The Carnatic Music Concert : An Analysis Of Its Evolution

I will present my analysis in seven parts: (Sa) Some basics. (Ri) A watershed in the evolution of music. (Ga) Beginnings of concert music. (Ma) A fundamental change in the concert pattern. (Pa) Concert music in the golden era. (Dha) Concert music today and the factors influencing it. (Ni) Prognosis for the future.

Some basics

I will start with some basics.

• Ashok D. Ranade, the Bombay-based scholar and musicologist, has suggested a five-fold classification of music, as follows: primitive music; folk music, devotional music; art music,and popular music. (See Sruti 104). This is what he has said about devotional music and art music:

 * Devotional music in India is an offshoot of the bhakti movement. Its purpose is to help the people obtain an intense devotional experience. The tunes are in simple raga-s which are catchy and appealing. Audience participation by singing in chorus and clapping is designed to get the participants involved. Devotional music is rendered today even on the concert stage but in a highly processed form. Music does not become devotional because its composer was in a devotional frame of mind when he created it or because the performer was/is in a similar frame of mind. A saint's singing need not be aesthetic, while an art musician may sing without devotion what is generally considered devotional music.

 * The aesthetic intent of the performers is what sets art (or classical) music apart from the other four categories. There is a qualitative difference between the motivations of the primitive, folk, devotional, popular and art musicians. Unlike the others, the art musician seeks to establish himself as an artist according to his own aesthetic norms. He is motivated by his artistic ego. Art music necessarily concentrates on selected performing aspects. Moreover, art music specialises in a chosen mode of expression. This is why art music performances can easily be described as concerts of vocal or instrumental music.

• Indian art (or classical) music is raga music. The concept of raga is unique to Indian music. It is this which sets it apart from the other musics of the world.

 • Art music is usually presented in a concert. It requires that the performer should present music as music, not as anything else, for example, not as prayer, even though he may start with a supplication to god. The concert may consist of compositions in which divinity is praised, but that does not make it devotional music or Divine music.

• Considering that Indian music is raga music and art music is presented in a concert, the objective of the performer in a concert should be to explore the raga-s he chooses to present. The kriti, or even a song which does not have the structural or other dimensions of a kriti, is, in this context, first and foremost a vehicle for raga exploration or imaging.

A Watershed

The concept of the kriti antedated the three composers whom we like to identify as the Trinity of Carnatic music. Muthu Tandavar used the format for his song-music creations. There were others too, like Margadarsi Sesha Iyengar. But it is really the compositions of Tyagaraja, as well as those of Syama Sastry and Muthuswami Dikshitar, that articulated the songform fully. Their compositions not only added a new dimension to the kriti form, but also gave a new meaning to musical architecture.

Until the advent of the Trinity, the dominant songform was the prabandha. In this song-form, the emphasis was, by and large, on the text rather than on the musical content. (Geya prabandha-s were important exceptions). But Tyagaraja and the other two trinitarians virtually reversed this equation in their lyrico-musical compositions. They emphasised the musical content. They were really musical explorers. Although their lyrics reflected their intense devotion to different manifestations of godhead, except with regard perhaps to the operas and the divyanama and utsava sampradaya corpus of Tyagaraja, musical exploration was the purport of the kriti-s they composed. Especially the exploration of raga images. This is particularly true of Tyagaraja and Dikshitar. In support of this observation, I cite the fact that Tyagaraja has composed more than 30 kriti-s in Todi and bequeathed to us different images of the raga within the same scalar framework. I also cite the generally acknowledged fact that Dikshitar paid particular attention to raga imaging.

In short, Tyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastry pushed the frontiers of art music. They went beyond the prabandha and the keertana, in which the empha sis is on lyrics for the most part, and utilised the kriti form to emphasise the musical dimension. Generally, in the process of creating a new composition a process which was perhaps iterative in nature they took the mood of the lyrics as a basis for imaging the selected raga. They linked raga bhava to sahitya bhava. Their compositions were and are essentially expressions of raga music.

