A curious musical ‘one-way’ traffic

A curious musical ‘one-way’ traffic      

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

“Enneramum undan sannidiyiley naan irukka venum….” the soft and melodious strains of the Devagandari kriti fill the room as the tape plays on. Higgins ‘Bhagavatar’ is singing. He is not an Indian but has worked on getting the raga and intonation right and has been honoured with the prefix of ‘bhagavatar’. There are others from the West, from outside the Indian community, who have worked on training themselves in Carnatic classical vocal music,  despite their roots in Western culture, and have attained concert status and remarkable competence, that have been applauded by discerning Indian audiences.

I know also, of several foreigners who have had training in Hindustani classical music, as vocalists or instrumentalists, including the difficult sarod. The effort they have put in is commendable. I have also met Elena (Italian) who came to India to become a disciple of Zakir Hussain and travelled with him by train (since he had no time to teach at his base, being a much-in-demand artist) wherever he went, to get lessons. It was often hard, she confesses, but she persevered for years to continue her passion for the tabla. I have also sat through a long session with a leading ustad in Mumbai, while he taught a young British boy vocal music when he came down from Manchester (U.K.) to train in Hindustani classical music. He spent all his wakeful hours – literally –  practicing. I have rarely seen such awesome dedication in Indian disciples.

All of which merits applause. But this has got me thinking about one curious fact – how is it that no North Indian has taken to Carnatic (South Indian) music? Cities like Mumbai and Delhi have a sizeable South Indian population, with their own music sabhas that draw large audiences for regular monthly concerts by visiting artists. Bombay University offers a diploma course in Carnatic music with papers on musicology (theory). So how come we have not seen a single North Indian taking to Carnatic music? Not even among those born and brought up in the South?

There are many South Indians (with Tamil, Telugu,  Malayalam or Kannada as their mother tongue) who have enrolled for Shanmukhananda Sabha’s classes in sitar and play Hindustani music. Not a single North Indian has, over the years, enrolled for training in Carnatic music, much less for the diploma certificate that the university offers.

I also remember a series of classes in Tamil language, inaugurated in Parliament, during the early 1950s, with much fanfare. Eminent parliamentarians attended that inauguration. Acharya Kripalani was there. Also Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. I sang the invocation for that function; it never took off, and that was the end of it. The north-south dialogue is mostly one-way. I can list scores of musicians, both vocalists and instrumentalists, who are from the south but have made a name for themselves as North Indian artists. I cannot think of examples in the reverse direction.

I remember a talk that Amar Nath, a leading vocalist of Delhi recorded  (in Hindi) for the Sangeet Sarita series on AIR’s Vividh Bharati channel. He mentioned the popular Dikshitar kriti in Hamsadhwani, Vatapi Ganapatim.  He pronounced the opening line as Vatapi Ganapatam. Ganapatim is a Sanskrit word, common all over India, and yet he pronounced the word as “Ganapatam”.  Carelessness? Perhaps. Or perhaps, part of the north-south imbalance in give-and-take.

I also recall an incident at Delhi’s Akashvani studios during the 1950s. My mother and I used to broadcast both Carnatic and Hindustani styles, and once when we went to the studios for a  broadcast, the officer in charge asked, “Do you have an Indian music recording, or a Carnatic one today?” implying that Carnatic was not part of Indian music!  Of course, North Indian artists have adopted many Carnatic ragas (Shanmukhapriya, Hamsadhwani, Keeravani, to name a few) but to my knowledge, never attempted to perform South Indian music.

Bombay University includes a diploma course in Carnatic music but as far as my knowledge goes, not a single North Indian has ever registered for it. In contrast, the number of South Indians who have taken to Hindustani music is legion. My mother was the first to broadcast Hindustani music on the South Indian (Tanjavur) veena (1940s). During the audition for grading of artists, the late S.N. Ratanjankar, who headed the panel of judges, was so intrigued by the sound of her veena that he specially asked for the screen on the announcers’ booth to be removed so that he could see what kind of veena she was performing on. The judges were not supposed to see the performer, and the glass window connecting the studio and the announcer’s booth was closed with a curtain during auditions. He wanted to convince himself that she was indeed producing Hindustani music on the Tanjavur veena. Flautist Vijay Raghava Rao was a trained Bharatanatyam exponent and familiar with Carnatic music, but once he started performing Hindustani music, he stopped performing Carnatic music.

A former ruler of Tanjavur has composed a kriti in the Carnatic raga Begada. The lyrics are in Marathi (Saki yata, mazha…). Dancer Sucheta Bhide Chapekar includes this composition in her repertoire.  But it is still in a North Indian language (Marathi), not a complete South Indian song.

I remember that S.N. Ratanjankar composed some varnams on the lines of Carnatic varnams. The popular varnam in Mohanam became Govindam The tune was the same, but the Ninnu kori…” lyrics of the original were substituted by Govindam... But the point I am trying to make is that no North Indian (with a mother tongue other than Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam or Kannada) has taken to Carnatic varnams in their original format. Amjad Ali Khan travelled to Tiruvaiyaru to perform at the annual aradhana festival in honour of Saint Tyagaraja, but I don’t know if he tried to perform a Tyagaraja composition. If it is a question of getting the pronunciation of the lyrics right, instrumentalists don’t face that problem.

Both systems include a number of gamakas, and some like MSG revel in adding a touch of North Indian flavour even while performing Carnatic music, so how come no North Indian has tried his or her hand at Carnatic music? I remember the late Ramesh Nadkarni of Gokarn was familiar with both styles, but as a vocalist he stuck to Hindustani music, although as a producer he incorporated South Indian snatches and folk tunes in some of the compositions that he produced for Vividh Bharati’s Sunday editions, with lovely effect.

Akashvani’s national orchestra includes both North and South Indian artists who sit together and perform. Violinists T.K. Jayarama Iyer and S. Gopalakrishnan used to conduct the ensemble. Ravi Shankar has also produced programmes with both South Indian and North Indian artists playing together. I remember one programme called Bandish Sargam produced at AIR Delhi, with some 30 artists of both styles performing together; it had two vocalists of Carnatic music and two of Hindustani, with Bismillah Khan as the soloist. Initially, he had trouble playing with the mridangam (Ramnad Eswara Iyer) but once the talas were explained to him, he had no problem picking up the refrain after each sortie. (That recording was, incidentally, re-played some four decades later, during the 1990s, without any advance listing or announcement.) The national orchestra was perhaps the first time that North and South Indian musicians sat together to experiment and perform.

However it did not lead to any further explorations or deeper collaborations. A pity. Jugalbandis between North and South Indian artists are not rare, but what I am curious about is the lack of effort on the part of North Indians, to essay forays into Carnatic music – apart from borrowing ragas (in both directions – we have Swati Tirunal’s compositions in North Indian ragas like Brindavani Sarang, and also a set of dhrupads that he composed much before Akashvani’s national orchestra. We have Carnatic tillanas in Hindustani ragas like Mian ki Malhar and Desh) but these are composed by South Indians, not by North Indians. Some Hindustani vocalists are interested in including tillanas in their repertoires, which is interesting.

No art can remain stagnant; experimentation has an important role in any art form, otherwise, we would still be in the prabandha stage. Experiments that do not find favour with audiences will automatically fade away. In the performing arts, it is ultimately the audience that determines the reception that an experiment gets. Those that do not please, fall by the wayside.

(The author has a doctorate for her comparative study of  Hindustani and Carnatic styles and the Sangeeta Vidwan degree from the Central College of Karnatic Music, Chennai. She is the only vocalist to broadcast as an A-grade artist in both styles)