Carnatic Music In The Thirties

 Whatever may be the divergence in the general viewpoints of past and present music, the effect of the change of patronage from discerning princes and patricians to the mixed crowd of the streets is indelibly marked in the present-day growth and development of the art. The demand of the populace, of varying tastes and degrees of understanding, has brought in a corresponding supply in it. A wholly ignorant audience would ordinarily enjoy the pleasing aspect of sweet sounds and might be content to take the lead of the initiated on the scientific and higher features of the art. But considerable sections of the present-day music hall audiences with their nibbling acquaintance with a good number of catchy songs are not seldom found to crave more and more for what they themselves are very familiar with, than for other things equally important. With them, the man who sings a large number of pieces preferably short ones has perhaps a better and surer chance of wide popularity than others who may be able to expound their ragas, pallavi-s and other scholarly features of the art in a profound or elaborate manner. On the whole, there is more hurry than necessary leisure in the present day music in general. Those who go in for impressive, elaborate and leisurely rendering of raga-s in particular or compositions in slow time measures are comparatively few. This combined with the excessive development of tala accompaniments has had no small influences in shifting the centre of interest from some of the essentials of good Carnatic music, such as absolute melody and grace, raga-s and raga bhava.

 Of course, kriti-s and other pieces should, in the nature of things form the mainstay of a South Indian music concert. But even there, the question of variety in raga-s, of the same with reference to raga bhava are as important as their numerical quantity.

Raga and raga bhava

 The unique feature and glory of Carnatic music are to be found in the conception and beautifully classified system of raga-s  pure sound melodies of rich variety, exquisitely pleasing to the ear and capable of rousing different moods and emotions without the aid of words of any language whatsoever, though one may not believe in all the exaggerated and legendary notions of their magical effects. Classified and codified as they are with mathematical precision, you have got ample scope also in them for the play of your personal genius, skill and imagination. A musician who has got good conception of and mastery over raga-s and raga bhava, gives a more distinct and exquisite flavour to what all he sings, than one who is comparatively deficient in them. And yet, as a result of the excessive development of tala accompaniments, music has been driven to attune itself to the steel-frame jati-s of the rhythmic variety, to the detriment of raga-s and raga bhava. The climax is reached when raga alapana itself is not infrequently found to be reduced almost to a sort of swarajati-s though veiled in form.

The learning and exposition of compositions, swara and tala are perhaps comparatively more mechanical, and easy than those of raga-s which are somewhat elusive and which require no small skill, imagination, patience and other personal qualities. More than the latter, the former variety seems to suit easily the convenience and circumstances of the average professionals, with their struggle for life and desire to shoot up quickly into cheap fame and with their need to satisfy the tastes of large sections of modern audiences for music of the galloping variety particularly in pieces and swara sanchara-s. In the paucity of the natural grace of raga bhava, some of them seek to make their wares attractive by a sort of mechanical finish and polish. In short, they have got only the dry bones of swara and sahitya and wellnigh lost the flesh and blood of raga and raga bhava.

Formation of good taste

This naturally leads one to the question of taste in musicians and music lovers, which is after all the chief determining factor in standards and appreciation of art. You cannot expect much of uniformity, steadiness or refinement in that matter in the many headed multitude; nor can you blame them for it. Hence all the more is the responsibility for forming good taste on the part of the musicians and the discerning among music lovers. The crowd will always follow what lead it is given, provided it is definite and strong. Tastes in turn depend not a little upon culture and character. The former gives the artist the capacity to discern good from bad and the latter enables him to withstand or avoid any temptation to lower himself and his art or to pander to the vitiated or moribund taste of the gallery.

Voice qualities

There is again the baffling paradox in voice qualities. It is a notorious fact that in South Indian Music, not much attention is being paid to selection and cultivation of voices as such. An apparently rich and gifted voice, pleasing as it is on its first onset, is really found to be so ill-trained as not to display the necessary elements of good and well cultivated music. It is a mountain stream rushing through a narrow strip of coastland to waste its waters into the sea without being harnessed to much useful purpose. Often you come across musicians of profound knowledge struggling with bad or indifferent voices and all the same compelling your respect and admiration for their wonderful sadhaka or practice and exposition of brilliant features of a highly developed system of music . Th e uninitiated crowd, including man y of the so-called educated gentry who cannot be pleased except by sweet sounds as such would swear only by the music of the stage stars and  slipshod amateurs with ravishing voices and bad or no technique and practice and would prevent by legislation, if possible, the so-called scientific musicians with defective and indifferent voices from taking to vocal music . Th e pundits and prudes on the contrary can only be propitiated by musical gymnastics and acrobatics and would look upon mere sweetness as effeminate and fit only for the ununderstanding plebians.... [In the absence of a master musician of the type of a Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer who was reputed to have combined in him most of the necessary desirable and highly appreciable qualities of voice and technique, practice and presentation, culture and good tastes, such kinds of factions in tastes and appreciation are bound to exist. There is not much to choose as between them.] Nor can it be denied, that [much of the want of attractiveness in the average professional music of the present day is due to the obtrusively overwrought technique, killing melody and grace, though honourable exceptions may be found here and there.

