Friday, February 03, 2006

If music be the food of love Part II

(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


Anonymous said...

Neat post.

You are among the most consistent(ly good) bloggers out there - I know I won't be disappointed reading a post... And for that, Thank you.

froginthewell said...

Once again, very nice one, Sunil. And also the kind words in the previous post.

1. Regarding svAti tirunAL, many people accuse him of plagiarising to various degrees. Given that there were such people as the Tanjore quartet, direct disciples of none less than dIkShitar, in his court, it seems much more likely to me that they would have composed most of the songs. For instance, here it is written : "As we were about to board the flight he started talking about his latest project on the Swati Tirunal book. He had come across some rare songs not published before among the manuscripts of his Guru. I asked him about the Balachander controversy. He adroitly brushed it aside, but confessed that there were many songs that were similar to compositions of the Tanjore Quartet, in fact exact replicas with just different sahityas." I also vaguely remembering reading that in some lecdem T. K. Govinda Rao had attributed parts of a certain varNam to svAti tirunAL, other parts to some of the Tanjore quartet etc., but that when he published his book the entire varNam was given as svAti tirunAL's. I think it was on but am not able to track it by google, may be I am wrong here.

However I rarely see anyone arguing convincingly on this topic. Something like "How could he compose in so many languages?" etc. cannot be considered as arguments. Indeed, this was a subject of bitter controversy between Balachander and Semmangudi ( who, as is well known, tuned the non-sAvEri caraNams of bhAvayAmi raghurAmaM", M. S.' rendition of which is famous ). Though the latter very strongly supported the mahArAja, it could be attributed to his having been the AsthAna vidvAn of the Travancore court.

Whatever be the truth of this, the mahArAja certainly deserves credit for bringing the complex and beautiful culture of music from tanjAvUr as well as other parts of the country ( as you say harikatha exponents and dancers, as also hindusthAni musicians ) to kEraLa. Those compositions can be found here.

2. people of various castes, and most of them strived for a caste-free society. I am not sure they were open to dalits or even the non-vegetarians ( I don't really know, the pillais might have been saiva-piLLais in carnatic music ). Could you give examples of carnatic musicians really striving for a casteless society ( other than taking disciples at the piLLai or dEvadAsi level )? I agree however that the dravidian movement has done a lot of harm by taking non-brahmins away from music. Actually is it a phenomenon just of south? We don't have as many khan-sahebs in hindustAni music today as there used to be. marAThi and other brAhmins seem to dominate the scene.

3. The legendary Veena Dhannamal, Brinda, Mukta, M.L. Vasantakumari and the peerless M.S. Subbalakshmi were all Isai Velalars.

Here I have a question : except possibly Veena Dhanammal, was any an Isai Velalar by profession ( you seem to particularly like M. S. out of them - but musically weren't the others you quoted superior? ).

4. As for patrons : the reason why, I think, today's musicians are no where compared to stalwarts of generations till Semmangudi's, is that due to patronage they could devote their entire time to music. Today people have to go to school and pursue a career until they get a foot hold in one of the big concert circuits. I don't know what is the way out, but until we have a way out carnatic music may not retain the glory it had till, say, the 70's or 80's.

5. has absorbed and adopted various influences, all of which have only served to embellish it further.

Mostly agree. But I am not sure if there has been a positive influence of western music.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
For many years, the only south Indian singer my wife will listen to is M.S. Subbalakshmi. Her voice used to really bother me but now I have gotten used to it.

Sunil said...

Karthik....very generous words indeed, and coming from the person behind +etcetera+, that's mighty high praise. Thank you.

