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A Great Survivor

Carnatic music, unlike the general perception, has been influenced by historical movements and migrations. By its very nature, it eschews blind replication and copying and gives freedom for innovation and individual artistic expression.

A Great Survivor
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Carnatic music has never been gharana based largely because the composers who defined the art never attached themselves to any princely court. Important practitioners of the art developed what was called a bhani (or style) that was unique to each one. There was, however, a powerful gurukula system whereby aspiring musicians attached themselves to a Guru's household and learnt music systematically. Even under such a system, the emphasis was on the passing down of the songs and the manner in which they were to be sung. The extempore element was largely left to the disciple to develop on his own with the Guru simply laying down the fundamental rules. The students had to decide whether to replicate the Guru's style or develop an interpretation of the art by themselves, thereby creating a new bhani. A classic example of this was G.N. Balasubramanian (1910-1965) or GNB as he was popularly known. The GNB bhani became so popular by the 1940s that it posed a serious challenge to all other male singers. His disciple, M.L. Vasanthakumari (1928-1990) was first a performer in the GNB mode, but later branched out with her own MLV bhani. Today Sudha Raghunathan is a top ranking performer who learnt from MLV and is therefore a representative of that style.

The modern day concert format in Carnatic music, comprising several songs interspersed with extempore renditions, is generally attributed to Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967), but even within that, musicians have made several changes to suit their own natural styles. Ariyakkudi's disciple K.V. Narayanaswami (1923-2002) evolved his own style of singing. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer (1908-2003) who was deeply influenced by the nagaswaram tradition incorporated more of extempore music in his performances as did GNB and MLV. M.S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004) on the other hand included several bhajans and shlokas which heightened the beatific atmosphere in her concerts. The Ariyakkudi format with its shorter duration and a variety of pieces was however not conducive to the nagaswaram practitioners. Nagaswaram performances, usually held during temple events and festivals, were largely all night affairs with raga expositions lasting for several hours at a stretch. The general quickening in the pace of life, together with a reduction in the importance of the temple as a place for social interaction saw the waning of the nagaswaram and the decline has continued. Its best years were when giants such as T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai (1898-1956) dominated the stage.

The development of sound amplification techniques led to voice modulation becoming important for the microphone could pick out the smallest tonal effects. It also resulted in the dropping of the pitches of male musicians. Individual features such as Ariyakkudi's wonderful tremolo, GNB's microtonal shadings, M.S. Subbulakshmi's glides and M.D. Ramanathan's (1923-1984) deep low voice could now be enjoyed by all. With the coming of recording techniques in the early 20th century most musicians recorded for the gramophone plates. The boom in the 78 rpm recording industry further popularised the musicians which in turn increased concert attendances and therefore further boosted the sale of records. It was a virtuous cycle of growth. A simultaneous boom in printing technology saw large scale availability of song books with notations.

Carnatic musicians tried their hand at cinema as well with several such as MS Subbulakshmi, GNB and Musiri Subramania Iyer (1899-1975) donning the grease paint. Others such as MLV and M Balamuralikrishna (b 1930) shone as playback singers. It helped that one of the earliest music directors in south Indian cinema, Papanasam Sivan (1890-1973), was also one of the greatest composers in Carnatic music. Carnatic music was also not immune to Western classical music. Instruments such as the violin and the clarinet made their entry into Carnatic music as early as 1799/1802 from western classical orchestras. Composers such as Tyagaraja and Muttuswami Dikshitar were sufficiently impressed by orchestral music to compose songs based on their tunes. Later instruments such as the guitar, the mandolin and the saxophone have also made their entry.

The dominance of cinema music saw a general waning of public support for Carnatic music in the 1970s. However a new audience was emerging in the west with NRIs and a few Americans who became serious listeners, arranging concert tours. Teaching opportunities too emerged with the Wesleyan University in particular having an unbroken tradition of several great Carnatic musicians such as T. Brinda (1912-1996), T. Viswanathan (1927-2002) and that unique American bhagavatar, Jon Higgins (1939-1984) teaching music there. Overseas concert tours which till the 1950s had largely been restricted to countries such Burma and Sri Lanka now came to include visits to the US and Europe. Today, most top ranking musicians such as Aruna Sayeeram, Sudha Raghunathan, Sanjay Subrahmanyan and T.M. Krishna spend many months of the year on overseas tours.

The new breed of Carnatic musicians is extremely communicative, tech-savvy and market-oriented. Several have experimented with cinema and also fusion music. All of them are able to explain the nuances of their art in fluent English thereby attracting lay audiences. Some, such as Aruna Sayeeram, are proficient in several foreign languages as well. Aruna has also broadened her repertoire to include several folk items and songs from other Indian languages to attract a larger audience. The purists may cavil at this, but MS did the same several years ago.

The internet has become yet another vehicle of propagation. Almost all musicians have websites and several teach music to students overseas using the latest techniques in audio downloads. The e-gurukul has arrived.

All this has resulted in audiences increasing for Carnatic music, something that is evident during the annual December season in Chennai. Carnatic music evidently, is a great survivor.


V. Sriram is the author of Carnatic Summer: Lives of Twenty Great Exponents. He lives in Chennai.

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