by Tams; again Kathakali is seen only by Mallus and Firangees!

Indeed, apart from some sub-genres of Hindustani music, Bharatanatyam is probably the only classical art form which has something like an all-India reach. It is widely learned in the north (far more than Kathak is in the south, thus sort of offsetting the Carnatic vs. Hindustani imbalance :) - nobody seems to bother about the language in which the 'padams' are written or any such regionalisms). Indeed, this year's Sawai festival in Pune featured a Bharatanatyam performance by Alarmel Valli - not surprisingly, probably the only southie performer here.

(*) Kerala has produced a talented Hindustani vocalist in Ramesh Narayan but I know of nobody from the north (seriously talented or otherwise) who has seriously taken up Carnatic music. Moreover, for over a hundred years, Kerala has had small but strong pockets of Hindustani musicians and their (native) fans - in Calicut and old Cochin for example. Gifted North-bred musicians have even come and settled in Kerala (I could give the name of Sharatchandra Marathe). And as early has early 19th century, at the court of Swati Tirunal, the composer-ruler of Travancore, Hindustani musicians were welcomed - and 'Swati' himself (yes, to the uninitiated, he was a he!) composed a few pieces in Hindustani style.

Part 2:

Yes, it is indeed true that Carnatic music has diffused more slowly and has far less of a following than Hindustani. Folks have thought about this and many explanations have been given. Let me try to dissect a few, from an interested layman's perspective:

1. "The text of Carnatic musical compositions is in regional languages which northern listeners cannot relate to." - I would say, that is totally beside the point. The intelligibility of lyrics is almost a non-issue. Most of the finest Carnatic Kritis are in (archaic) Telugu, Kannada and Sanskrit. These languages are almost as unfamiliar to a modern Mallu or Tam as to an average northie. Indeed the Telugu of Tyagaraja, so full of solid sanskrit words and phrases would be almost equidistant from a Mallu and a UP-wallah. And Tyagaraja's work is much better appreciated in Tamil Nadu than in Telugu speaking AP. Moreover, the lyrics of Hindustani bandishes are often in highly non-standard Hindi and even guys like self who know standard Hindi fairly well, need to keep a dictionary handy to understand them. So much for intelligibility.

2. "Carnatic music is overly devotional" - Yes, standard Carnatic kritis are almost purely devotional but then, once lyrics are ignored (as most listeners anyway do, whatever their level of familiarity with the words), this over-religious aspect is 'neutralized'. Moreover, most hard-core Hindustani lovers do not disown those sub-genres in Hindustani (Dhrupad etc) which are purely devotional, lyrics-wise.

3. "Carnatic music leaves less room for improvisation, is too system-bound" - Well, maybe partially right. Hardly any Carnatic vocalist does a pure raga rendition which goes on for more than a few minutes - unlike his Hindustani counterpart, over half of whose performance could be taken up by the 'alaap'. But I am at a loss as to why lack of (scope for) on the spot improvisation should limit the appeal of any genre of music to *listeners* (people flock to live music shows where orchestras perform hit film numbers exacty as they are recorded in the movie) - although practitioners could enjoy more a genre which allows them to freak out with greater freedom.

But this "greater freedom" observation in favor of Hindustani music does have a problem. Hindustani musicians, given their greater improvisational opportunities and skills ought to make far better original composers. But if one looks at the orchestral music composers we have had, two of the very best - Ilayaraja and Rahman -have come from a background which merged Carnatic, Western and Southern Folk idioms with very little Hindustani. No Bollywood composer has ever approached their levels of ingenuity and improvisation. The best Hindustani-grounded orchestral composers - Naushad, Jaidev, Madan Mohan, Vasant Desai,... - though brilliant in select genres have not quite had the sweep or inventiveness of the aforementioned southern maestros(**). And 'Shiv-Hari', both fine individual Hindustani exponents, could only create a ripple or two as orchestral composers.

4. "Carnatic music is monopolized by Tamil Brahmins" - Well, some of the major music melas and institutions in Chennai may be dominated by TamBram cliques but that in itself can hardly limit the reach of Carnatic music, at least *among listeners*; to my knowledge, music organizations in Chennai do not caste-screen those who come to attend their programs, even if they *might* have community biases in selecting performers. Another piece of info: Kerala, almost next door to Chennai, has a solid following for Carnatic music and good, well-trained Carnatic musicians come from *all* communities. Mallu Christian Yesudas settled in Chennai and made a big name for himself in the (allegedly TamBram) Carnatic music circle there. And even in Tamil Nadu, there have been highly acclaimed non Brahmin musicians - Palani Subramaniam Pillai, Sheikh Chinna Moulana,.. - although they may be a minority among the elite.

