Last year, when the Kerala-based Sreevalsan Menon sang at the centenary celebrations of Ramnad Krishnan, one of the doyens of carnatic music, it completed an interesting circle. Menon was the disciple of a disciple of Krishnan — Neyyattinkara Vasudevan — and his performance was be a symbolic payback for his guru who is no more.
The significance of Menon’s performance at the centenary didn’t end there because it reminded the world that carnatic music isn’t necessarily Brahmin-driven or caste-driven, and that the change can happen even within a seemingly endogamous system. Vasudevan was a Dalit who made it big in carnatic music and part of the success was because of Krishnan’s patronage. And his disciple Menon was not a Dalit or a Brahmin, but an upper-caste Hindu who, like many others, didn’t have a problem learning from a Dalit.
Vasudevan’s story was not about a hopeless Dalit running after a Brahmin guru, but about the latter wholeheartedly asking him if he was interested in training under him. The association with Krishnan catapulted him into the big league, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Chennai, where classical music was, and still is, a predominantly Brahmin domain.
It was not just Krishnan that helped Vasudevan rise in terms of skills and stature, but also another Brahmin — the iconic Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer — under whom he cut his teeth. Without Semmangudi’s early help and tutelage at the Swathi Thirunal Music College in Thiruvananthapuram, Vasudevan wouldn’t have gained entry into the world of classical music and survived the initial years because the socio-economic odds against him were too steep.
So, this is the summary of the story: A poor Dalit boy from Kerala becomes a carnatic musician thanks to a Tamil Brahmin guru and then gets into the bigger league thanks to another Tamil Brahmin guru. He in turn, trains an upper-caste Hindu, who also makes it big in classical music, including in Chennai, and carries forward his legacy, and indirectly even Ramand Krishnan’s Bani. The significance of the story is that it broke the caste stereotype in carnatic music, not in the recent past, but many years ago.
This is where the ongoing rant by TM Krishna against carnatic music system goes off on a tangent. When he initially made those noises of carnatic music being the preserve of Brahmins because of the lack of opportunities for training and performances, it did make sense because he was factually right. Almost all the top ranking performers in the carnatic circuit were, and are, Brahmins and the markets were/are also dominated by them.
But the argument became problematic when he started disaggregating it as a mere problem statement. As he expanded the argument and teased out his peeves, an extremely sophisticated and scientifically organised art form appeared ugly, discriminatory and exclusivist. Besides the exclusive ecosystem, which was indeed a justifiable charge, he now had problems with its content, elements such as devotion and divinity, compositions by masters, classicism and even the way it was sung (the format, the audiences and the settings).
From a potentially constructive insider-iconoclast who could have found some leads to a transformative change, his repetitive overzealousness has made him look like a demolition man. If both the content and the practice of carnatic music are bad and regressive, is there a point in appreciating such an art? Such a projection could indeed put off a lot of potential music lovers because art with purposely discriminatory, exclusivist, and religiously conservative values sounds awful. On the other hand, if it’s demolished and reconstructed according to his vision, will it still remain carnatic music?
The apparent “Brahmanism” is a shameful reality despite exceptions such as Vasudevan and few others such as KJ Yesudas, P Unnikrishnan, Brinda Manickavasagam and some upcoming trainees under Brahmin masters. However, what Krishna chooses not to tell the world is that more than the Brahmanical values, what’s preventing others from pursuing this art are the unique demands of this form of music.
It’s not easy to become a carnatic classical musician because it’s an art form that requires innate taste and long-term embodied learning. The basic training itself will take 10-15 years, that too directly under skilled teachers, and to be a concert-worthy singer, one needs several more years of learning and performances of progressively rising quality and complexity. It’s a tough and intricate art form with diverse facets that require sustained pursuits under many masters for many many years. Even as a peak performer, hours of training and listening on a daily basis makes it quite demanding.
And above all, one needs the natural gift of music and possibly a good voice too. Attributes such as strong memory, distinction to recall specific texts, scales, phrases, and patterns from a very large and potentially confusing repertoire, imagination and ability to assimilate from other forms of art are also unavoidable elements that make a good musician. The most challenging of them all is that it’s a very very uncertain profession with very low chance of success.
That none of the famous musicians (of course, there are outliers here too) straddle(d) two professions indicates that it’s a full-time engagement. But as the carnatic music scenario shows, there’s no guarantee of success. There’s space only for about 10-20 people at the top, who can make a good living out of music. The market is extremely limited and has remained static for a long long time. The real stars, who make big bucks and bag awards, are just a handful. Arguably, less than ten. In fact, it’s only the stars that the concert-goers are after while the upcoming and even moderately successful singers have to live with near-empty halls and uncertain future.