Frog.....thanks for another detailed and highly informative comment.
1) You're right about Tirunal. There's little doubt that he did compose many of those songs. But it's almost impossible to find out which ones he didn't compose. He was indeed versatile,and fluent in those five languages, as well as English. So he could well have composed in them, and arguements against it are not based on much fact, but convoluted logic. But as a patron of music and dance, he was unmatched.
2) Yes....i'm not sure either if they were open to probably was not......very few things in Indian society was open for them. The pillais were saiva pillais but many other patrons and musicians were probably not vegetarians. I don't have hard facts either way. And there must have been some changes in society over the centuries. In between the 10-15th century, the veerasaivas, nayanars and alvars actively strived for a casteless society. The veerasaivas even today don't "believe" in caste (or supremacy of the vedas).
3) Yes...some of those names i quoted were perhaps more knowledeable than MS. And my own personal favorite is not MS but ML Vasantakumari....but it's hard not to be drawn by MS's reach. She had that unique talent to draw listeners to her voice. But yes.....they were not really "practicing" velalars....because they became famous concert musicians. But MS or MLV were born and brought up in an isai velalar household. MLV, even till her death, had little interest in money, and would sing just for singing's sake. Different times, those....
4) Yes......that's true, people have to manage many different things now. There's no guarantee that a person who has dedicated his/her life to music will make it big. Then it's a survival issue. I remember talking with (the great) Lalgudi Jayaraman once...and he was saying how in his childhood he'd practice 10 hours a day, but now kids have to go to school/college, and do so many other things while juggling music. But there are some very, very talented young musicians out there. Another Semmangudi might be impossible, but people like TN Krishna, Sanjay Subramanian, Ravikiran, U Srinivas (who both are now exploring different styles of music) name just a few.....are very, very talented.
5) Western music....may not have influenced the music directly too much....but it gave carnatic music the violin!

hiren......thank you, and i'm glad you got something out of it.'ll be hard pressed to meet a south indian who hasn't heard MS Subbalakshmi. But for you it might be an acquired good wine.

froginthewell said...

but it gave carnatic music the violin!

Yes, that is right. I had forgotten about that.

Thanks and regards.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sunil,
Another interesting post. Good to see Frog's comments as well!

By "Concluded" I thought there would be another concluding post, but your first one says "two-part". I was hoping you, having learnt music in Karnataka, would tell us about the Mysore school of musicians (Subbanna, Seshanna, Krishnappa, the Hebbar Iyengars, etc.)

And, thanks for linking to my post!

Sunil said...

Frog...yes :-)

Srikanth.....i did think about writing more....but perhaps it'll be for an essay some other day. Unlike my usual posts, these classical music posts take longer to write, and time's always at a premium these days.

But yes.....there was tremendous development of music in Mysore. Some of the Wodeyars (Chikkadeva Wodeyar etc) actually were good composers themselves. There's even a book (CONTRIBUTION AND PATRONAGE OF MYSORE WODEYARS TO CARNATIC MUSIC. Prof. Mysore V. Ramarathnam. Kannada Book Authority. Bangalore) on their contribution.

Interestingly, apart from legends like Chowdiah, Mysore produced some of the great veena artists. You mentioned Seshanna. There was also the legendary Doraiswamy Iyengar (a hebbar Iyengar), one of the finest veena virtuosos of the last century. Iyengar's guru, Praveena Venkatagiriappa , was a great of his time, the late 19th century. The outstanding Kamat's potpourri has articles on krishnappa as well as Doraiswamy Iyengar.

I'll write another post on them some day....

Sunil said...

Thanks mumbaigirl.

This "purity" concept is rather strange, and makes little sense. Every little thing is subject to influences by external forces. Life doesn't work any other way.

But yes, Hindustani music was substantially influenced by Persian and other music forms. Carnatic music was (largely) not. However, Carnatic music did incorporate some ragas from the Hindustani system, and also adopted "Hindustani" songs (bhajans of Meera, Surdas, etc, some Abhangs etc). But in doing so, it not just borrowed them, but made them a part of Carnatic music. So the method of rendering a bhajan, or elaborating a "hindustani" raga (like Behag) are uniquely carnatic.

Anyway, both music forms share common roots, and much in common in terms of structure and organisation.

Sujatha Bagal said...

