By: S. Gopalakrishnan
The soul of music is the same the world over and hence, I am taking the liberty to connect Bob Dylan to the city of Chennai, where the annual season of music and dance is on. The singer, who asked us to start swimming, lest we sink like a stone when the times are changing, also desired us to “take care of all our memories, as we can’t relive them”. It is disheartening to witness the stone-like sinking of certain memories in Chennai. The Mylapore-centric “sancharams” (raga journeys) that present-day Carnatic music chooses to hum for outliving those memories is an organised way of forgetting.
Chennai during December and January is seen as a world-wonder, since the city stages more than 3,000 music concerts over 60 days. We can be reasonably sure that there aren’t any parallels in the case of any classical art form anywhere in the world.
Whenever one traces the history of the music season in the city, the journey usually stops at 1927, the year Chennai hosted the All India Music Conference (AIMC). The first AIMC was held in Baroda in 1916 under the leadership of stalwart musicologists of north Indian music, Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande and Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. The main mandate of the endeavour was to generate a mood of musical nationalism as an anti-colonial project. Janaki Bakhle writes in Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of Indian Classical Tradition, “Bhatkhande (and Paluskar) did not invent a new format as much as he adopted the principal mode of the Indian National Congress.”
In a span of 10 years, they convened five conferences, and the one in Chennai was under the leadership of Paluskar. When Bhatkhande was worried about the state of classical music in upper India (his paper in 1916 was titled “A short historical survey of music in upper India”), he was happy about the health of the classical music traditions in the south, stating its strict adherence to the “sastric” traditions. He wrote: “In my opinion, the musicians of the southern presidency are not so handicapped in their progress as we northerners here are. It is commonly known that, comparatively speaking, the music system of southern India is much more developed and accurate than that of the northern part of the country, and has a well-preserved sastrik tradition”.
Bhatkhande’s anti-colonial project for a nationalist music had an in-built anti-Islamic tenor and he had categorically stated that “historians tell us that during the early days of the Mahomedan conquest our music suffered very badly at the hands of the conquerors”. There is every reason to believe that Bhatkhande’s surety on the exactitude of Carnatic music was that it was never influenced by the “Mahomedan” conquests. Even in 2014, one can go to the hundreds of concert halls in Chennai and fail to spot even a single performance by a “Mahomedan”.
The fact is that the dominant history of the Chennai music season has excluded certain chapters of its past. This narrative manufactures a set of partial or convenient truths that gel with the AIMC’s nationalist programme rather than pursue facts thrown up by another music conference that happened in 1912 in Thanjavur, described as the mother of all music conferences in the country.
Abraham Pandithar, a trained Siddha medical practitioner, born in a backward Nadar Christian family in Tenkasi in 1859, is to be credited with the honour of ideating a different kind of musical camaraderie, which was deeply rooted in Tamil nationalism. Pandithar, a multi-faceted genius with an uncompromising conviction about the paramountcy of the Tamil language and history, also contributed immensely to the Dravidian movement, but he remains unsung in present-day festival circles. Pandithar convened six music conferences in Thanjavur between 1912 and 1914. All major Carnatic musicians of the erstwhile Madras state assembled there.
The unending passion for Tamil and its music made Pandithar even argue that the original inhabitants of the hypothetical “lost continent” of Lemuria (Kumari Kandam, in his words) in the Indian Ocean spoke a primordial language and that must have been Tamil. Pandithar also believed that nagaswaram was the most ancient musical instrument of humans. He found time to get basic training in playing the nagaswaram while being busy in identifying all the plants of the Tamil region and building a garden of herbs, said to be the first of its kind in the country. He travelled extensively to collect Tamil compositions in Carnatic music and published a 1,400 page-compendium, Karunamrutha Sagaram, in 1917, in a printing press he himself had assembled.
Though Pandithar was honoured by Bhatkhande in 1916 at the first meeting of the AIMC in Baroda for his contribution to music, the dominant narrative of Carnatic music history has pushed him — and the nagaswaram — to the background. Even in Chennai’s Tamil Isai (Tamil music) circles, which had positioned itself as a counter to the Brahminical tradition in Carnatic music, Pandithar is not remembered for his pioneering role as a musicologist. That is why, when you sit back in a jasmine-scented, digitally and globally connected concert hall in Chennai this December, you feel that the memory of Pandithar has sunk like a stone.
Gopalakrishnan, a Malayalam writer, is presently project director, Sahapedia, an upcoming online repository of Indian arts and heritage.