 Thus, whether they consciously intended it or not, these great vaggeyakara-s also laid the basis for art music anchored in the kriti suite. They were nadopasaka-s, yes. But they were also artists in the sense that they paid attention to prosody and the grammatical and aesthetic aspects of music in creating their lyrico-musical works. And particularly in the sense that each of them sought to project specific aspects of music applying his own conceptions and imagination. (The same cannot likely be said about the numerous bhakti poets and composers who preceded them, even though the quartet of Tamil saints who composed and sang the songs called collectively as Tevaram selected specific pann-s or ragas for the purpose and even though Annamacharya indicated the raga-s for each of his compositions).

Art music had already existed for centuries and it certainly was prevalent during the times of the Trinity. There were musicians who, seeing themselves as artists, sought to convey their individual conceptions of music through virtuosic displays of raga elaboration, pallavi-singing and so on. But the compositions of Tyagaraja and Dikshitar, especially, marked a major milestone in the development of art music. This observation is valid even though the raga suite as we know it today the combination of raga alapana, kriti, niraval and swaraprastara did not seem to have been in vogue in their time. For although, despite the fact all three had descendants and disciples who served as custodians of their kriti-s, there is no evidence to indicate that their compositions were sung extensively until the raga suite emerged as a distinct entity, this only means that there was a lapse of time before they became an integral part of art music and thus gave art music an altogether new dimension. There is enough reason, therefore, to conclude that the musical conceptions and contributions of the Trinity mark a watershed in the evolution of music, particularly the development of art music in South India.

Beginnings of concert music

The Carnatic music concert as we know it today is hardly a century old. There is no reliable record available yet of a concert in which a musician presented what is called the raga suite before the very end of the the 19th century. Earlier there were specialists who presented elaborate alapana-s or pallavis; and they performed in a royal court or in a private gallery presided over by a prince or a rich patron. The raga suite is said to be an invention of Coimbatore Raghava Iyer, a renowned vocalist; some have ascribed it to the blind flutist Sarabha Sastry. Whoever was the inventor, it seemed to have debuted either at the tail end of the 19th century or at the beginning of this one.

Carnatic music concerts in the early years of this century are reported to have lasted five hours plus and to have consisted of an introductory song or two, followed by an elaborate ragam-tanam-pallavi and a tailpiece. Possibly the format resembled that of a longish Hindustani music concert in which the artist presents only a few raga-s.

A fundamental shift

 A round the nineteen twenties, the patronage of music performances began shifting from rajas and zamindars and their coteries of courtiers and connoisseurs, to commoners organised in associations known as sabha-s. The emergence of the sabha-s marked the beginning of the democratisation of art music.

The very first sabha known to have come into existence in the South was the Bhagavat Katha Prasanga Sabha. Established in Madras in 1895, it was devoted to the promotion and presentation of Harikatha discourses. Next to be formed was the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha which came into existence in 1898 but was registered only two years later. More sabha-s were formed in the early years of the new century, not only in Madras, but also in Bangalore and one or two towns of Telugu country. The Gayana Samaja of Bangalore, established in 1906, now claims to be the oldest sabha with a record of continuous activity.

However, although quite a few sabha-s had come into being by the early twenties, listenership had yet to be developed. Whatever membership these sabhas had consisted mostly of lay persons who had had no exposure to serious music; at best, they were acquainted with music as presented in Harikatha discourses. So it was not surprising that they found the elaborate, RTP-centred performances rather heavygoing and beyond the pale of their ability to enjoy. At one time, The Hindu of Madras carried many letters addressing this point, and some key figures like E. Krishna Iyer, a promoter of music and dance, argued for a change in the orientation of the concert and the shortening of its duration, both aimed at making music more palatable and appealing to the listeners.

It was in this context that Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, picking up on the initiatives earlier taken by his guru and some others, developed a new kutcheri format that made room for the presentation of not just a few, but several items. Ariyakudi himself was relatively young at that time and even then he had the apacity to intuit what his listeners wanted.

Ramanuja Iyengar himself chose to pack his concerts with a number of items varnam, kriti-s, raga suites and RTP, in raga-s suggesting different moods and in diverse rhythms  including what is often referred to as tukkada-s, which are songs rendered with a light touch. These latter items were aimed particularly at pleasing the listeners on the fringe of comprehension. Speaking for this type of listeners, S. Sathyamurti, Congress leader and cultural activist with a golden tongue, is reported to have quipped: "I wish the artists would render the tukkada-s first, so that we may go home!"