 Natural music and human art

 It is but natural that in the general dearth of good and well-trained voices among the platform musicians, and scared away by the excesses of dry acrobatics of the technical experts, the real paying patrons of art in the democracy of the music-loving public should run mad after sweet sounds as such, wherever they are found, irrespective of the quality of human art. It may not be easy to convince the democracy that sweetness of natural music, as found in the voice of women, young boys and singing birds— very necessary and desirable as it is— cannot by itself and without the human art of developed technique and practice make a whole and true picture of a highly refined and cultivated system of art, like South Indian music. Gold ore or bat gold as such is good and valuable. Beat it and mould it into some shape as that of a casket, it becomes attractive. Give it a desirable size and proportion and smooth polish as well, it looks very pretty. Carve some designs on it, it appears to be beautiful. Set some rubies, diamonds and other precious stones into it, it becomes brilliant. Place it on a well-carved pedestal, it looks glorious. Both raw gold and the finished casket are valuable and will have a sure sale. But it is the latter that ought to be in greater demand and better priced. The trouble comes in only when the casket is made of tinsel, or over-carved with bizarre designs or ill polished and when the raw gold is clumsily kept unbeaten into any shape. So is the case with music as well, in its natural and cultivated forms. It is obvious that good music is to be sought for in a happy combination of natural music of sweet sounds and human art of refined technique, practice and presentation. When all is said, anywhere, at any time, no highly developed art can be well understood and enjoyed or properly valued without some initiation into its technique and conventions, though every one need not be an expert either in theory or practice. The Indian art is not as if it is slowly growing from a crude primitive stage and by catching from here and there a time or tune at random from all sorts of sources and making something new out of it. Nor is there absolutely no room for new creations in it. But before you create something new, you have to be acquainted with a large part of what already exists or at least with its basic principles and principal features. Though the contribution of well-meaning amateurs to art and their influence on improving taste and ideals are not inconsiderable, there is perhaps not much room for that type of dilettante with slipshod or no technique in a system of art like Carnatic music. Want of understanding of even the bare elements of technique and principles of the art is the excuse either for the lack of proper appreciation of the same.

Styles in music

 Like literature, music too has got its styles. Technique, rigorous as it is, can never make it uniform or stereotyped. In a way, it takes a highly personal colour, according to the individuality of the singer. It is not mastery of technique so much as the play of those individual graces, imagery and emotion and the manner of presentation which are beyond the realm of technique that marks a stylist. The same piece with set sangati-s or musical phrases sounds differently in different artists and much more so is the case with raga, swara, pallavi, etc. A rose is best understood and enjoyed when it is seen, smelt and worn in a button hole or in a tuft of hair. No amount of analysis of its petals and pollens can help to give you a perfect picture of the flower. So is [the case with] style in music. It has to be heard, understood, followed and enjoyed. At best one can only give out some of the outstanding characteristics of an artist, which make his art all his own and which are fairly describable in words. Again, though each artist may have some individuality of his own, it is not all who have developed it into markedly appreciable styles. Perhaps a distinct and catchy style is mostly a freak of nature and born with the artist, irrespective of any profundity or depth of knowledge or intensiveness in practice. A combination of many mediocre but necessary and desirable qualities presented with just balance and proportion often enslaves a listening audience much more than an extensive or even profound exposition of specialised aspects of the art. Once in a way, you may also come across a genius whose art, though essentially based on some technique and conventions, yet transcends both and revolutionises existing notions about them. Technique though necessary and valuable is but a vehicle or horse for the artist to ride on to the goal of artistic expression. To the extent to which he controls, guides and directs it on good and proper paths without being over-ridden or side-tracked by it, he will be a true and successful artist. The genius too makes use of it to fly to superb heights and explore new and unknown regions and bring delight beyond the average run of human knowledge and imagination.

Paper appreciation

These are only some of the factors in general, that have to be borne in mind in approaching the problem of style and standards in music and appreciation of the same. If it is only a want of understanding of fundamental or essential requirements of art or elements of the technique, the problem would not be very difficult and it may not be impossible to bring some sort of uniformity in the means and methods of appreciation. But public opinion, is not altogether free from unnecessary sentimentality, and from artificial factions and prejudices regarding art and artists. It is not uncommon also that really appreciable music is left unnoticed while mechanical and superficially spectacular varieties are applauded. The situation is further complicated by letting loose on the public all kinds of radio broadcasts and [recordings]. No doubt, of late, honest and laudable attempts have been made by those concerned with such music to bring out the art of the leading and popular professionals and the service done by them in that direction is highly valuable. But the craving of the masses for some kind of easily understandable music, not to speak of the moribund tastes of considerable sections of the crowd, and the business exigencies of dealing in such music, are making it extremely difficult, if not impossible even for them to pick and choose and keep to any standards. Perhaps these are only passing phenomena....


In the nature of things and in such a state of affairs, criticisms in art are not likely to carry conviction in any universal manner. One may not look for much of appreciable help in that direction from the average professional experts, who constituted as they are with varying interests and obsessions, cannot be expected to care for or properly and generously estimate one another's art and much less speak out fairly and frankly about it. Even if they or other discerning people were to do so, it is doubtful whether all professionals have as yet sportsmanship enough to relish or take it for what it is worth with equanimity. It will be a great thing if they would only realise that the body public to which their art is offered for enjoyment and patronage has with all its limitations got some right to express its own impressions about them provided of course they are fair and honest.... It so happens, that, more than the professional artist, it is the disinterested layman of understanding who is able to view and appreciate things with proper perspective and less of personal equations. A critic need not necessarily be a creative artist. Again if artists require less of personal obsessions, critics require more of tolerance and better understanding. Difference in viewpoints need not necessarily lead to the decrying of each other. It is not uncommon that an artist is more tolerant of friendly criticism than one critic of another. A captious critic and a blind admirer are more factious that the artist himself.

 In short, factions and favouritism, strong likes and dislikes, sentimentality and prejudices without much of a justification for the same are not likely to improve matters. Perhaps there would be little room for these, if one were to proceed on the assumption that no artist is perfect and that each notable one has got something of his own to contribute to the art and appreciation thereof even in these days. Some attention to the essentials of good art, combined with an open frame of mind, frankness and sympathy, may go a great way in helping music-lovers to fairly understand and appreciate our art and artists.