Quality & Popularity - They Can Coexist

The first point of importance in research or investigation is to ask the right questions. In this case, I am not sure that the question posed as the title of the seminar is correct.

For the question suggests that quality and popularity are mutually exclusive. This need not be so. In fact, the musical experience of the golden era of Carnatic music affirms that they are not mutually exclusive. The great musicians of this period popularised art music:

• without making it popular music;

• without compromising the canons of classical music; and

• without compromising artistic integrity. And they built up a large following. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar did that. Musiri Subramania Iyer did that. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer did that. G.N. Balasubramaniam did that. Madurai Mani Iyer did that. And, later, so did M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattamma l and M.L. Vasanthakumari, the female trinity of concert music.

I am citing only a few examples.

Their audience  drawn to kutcheri-s organised by sabha-s which had replaced kings, princes and potentates as patrons consisted of different segments, from connoisseurs to lay listeners to those who reacted mostly instinctively to the sounds of music. Therefore they had to tailor their performances to suit the different levels of appreciation, to different tastes. This they did by offering variety.

 Ariyakudi was the principal author of this evolution. And variety was the hallmark of the new approach he ushered in. Earlier  in the early decades of the century  the concerts did not include what are called tukkada-s. These so-called miscellaneous items offered in the post-pallavi segment came into vogue as part of the varietisation, the emergence of variety as the underpinning of the concert format.

Leading musicians of the period used variety to make the appeal of their performances more broadbased. They included in their performances items that are normally associated with devotional music and folk music and presented them dressed up as art music. Many also included pada-s and javali-s which belong to that part of art music connected primarily with dance. Many of you would have heard the true tale that, in the case of Madurai Mani Iyer of whom it can be said without contradiction that none sang more sweetly than he did even those who pulled rickshaws and carried gaslights on their heads listened entranced when he sang the lighter pieces at the mandapam concerts in Tiruchi.

 There are a few points I would like to make on this aspect of the concert format. One is that no one said, at that time, that the segment of the kutcheri that stretched to and included the RTP, was heavy or a torture and that relief yes, relief  from it had to be provided to the listeners.

Yet this is what is said in the introduction to this tukkada festival in the programme announcement. I am told that the introduction reflects the views of many listeners of today. If this be true, it does not augur well for the future of Carnatic music.

 This reminds me of an incident that took place in the U.S. many years ago. Hafeez Ahmed Khan, a Hindustani vocalist who sings ghazal-s as well as khayal-s, tarana-s and thumri-s, was engaged to sing at a gathering of Hyderabadi Muslims who had migrated to the U.S. from India. I went along with him to the house in a New Jersey town where this recital was to take place. When the performance was about to begin, the host informed the few people who had gathered there already that he would rather introduce the ustad later when he expected more people would be in the audience. He then asked Khan Saheb if he would sing some ghazal-s. Khan Saheb said that he had come to offer classical music and therefore he would first sing a couple of khayal-s, a tarana and one or two thumri-s before singing ghazal-s. With that the recital began. When Khan Saheb had completed a bada khayal and then a chhota khayal, the host intervened and, introducing the artist and his accompanists, said: "Khan Saheb has been clearing his throat until now. He will now sing!" His point was that serious music sounded like someone clearing his throat!

 There is also the story about the late S. Satyamurti, the golden-tongued orator, who reportedly once quipped: "If the tukkada-s could be performed first, many of us could go home early." What he must have meant was that the serious art music preceding the tukkada-s could not be properly understood or appreciated by musical illiterates.

Nonetheless, I have never heard it said that, in the past, listeners who belonged to this category found serious music such a torture that they had to flee the hall, or that they arrived only when the tukkada segment began. They welcomed the tukkada-s, yes, but like payasam a sweet dish  after the main dishes in a feast.

Qualitatively, I repeat qualitatively, these tukkada-s were not and are not at the same level as the major compositions, the kriti-s rendered earlier. This was and is true even though many of the pada-s and javali-s offer the quintessenc e of art music. The point is that the most important feature of a kriti in the kriti-suite around which raga music of the South revolves is that it serves as the fulcrum for the manodharma segments, namely, the alapana, the niraval and the kalpana swara. In the great musical scheme of the Trinity, for example,

 • Further, a concert could be deemed a success if 'the basics' imagination, sruti, laya, correct rendering of kriti, niraval and swara were presented in a balanced mix.

• However, the success of a concert is difficult to quantify as the circumstances differ from place to place and from one situation to the other.

• If the size of the audience were taken as the criterion, a monthly sabha concert anywhere could be called a success even if the turnout is just 200, whereas a music festival should be able to draw 500 or more to qualify as success. While a musician's musician would probably draw only a small audience of knowledgeable rasika-s, a 'popular' musician would attract a crowd of 1000-plus!

Kalidas commenced his tani with focus on the given topic, but went off on a tangent in trying to spice it up Since music is a medium of communication, he said while staying with the topic, the success of a concert depends on the standard of music presented, as well as the quality of the audience. He also drew attention to the fact that, in the golden era of Carnatic music, several classical musicians attracted large crowds without lowering their standards but said that, on the other hand, there were also singers like S.G. Kittappa, K.B. Sundarambal and M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar who, although staying mostly on the edge of the concert arena, were very popular because of the appealing music they offered.