Brevity, furthermore, was the soul of Ramanuja Iyengar's musical wit. In literary parlance, he was a short-story writer, not a novelist, nonetheless of the calibre of a Nobel laureate. This was not, however, a feature of the kutcheri pattern he perfected, though it has been misconstrued as just that, especially by later-day critics. Musicians of his own time did not make this mistake. They understood that the main purpose of the concert format patented by Ariyakudi was to introduce variety, not to project the rendering of a string of songs as the ideal. Thus, for example, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and G.N. Balasubramaniam, who both claimed Ariyakudi as their manaseeka guru, absorbed only the variety aspect and not the brevity into their concert music. They too offered a number of items in a concert— in sharp contrast to the practice of the early pioneers of concert music— but they also chose to project their manodharma at great length.

Concert music in the golden era

This emphasis placed on the play of manodharma or creativity by a number of leading musicians resulted in promoting an even greater variety in music than the new kutcheri format could offer by itself. For there was now not only variety in each concert but also differences in the styles of presentation of different musicians. These were the reasons that made the music of the period from the mid-twenties to, say, the mid-fifties so attractive.

The greatest achievement of the great musicians of this golden era was to build up a substantial following for art music, virtually from scratch. The immensity and significance of this achievement become clearer when we realise that the stalwarts of the times did not compromise the quality of their music even when moulding their presentations to satisfy the range of listeners that included a large proportion of lay persons; and when we recall, furthermore, that the recording industry was as yet in a primitive stage in those times and that the radio made its advent only in the late thirties.

There is another point I would like to emphasise. The great concert musicians of the golden era may or may not have conceptualised the purpose of concert music as the presentation of raga music. But, by and large, they did focus on the imaging of the raga in consonance with the mood of the kriti and, through the application of their musical intelligence and manodharma, succeeded in bringing out the particular facet of the selected raga embodied in the kriti. Really none of them not even Ariyakudi was given to singing a string of kriti-s and lighter compositions as if that was the thing to do.

Moreover, because by and large the musicians of this period presented their alapana-s in the bhava of the kriti-s they elected to sing subsequently, they not only succeeded in maintaining the integrity of the particular image of the raga they chose to project, but were also able to project, taking the cue from the kriti-s they rendered, different facets of the same raga in different concerts. They thus avoided offering stereotyped music.

Concert music today & the factors influencing it

Carnatic concert music has undergone a sea-change since then. The change was likely inevitable. The question is whether the change that has taken place, especially as it is reflected in concert performances in the last decade or so, represents an improvement, examined in the light of the basics outlined by me at the beginning of this article.

Old-timers often talk about the Good Old Days. Ogden Nash, the witty American poet, quipped in verse, possibly with such expressions of nostalgia in mind: Good old days that never were. But, in regard to Carnatic classical music, the nostalgic recollections are not without sufficient basis. Perhaps not every prominent musician of the golden era deserves praise but the music of the great stalwarts men and women certainly supports the judgement that it represented a high watermark in art music.

I will come to the point directly: most of what we hear in concerts today, especially in the performances of the musicians of the younger generation, lacks the essence of art music.

Let me explain.

As stated earlier, Indian music is raga music. The artist-musician should therefore aim at projecting the swaroopa or image of the raga as he sings or renders a composition in a concert.

 In Hindustani classical music, notably, the usual announcement made is that the perfomer will render this raga or that; the bandish is not usually announced. In fact, raga presentation has gained such emphasis in khayal, that the attention given to the bandish has vastly diminished.

 In Carnatic music, the idea that the concert musician should emphasise raga presentation has lost ground in recent times. The musicians have tended to concentrate on songs. Exaggerating for effect, but really not that much, I might say that what we hear for the most part are songs, not music. (Even in teaching, the institutions today teach songs rather than music).

[Parenthetically, I might mention that what prompted me to study the subject was the remark of a scholar of Hindustani music that Carnatic musicians sing only songs, not music. I have since found confirmation that he was wrong in thinking that Carnatic music did not encompass the concept of raga music, but he was mostly right about the bulk of music presented today].