And I have even heard a statement that "it is due to TamBram dominance and machinations that Hindustani musicians are not invited to perform in Chennai". This can only be sheer nonsense. Chennai has a strong north Indian presence and is in fact, almost a cosmopolitan city (although it may be so in a visible way); and the barely 5% TamBram minority there cannot possibly prevent the majority from bringing in the musicians they want.

Let me give a similar - and to self, equally absurd - communal analysis. "Goa has less than 40 percent Christian population. The great majority of the good (and almost all outstanding) Goan footballers are Christian. *So*, there is a Christian lobby at work there preventing the other communities from coming up in football!". And even in music, almost all performers of aforementioned Keralan percussion ensemble forms hail from a few numerically small and exclusive Castes (indeed, the communal localization of these art-forms far outstrips that of Carnatic music) but folks from every community patronize them.

5. "Carnatic music does not have sub-genres like the Ghazal or Thumri which have greater immediate (plebian) appeal". Not entirely true. The musical accompaniment to Bharatanatyam or Mohiniattam (the 'padams' etc..) are songs set to music in a lightened classical way and express a myriad of human emotions not explored in the Kritis. But not many seems interested in these songs as a sub-genre of music apart from their role as play-back to dance forms. They are not yet quite the equivalent of ghazals but can have a similar 'introductory' impact, I guess. Similar could be the effect of semi-classical devotional genres like 'Tevaram' etc. I don't know enough to speculate further on these matters. But I do know that 'Kathakali padams' have been marketed as purely musical works in Kerala.

Now let me put forth a couple of very personal reasons for preferring Hindustani to Carnatic. The former has a much greater variety of instruments which are more pleasing to the non-expert's ear. In immediate appeal, the tabla beats the mridangam (although the latter is said to be far more sophisticated an instrument), the sitar wins against the chitraveena,... and then there is the sarod, the santoor,... It is only in the wind department that Carnatic flute slightly outscores the hefty bansuri in sweetness - while yielding ground on the gravitas front. I would say the Carnatic violin is *not* distinctly more pleasant than the Hindustani sarangi. And I find the Carnatic 'muharshankh' and sometimes, even the ghatam(***), irritating.

Then there are certain parts of a Carnatic performance which I personally find difficult to enjoy - I find 'Taniyavartanam' a bit of a repetitive drag. And I find the 'sa-re-ga' taans in Carnatic less pleasant than the 'aa-aa' of Hindustani. Moreover, I suspect, quality or performers-wise, Carnatic music may be going thru a rather lean patch now. Anyways, that should be enough of personal info!

(**) Hindi film composers SD Burman and Salil Chaudhari have shown far greater range and innovation than Naushad et al. But they are not from a primarily Hindustani background. Indeed their relation to Hindustani is akin to, say, Ilayaraja's to Carnatic. So, the point that could be made is: A deep grounding in Hindustani music has not yielded greater inventiveness in orchestral composition.

(***) - my own dislike of the Ghatam has also a fair bit to do with a particularly obnoxious physicist I used to know having also been some sort of professional Ghatam player!

I can recount a personal experience. A certain hardcore Mumbaikar once responded to my claim that "No Bollywood composer ever was better than Ilayaraja" with "Well, at present (it was in early nineties) Bollywood is going thru a bad time. But in good old days, we certainly have had composers who could easily beat Ilayaraja - SD Burman, RD Burman,.... ". And he went on rattling off names ".... Madan Mohan, C. Ramachandra...".

And I said (for those were argumentative times): "Yes! I was just waiting for 'Ramachandra'. The list would have been incomplete without someone from Maharashtra, eh?"

Anyways, that expression of latent regionalism sort of exemplifies the key issue of 'regional barriers' that I have tried to highlight in this post.


  • At 11:11 PM, Blogger Iceman said…


    An observation now...
    Khamaj == Harikambodhi

    There are many such observations on equivalent ragaas in carnatic and hindustani music. Fun to fuse both of em!

  • At 5:39 AM, Blogger John said…

    All the famous Sabha's in Chennai are running by Brahmin's. So, we cannot expect any change over in context atleast for near term.
    Breakdown Insurance

  • At 4:57 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks iceman.

    i don't know much about the mapping between ragas, at the individual raga level. there is indeed a raga in karnatic called 'khamas' but that may be different from the hindustani 'khamaj' (just as 'sri' of karnatic is quite different from the hindustani raga of the same name).

    i would say there is at least superficial fusion of the two genres of music going on in the film music, especially of the south. some percussion movements in southie film songs blending the mridangam and the tabla are very pleasing.

    john, thanks for visiting.

  • At 6:50 AM, Blogger Souvik Chatterji said…

    SD Burman had given landmark songs to Lata also in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film Chupke Chupke in 1975. the film was based on the story portrayed in Uttamkumar’s Choddobeshi,

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