The Margazhi music season in December in Chennai is a great reality check. Hundreds of concerts from morning till night and hundreds of music aspirants who have been training for years. From them, a performer who can command a decent gate collection is born only once in a few years and the rest become just numbers. Some of them may end up in movies or other forms of popular music, but not at the top level of the concert circuit. It’s intensely competitive because the standards are very high and the market is extremely small and stagnant.
That’s precisely why it’s contained more or less in the traditional circles with better access to learning and performing, which incidentally is Brahmanical. Almost all successful carnatic musicians have/had a family background of music of either training (Krishna is an exception) or listening, some running into many generations. It’s like a traditional carpenter’s son finding it easier than others to become a carpenter or a politician’s son finding it easier to become a politician. it’s indeed an entitlement, but not restricted to music alone.
Of course, Krishna can claim that Brahmins had appropriated it from the traditional practitioners, but this argument is as problematic as the argument for restoration of temples destroyed by Afghan invaders. No art form, however traditional, is immune to change. Retroactive restitution is problematic.
Consigning an art to traditional communities in whatever imaginable primitive form is as regressive as consigning it to the Brahmins. If it was scientifically codified and systematically organised by various people since the 14th century, it was not appropriation, but value addition. And the form didn’t stay as it existed at the hands of Purandara Dasa or later at the Trinity’s, but kept evolving, thanks to people who kept working at it. In another 100 years, it will definitely be in another form.
The style, the format, the techniques and even the aesthetics are constantly evolving. Even among the current crop of top performers, the artistic pursuits and skill-sets are so diverse that some of them might take the form to new level, just as Krishna has been doing. Krishna has been trying to break the concert format and defy the presets while singers such as Sanjay Subrahmanyan are trying to push the limits within the format and make it a consummate sensorial experience without watering down the classicism.
So, the point is although Krishna, one of the finest carnatic musicians of our times, has been pushing a subaltern ideology with the right sounding political thoughts, it’s not amenable to the very idea of carnatic music as it existed in the past and as it exists today. The Hindu religiosity, devotional content, the format, attire etc are part of the very nature of this genre and he’s free to change it – but the question is, will people still take it as carnatic music? Isn’t there indie and fusion music for instant consumption?
Most of what Krishna has been saying is what advocacy specialists do — stating the problem and not really the solution. To break the system, he will need to break new ground, but is it really necessary? Is there a bottom up demand or is it a top-down postulate? And more importantly, can he do it?
If decades ago, Ramnad Krishnan offered to train a Dalit from another state, who went on to perform at the sanctum sanctorum of carnatic music called Madras Music Academy for many years, and people such as Semmangudi and GN Balasubramaniam had no problem teaching non-Brahmins (at the Swathi Thirunal College), is it really an issue? Is it really a question of access when there are many State-run music colleges?
If indeed there’s a bottom-up demand, that’s where Krishna could leverage his self-admitted Brahminical class privilege, and break the barriers. The collaborations with other genres, performances in unusual places, changing the format, using non-Hindu texts, singing outside the realm of classical music etc are only predictable cosmetic changes and utterly unoriginal because most of them have been done many times before. Probably because people who do it don’t come from Krishna’s privileged backgrounds and don’t have friends in the elite urban “left” and “liberal” circles, they largely go unnoticed. They also don’t have the right language for the urban elites.
There’s also nothing new in arguing for the use of classical music for non-classical art purposes because film musicians have time and again demonstrated how to use the otherwise “divine”, “serene” or complex ragas to depict comical situations, eroticism, revolutionary fervour etc. Probably nobody else would have popularised classical music as creatively as the playback composers such as Ilayaraja, MS Viswanathan, Dakshinamoorthy, MB Sreenivasan and others have done (a brooding Subhapantuvarali for a devotional song, a Kamboji for making fun of the ruling elite, an explicitly erotic song, or a Kedaragaula for a revolutionary song,. Such genre-bending work has been done by many others as well praising the Prophet in Sree Ragam or presenting Christian songs in carnatic format.
There were Brahmin (Semmangudi, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Ramnad Krishnan, Dr. S Ramanathan etc) and non-Brahmin masters (T Brinda, Neyyattinkara Vasudevan, SRD Vaidyanathan etc) who had already broken down the access barriers. All that Krishna is doing now is vocalising it in the media and talk shop circuits that incidentally cater to an urban, non-stakeholder elite class. What could instead create impact and possibly trigger change, if at all there is a bottom-up demand, is to practise what he’s preaching – train as many non-Brahmins as possible and help them find a market by the time they are ready.
Has he begun to do anything yet? AR Rahman’s Sunshine Orchestra in which he trained children from poor backgrounds in western classical music, and also in its adaptation for popular formats, and found them a market is a promising example.
Perpetual problem statement doesn’t offer solutions. Otherwise, Krishna will be over-arguing the same case, article after article, book after book, seminar after seminar, and corporate-sponsored talk-shop after talk-shop with no practical solution in sight.
Under normal circumstances, these are called bogus arguments. They reach nowhere.
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