 If the concept of raga music would be properly understood, the present-day Carnatic musician too should place emphasis on raga unfoldment through a judicious combination of raga alapana, kriti presentation, niraval and swaraprastara, with laya/tala as an integral aspect. The importance given to the various component segments could vary, of course, and the performer could choose to employ his manodharma extensively in only one of the three segments of the kriti suite, thus adding to variety in the concert as he picks and chooses different segments in different compositions for displaying his creativity. But the aim should always be to help the listeners savour the particular facet of the raga presented, as embodied in the kriti or the kalpita segment.

 It is in this respect that the full significance of the contribution made by the Trinity to the development of art music must be understood. What they have done is to present in virtually each of their kriti-s a vision of the raga image that they reckoned would be appropriate to it. If this were properly understood and presented in a raga suite, there should be no incongruity between raga bhava and sahitya bhava. Furthermore, the kalpita sangeeta captured in their compositions suggests the scope, as well as the boundaries, for the exercise of manodharma in the other segments. If a concert musician understood all this properly, he would be able to present a raga suite in an integrated manner, rather than as a hotchpotch of unconnected alapana, kriti, niraval and swaraprastara.

The norms to be observed include the following:

* The alapana, if rendered, must broadly conform to and exploit the swara sanchara-s, the bhava, the tempo and the overall architectonics of the kriti. Skirting the rigidity of the scalar framework of the melody, the performer could vary the alapana of thea feature of the kutcheri pattern he perfected, though it has been misconstrued as just that, especially by later-day critics. Musicians of his own time did not make this mistake. They understood that the main purpose of the concert format patented by Ariyakudi was to introduce variety, not to project the rendering of a string of songs as the ideal. Thus, for example, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and G.N. Balasubramaniam, who both claimed Ariyakudi as their manaseeka guru, absorbed only the variety aspect and not the brevity into their concert music. They too offered a number of items in a concert in sharp contrast to the practice of the early pioneers of concert music but they also chose to project their manodharma at great length.

same raga from composition to composition. For example, the different compositions of Tyagaraja in Todi not only allow room for such a variation but actually suggest the need for it.

* The niraval and the swaraprastara must complement, but more importantly supplement, the imaging of the raga achieved through the alapana and the kriti. At the same time, the musical phrases used in them should not duplicate those used in the earlier segments.

* The tempo of the alapana, kriti, etc., should be mutually consistent. If these norms would be observed, it would not matter whether a musician chooses to present a raga suite in an elaborate fashion or in a brief manner. What would be more important is his success in conveying a coherent and clear image of the raga presented, as beautifully as possible.

Apart from this normative argument, it could also be reasoned that rasika-s themselves would better appreciate it if the musician conveyed a particular image of the raga selected in a clear manner, instead of projecting a jumble of overlapping images. On the other hand, a connoisseur is bound to be dissatisfied, as he is often today, when the alapana and the sahitya bhava of the kriti that follows are not complementary and when there is repetition of select musical phrases during niraval and swaraprastara.

The pity of it is that, even when the main musician in a concert takes the proper approach, the violinist, ignorant of the concept of raga music and what it entails in a programme of manodharma music the ruling manodharma has to be that of the main musician  more often than not bespoils it by projecting an image of the raga different from that painted by the main musician in the raga alapana.

 Thus the problem boils down to this: among the bulk of Carnatic musicians today, there is less than adequate comprehension, if there is any at all, of the concept of raga music and how to apply it in presenting a raga suite.

 As a result, what we hear today in concerts is mostly kriti- or song-centred music which comes through as stereotyped. Unless a musician makes intelligent use of the 'information' he can gain by studying the construction of each kriti carefully, he would likely sing the various raga-s in a stereotyped manner. Also, unless the different musicians study such 'information' and utilise it as a basis for interpretation, each using his own manodharma and his own style of presentation, we are likly to be left yearning vainly for major stylistic differences like those that existed in the golden era and, continue to feel that, if we have heard one concert, we have heard them all. Also contributing to this situation are two other factors: one, the 'star' syndrome and the pressures it exerts on musicians to conform to the expectations of concert promoters and audiences expectations which do not generally set store by standards; and two, the impact of the mindless chant that our music, even kutcheri music, is Divine and its justification and purpose are bhakti.