One of the things that irritates me is when people say that while Hindustani music is sung with a lot of emotion and is emotive, Carnatic music is not - somehow implying that it is a poorer art form for that reason. That's when I say (instead of arguing that Carnatic music IS sung with emotion and passion) that Carnatic music came about as a prayer form, singing the praises of God, or complaining to God, etc., whereas Hindustani music was born out of the composer's emotions and does not necessarily have a religious bent to it.

I've no idea if this is true, but it seems true. What do you think?

Sunil said...

well Sujatha.....i don't know what the person(s) who said that Carnatic music has no emotion meant by that. Clearly, he/she hasn't heard MS Subbalakshmi or MLV's bhakti filled, and emotionally rich renditions of take just a couple of names. Yes....Carnatic music is essentially devotional in nature, and most kritis (of the trinity at least) are in a way very conversational almost....along with being descriptive. Hindustani music focuses almost exclusively on what a carnatic musician would call "bhava".....the emotive aspect. Yes, it's not necessarily devotional, though much of the music has a devotional bent. But Carnatic music stresses on bhava, laya and sahitya.....the lyrics of the music are just as important as the music. Srikanth's post (linked to) lead to some interesting discussion on bhava and sahitya. You're sure to hear many such random statements made (by someone with little or no knowledge of the music form).......but that happens with almost everything. So.....let the barbs pass, and enjoy a good concert after that to calm yourself down.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

Lovely post Sunil. As someone who enjoys classical music without much techincal knowledge of raagas or a sense of the history of classical music this post was wonderful. whether is science or music, you write about subjects in a manner that's engaging for experts and novices alike.

Anonymous said...

to add my two cents, Er., i honestly think both MLV & MS are as much Brahmin as they are isai velalars. in that lieu, guess the claim of majority of the greatest female musicians being isai velalars is tad too strong. no offense meant, i am merely being appreciative of precision and, consequently, abhoring simple generalizations.

another related point which i guess is, hmmmm, less palatable is the quote "Yes...some of those names i quoted were perhaps more knowledeable than MS". please, every one is to their own bani and, after all, indian music improvisation'l! any recital-proper has umpteen parameters and its natural for a musician to stress one aspect over other. that aside, for concreteness, i daresay MS's niraval is as cool as anyone one could name!

well my intentions are not as to observe, much less establish, one singer's supremacy over other; the intentions are actually quite the opposite: its not for us to compare certain musicians' virtuoso. one has every right to "prefer" certain musician -- me myslf is more aligned to Kesarbai Kerkar over MS. but to voice my opinion over these giants technical repertoire, well, that is an altogether different issue.

Sunil said... said its not for us to compare certain musicians' virtuoso. one has every right to "prefer" certain musician -- me myslf is more aligned to Kesarbai Kerkar over MS. but to voice my opinion over these giants technical repertoire, well, that is an altogether different issue.

yes....precisely. I wasn't making a comparison at all....and was just trying to say that individual preferences are different. But your statement that MLV & MS are as much brahmin makes no sense at all. i don't know what you mean. They were isai velalars......and this post (if you've read it carefully enough) has nothing to do with caste, but about the fact that music was not restricted to caste. And music (as a career) was pretty much closed to brahmin girls till the mid 50's-60s. It was considered scandalous. But there were pioneers who made this possible. DK Pattamal (in music) or Rukmini Devi (for dance) did much to make it acceptable. The point of the post was to trace evolutionary changes that resulted in present day carnatic music. Deny it, accept it, question it.....but if it has resulted in a curiosity and a desire to learn more, i'm satisfied.

Shoefiend....thanks, and i'm glad you enjoy the posts.

Pennathur.........i don't think there is any reason to fear that the arts might be lost in India. There will always remain people who are interested in it. I do agree strongly though that there needs to be some form of patronage for it to flourish.

Anonymous said...

well, much i dislike to discuss the _incidental_ aspects of gifted performers, yet here i am: afaik, fathers of MLV & MS are musically inclined iyers and both of their mothers are divine courtesans. tatz the meaning my tacit statement would have assumed in common parlance. this is to my limited knowledge and am absolutely open to corrections if corroborated.