(The first part of this post is here)
As we talked about the historical growth and influences in Carnatic music, we didn’t touch upon one region of the South, Kerala. But the form of music was and is indeed popular in the state. The greatest growth and patronage of the music occurred under the rulers of Travancore, and Maharaja Swati Thirunal’s name stands out. He lived in the early part of the 19th century, and was not only a great patron of Carnatic music and dance (as well as musical storytelling forms like Harikatha, closely linked to Carnatic music), but was a composer of great repute himself (composing in Sanskrit, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada). He’s said to have composed over 400 songs in five languages (though historians believe that some of these songs were composed by musicians in court). His His court was adorned by the finest musicians of that time, and resulted in a mini “golden age” of sorts for Carnatic music. Many of “his” compositions bear the mudra (signature phrase) “Padmanaabha”, the patron deity of Travancore.
Like any music form, there has been a constant flux and evolution of Carnatic music over the centuries. Carnatic musicians did not belong to any one caste group (it is often mistaken that it is a music “of brahmins”). The bhakti tradition drew people of various castes, and most of them strived for a caste-free society. The haridasas, veerasaivas, nayanars, alvars and others (who profoundly influenced the development of this music) were from various communities, and preached a casteless world. There is however no denial that brahmins did closely embrace Carnatic music, given it’s devotional nature, and close association with philosophy. In more modern times though, especially in Tamil Nadu, many of the “top rung” performers are brahmins. It remains less so in Karnataka, Andhra or Kerala. But even a few decades ago, it was not so even in Tamil Nadu. Kumbakonam Rajamanikkam Pillai or Kanchipuram Naina Pillai remain amongst the greats of the past century. Mysore Chowdiah (a Kannadiga) or Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu (Telugu) were hugely popular in Tamil Nadu. However, things perhaps changed with the Dravidian movement in the sixties. Carnatic music, has strong Sanskrit influences, and so was associated with brahmins by default. This resulted in other patrons distancing themselves from it, just to avoid association with any thing that could be considered sanskritic.
Interestingly, a majority of the greatest female Carnatic musicians came from the “Isai velalar” community (side note: Isai velalars are not to be confused with velalars, who were landowning communities in Tamil Nadu. This includes Saiva Pillais, Mudaliars or Chettiars who historically, like brahmins were allowed high levels of education, and may perhaps be compared to the Thakurs in Northern India). Isai velalars were temple dancers and musicians, “deva dasis” of sorts. The legendary Veena Dhannamal, Brinda, Mukta, M.L. Vasantakumari and the peerless M.S. Subbalakshmi were all Isai Velalars. They were for centuries the keepers and nourishers of Carnatic music, especially the bhakti or “bhajana sampradaya” aspects of it. However, social reform (in part due to the Devadasi Act in 1982) as well as a loss of traditional patronage for temple musicians from wealthy patrons resulted in this community slowly disappearing (by being absorbed in to “mainstream” society). The reasons for social reform of Isai Velalars were compelling, but the loss to Carnatic music has been priceless.
The patronage of royal courts began to wane by the mid 20th century, but new patrons arose. In Tamil Nadu, the biggest patrons came from the wealthy and growing business community, especially the Chettiars and Mudaliars. The likes of “Raja” Annamalai Chettiar, or Azhagapa Chettiar were great patrons of the music form. This (in part) resulted in a revival of Tamil music in Carnatic music (with the formation of the Tamil Isai Sangam). The works of the alvars, nayanars, Venkatakavi, Arunachalakavi, Muthu Thandavar, Gopalakrishna Bharati and others were again revived as “main” concert pieces, and this has come to change the face of many modern concerts. Additionally, in the mid-nineteenth century, many of the connoisseurs of Carnatic music were ardent nationalists (and many musicians themselves were strong supporters of the freedom movement). C. Rajagopalachari, “Kalki” Krishnamurthy, T. Sadasivam (M.S. Subbalakshmi’s husband) and many others were active congressmen or Gandhians. This resulted in a new kind of music, patriotic music (especially the compositions of Subramanya Bharati) becoming popular in Carnatic concerts, changing the face of an essentially devotional form of music.
Finally, we come to the “modern” concert format. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, there was no fixed “format” for a concert. Musicians would even sometimes vie to extend a concert for as long as they could, and there are stories of musicians singing for two or three whole days! That really often became a bad case of a sensory overdose causing the appetite to sicken and so die (B.O.A). Or else, people really didn’t have time any more to hang out by a temple (or where ever else) and listen to endless music. Ariyagudi Ramanuja Iyengar really gets the credit for creating a “crisp” two and a half hour concert format. He would typically start a concert with a varanam, and then speed through three or four crisp and rapidly rendered compositions, to warm the audience up. He then would elaborately outline a raga (raga aalapana), and proceed with a kriti, followed by a nerval and swara kalpana. His raga aalapanas were also concise, and would never be repetitive. He also put the “ragam thanam pallavi” as the center piece of the concert. He also ended the concert with shorter pieces, and bhajans. His style didn’t take long to become extremely popular. Another profound influence on the style of concerts was Maharajapuram Vishwanatan. His own style was unique, and he rarely spent much time exploring the raga independently in an alapana. He would prefer to explore it from within a song itself, and so would render many, many shorter pieces in his concerts. Modern musicians still follow a nicely organized format that is profoundly influenced by these two styles.
Carnatic music has constantly evolved over the centuries, and just like India, has absorbed and adopted various influences, all of which have only served to embellish it further.
PS: Srikanth has an interesting post about Thyagaraja here