Many of today's talented young musicians are in a hurry to reach the top or acquire star status. (See my earlier article, The 'Star' Syndrome e? Its Effects in Sruti 137). They are not enamoured of the 'royal highway  in which they must obey the rules of the road. They want to get on the fast lane as quickly as possible, regardless of whether they can 'drive' properly. It is not surprising therefore that they crash out early, musically speaking. Others employ any and all gimmicks that would earn them a star status. They don't have the inclination to gain depth and maturity in their music; or, if they succeed in gaining star status, even the time to do so. Caught in this kind of a rat race, even the serious and sincere musical aspirants feel the need to conform, lest they be left out.

There is a need to examine the second factor in greater detail. I have already cited the classification of Indian music put forward by Ranade. Even though he himself has indicated that the various categories are not mutually watertight, he has clearly pointed out the differences in the purposes and characteristics of devotional and art music. I see no problem with the distinctions that Ranade has made, nor do the other scholars with whom I have disussed the subject. There is indeed a distinctive difference between devotional music and art music; and, as pointed out earlier, when a devotional song is included in an art music concert, the musician usually modifies it and performs it in a manner that more or less conforms to the requirements of a concert. The other side of this observation is that the singing, say, of bhajan-s as they would be sung in a programme of devotional songs, using the jalra in addition, is really taboo in an art music context. But the really serious problem is the growing belief— and the practice that has followed this belief— that it is sufficient, nay preferable, to sing or render a series of kriti-s and songs in a concert, with only perfunctory and disjointed attention to the manodharma aspects. This is why, I believe, songs have virtually replaced music in concerts.

The deification of Tyagaraja, and its consequences, must be examined too in this context.

 Admirers and devotees of Tyagaraja mix up, as a percipient reader of Sruti has pointed out, two main aspects of the bard, namely his great devotion and his unparalleled musical genius. For this, the build-up of Tyagaraja as a 'saint' by Harikatha discourses and later-day proponents of the view that mythology is history, is mainly responsible.

 A close look at the facts indicates that Tyagaraja was a pious man, but nonetheless a man or human being like you and me. (Read also the observations made by S. P. Sundaram published elsewhere in this issue). He had enough material wealth to live comfortably, if simply. He practised unchavritti because of its spiritual value, not because he was poor, which he was not. He married twice surely because his circumstances warranted it. He was a musical genius who had studied and imbibed the lakshana and lakshya aspects. He had also imbibed the values extolled in the Vedas, Upanishads and other philosophical literature of the Hindus. What set him apart from others with similar endowments and achievements was his exalted devotion to Lord Rama in particular and to god in general.

The build-up given to Tyagaraja by the Harikatha performers can be sourced to the fact that, during the turbulent times he lived in, this devout man was seen as a person who should be extolled as a model of virtue and piety. (See Tyagaraja: Life and Lyrics, by William J. Jackson, OUP, 1991). Once this process was set in motion, the perception and promotion of Tyagaraja as a saint "grow'd and grow'd" until today when he is seen as a divine figure and his idol is worshipped not only in many places in India but also in the Little Indias in different parts of the world, especially during the annual aradhana observances.

It is nobody's argument that one should not worship gods of one's own choosing, or venerate Mother, Father, Acharya or pious and noble persons. Such veneration falls well within the Hindu tradition. We have been venerating the Paramacharya of Kanchi and Mahatma Gandhi, even if we don't follow their advice. Even MGR and Kushboo have temples built for them where they are presumably offered worship. So there is nothing wrong if anyone wishes to deify Tyagaraja and offer him worship. But there is a problem and it has arisen only because these predilections have distorted the public perception of Tyagaraja's persona as a vaggeyakara. Consider the following:

* The compositions of Tyagaraja are seen, not as the result of his human genius but as a gift of god. Even a rational scientist, for example, may acknowledge that he owes god a 'thank you' for his successes in his field. It is one thing for such a person even Tyagaraja to acknowledge god's grace; but it is entirely another for others, contemporaries or people of later generations, to say that god alone is instrumental for his accomplishments. Thus we hear many people tell that compositions simply poured out of Tyagaraja and that, by extension, they are god's creations. I have heard it told by a Harikatha discourser, as recently1 as a couple of years ago, that Tyagaraja was a supreme bhakta whose mind was constantly preoccupied with god, and that, while the lyrics spontaneously flowed out as an outpouring of a devotee, he was least concerned about their musical setting. It seems it was his disciples who provided the musical scores and embellished them to transform the bhakti lyrics into full-blown kriti-s. If this were true, why should we hail Tyagaraja- as a great vaggeyakara? Also, are such statements to be considered as tributes or put-downs?
The veneration industry has indeed dwelt on more than two facets of Tyagaraja. He has been hailed not only as a great devotee, but also as a fine poet and a great philosopher, not to mention as a composer. Let us examine these perceptions,