Kalidas, however, queered the pitch somewhat by saying that it is difficult to define standards in Carnatic music. His view: the scientific or technical aspects of grammar, sruti and laya constituted only 30 to 40 per cent of its contents, while the aesthetic aspect, constituting the balance, included bhava and rasa, which are not measurable.

 Krishnaswamy took exception to the use of the word 'crowd'. He said it was a crude term and the word audience should have been used instead. He said there was a difference between the success of music and the success of a concert. In his opinion, since concerts were for the benefit of the audience, one had to focus on audience appreciation as well and not on the quality of the musician alone. He said, as a sabhanayaka incurring huge expenditures on organising concerts, he had to take into account audience support. He asserted that, in the context of a public concert, even the 12 best of music loses its raison d'etre if it fails to attract a sufficient number of listeners.

Krishnaswamy said performers who are thoroughly professional are the exception rather than the rule and this also affected audience support, and added that the blame for the sorry spectacle of halfempty and empty halls should be placed also on the mushrooming of small organisations which presented free kutcheri-s.

 Calcutta Ashok Viswanath said the size of the audience is not directly related to the standard of a concert and, therefore, a large audience does not necessarily mean that the musician is offering quality music. He went on to say that, apart from the fare offered by the main musician, the quality of the accompanists and the sound system also had a bearing on the quality of music in a concert. lust like established brand names attract more customers, established musicians too draw a large audience. He recollected that whenever the giants of Carnatic music from the South visited Calcutta once a year, the audience turnout was remarkable. Performing artists themselves should set the standards and when the average rasika leaves the hall, he should feel like the Pepsi fan and ask for more. Ye dil  maangey more!

Seshagopalan proved that he is not only a versatile musician but also a thoughtful speaker. He slated tha janaakarshana the power to attract the audience should be a characteristic of good music; but this did not mean that every crowdpulling musician was also a good musician. He recalled that in his school days he had attended music festivals and had seen Carnatic music stalwarts drawing housefull of listeners who not only seemed to enjoy the music but sometimes even sang along. Seshagopalan further said that only certain song-forms could reach out to the masses. He had seen musicians like K.B. Sundarambal establishing instant rapport with large crowds. However, he added, the performer should not let the crowd determine standards in classical music; rather he should make them receptive to the grandeur of the music.

Seshagopalan said the size of the crowd is not a reliable barometer for measuring standard or quality since the relationship between the two varies from place to place. A musician who may not draw a large crowd in the city may find a big turnout in the suburbs or districts where performances are not held frequently. Can one say that the standard of the singer had increased there, he asked.

The fiftyish maestro felt sorry at the plight of sabha-s with poor attendance and stated there should be some kind of coordination among sabha-s to avoid clash of events.

This point was taken up by Krishnaswamy who said that he had already suggested such a scheme but no musician seemed ready to take up the challenge of singing at a few select venues even when a handsome fee is offered! On this subject, he and Seshagopalan took turns at the mike, providing the audience with interesting but somewhat off-track sawal-jawab. Seshagopalan rounded off his remarks saying that there are three kinds of koottam or crowd: Ee koottam— (swarm of flies) where the masses simply flock to any public function, whether good or bad; semmari aadu-koottam— (flock of sheep) where the public attends a programme just because the performer is popular; and, teni koottam— (swarm of bees) consisting of discerning rasika-s in search of quality fare.

Va.Ve.Su.'s statement was idealistic and had a good sprinkling of literary quotes. He said one must ponder as to whether art is for art's sake or whether art is for society. He called for something new and fresh, a change in the approach to Carnatic music. He suggested that there should be introspection on the part of the performers about their own contribution to the art and to society. He said art can be called a success when, starting from the artist, it communicates to the audience and touches the heart.

Vasanth Kumar said the musician should try to raise listeners to a higher level of appreciation. The numerical strength of the audience should not matter to a good musician who must perform true to himself. After delivering this message, he went off the track to discuss the relevance rather, in his view, the irrelevance of voice culture, which is heralded in the North, to Carnatic music.

The seminar held on the morning of the second day was only a part of the fourday festival. Other segments were devoted to the demonstration/exploration of the different song-forms offered as miscellaneous items in a Carnatic music concert: pada-s and javali-s; Tevaram, Tirupugazh, kavadi chindu, arutpa; bhajan-s and abhang-s; viruttam and ragamalika pieces; songs in light and raga-s based on Hindustani music; and tillana-s.

In addition, there were four 'tukkada concerts'. In each case, the main performer was asked to present a kriti or a mini pallavi (maximum one minute of alapana) and the percussionist(s) to play a tani, as a prelude to the tukkada items.

Ah yes. There was also a session devoted to ghazal-s in Tamil, which have not yet found a place in Carnatic music concerts. What next? Flamenco songs? Trust the Mudhra-s to come up with something new or should we?