* Tyagaraja was a great bhakta indeed; but was he so exceptional and do we know so little about other bhakta-s the mythological Prahlada and the very human Sakku Bai, Tukaram and Muthu Tandavar, among others that we feel it justified to place him on a higher pedestal than all of them? He was saintly and so could we describe, with equal justification, such others like Muthuswami Dikshitar and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar but was he a saint in the proper sense of the term?

 * Tyagaraja has captured in his compositions all the eternal truths and pholosophies he had absorbed, but does this warrant the writing of tomes on Tyagopanishad, giving him the status of a high and original authority on the subject?

* Tyagaraja's lyrics are in simple language and are also conversational in tone. Quite rightly, they have been cited as the reason for the fact his compositions are uncluttered and go directly to the heart. But is he a great poet, as he is often hailed to be? Would he be admitted as a member of a Guild of National Poets?

Such questions cannot be dismissed out of hand. Furthermore, to raise them cannot be construed as an attack on Tyagaraja because it is not he who has made these claims but his admirers and devotees. My worry, anyway, is not about these claimsper se, but the fact that these claims have tended to overshadow his musical genius and his greatest achievement and legacy, namely his compositions. Of course, much has been spoken and written about the greatness of his compositions, but the tendency has always been to take the credit away from his human endeavours and to extol his devotion as the raison d'etre for the appealing quality of musical works. This is like treating Rama as a divine being, instead of as a human being; you do that, the Rt. Hon. V.S Srinivasa Sastry said in his lectures on the Ramayana, you have missed the significance of the great epic. In Tyagaraja's case, not only have his devotees overlooked his great human achievements by deifying him as divinity incarnate, but also relegated his musical masterpieces to the background. So much so, while more and more numerous aradhana-s are being conducted as a tribute to Tyagaraja all over the world, and the musically- inclined as well other devotees throng them as if they are great shows not to be missed, there has been a perceptible decline in attendance at concerts in which his kriti-s find pride of place even. What kind of a tribute is this to Tyagaraja's musical genius? Do we deify him only to ignore his great compositions except to pay lip-service?

 This is a perturbing question, but equally perturbing is the observation that this deification of Tyagaraja has strengthened the mistaken belief that even our art music is Divine, god-oriented, and what-have you. This is not only misleading but hypocritical as well. "Nadopasana! What nadopasana?" the venerable and venerated Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer once exclaimed, answering a question I had posed on the subject. And then he explained: "Music is a trade for us [concert musicians], a means of securing a livelihood." Semmangudi was again totally candid, as well as correct, in the reply he gave to a question put by another writer, whether a musician must be "charged with devotion" in order to ensure that his performance moved the heart. His reply was: "That is precisely what I mean. Not bhakti towards the godhead but towards the music itself. The musician must not weep on the stage, but make the listener shed tears as soon as he hears the raga. Do you understand? It is this which sanctifies the art and makes it a matrix of all that is good and noble in the human mind." [Frontline, 22 March 1996).

Prognosis for the future

 Critical as I am about the present state of concert music in Carnatica, I am not without hope for the future. I believe that the more serious and intelligent among present-day musicians will, given proper guidance, encouragement and help, understand what art music is and what they should present in concerts. I also believe that the listeners can also be educated. But I also feel that the veteran musicians who were part of the golden era and who are happily still with us must speak out. They must be willing to state in public what they say in private about the shortcomings in the music of present-day performers. Let them state their views indirectly, if they wish. Let them speak softly, if they must. But they have the duty to speak the truth. Like a tincture painted on a wound, criticism might hurt at first, but it is likely to help heal the injury that has been aggravated through puerile pronunciamentos.
Yes, I am optmistic the future will be bright provided we recognise the problems and take timely measures to overcome them.