A Disturbing Picture

It was music, mostly Carnatic classical music, that dominated the scene during the festival of festivals. The 53 festivalmongering organisations in the field scheduled as many as 1306 concerts. Only 18 of these were by music ensembles,- the rest were performances by soloists, a term which in a few cases encompassed two musicians performing in tandem as well. The soloists included vocalists as well as instrumentalists and they were accompanied by musicians playing the violin, the mridanga and upapakkavadya-s like the ghata, khanjeera and morsing, not to mention tavil. Allowing for the probability that many of the same individuals took part in more performances than one, the total number of musicians participating in the 1306 concerts was possibly several hundreds, if not a couple of thousands. This is a figure which is not easy to comprehend, but it is one of the features of the festival factiile that makes everyone, in India as well as in the worldwide South Indian diaspora, sit up and take notice of "the Madras season". The Chennai festival season is indeed an extraordinary event; it is unreal only if one looks beneath the bubbly surface.

Senior musicians accounted for only 372 or 28.9 per cent of the 1288 solo performances. The rest described as 'Other' in the statistical tables prepared annually by Sruti accounting for the balance of 916 performances, included a small number of musicians considered by lay listeners as among "the best and the brightest", namely the young 'stars' who are currently very popular; a larger pool of musicians with impressive talents who qualify for description as up-and-coming; and a much larger population of songsters, fiddlers, drummers and solo instrumentalists, young and old, whose talents possibly do not match their aspirations. Among the "rest", the bulk of the musicians in the third group comes quite cheap as far as the festivalmongers are concerned, which may explain why so many of them could afford to arrange a large number of concerts.

The availability of sponsorship on a large scale was, of course, the main factor behind the large numbers. If some of the sabhanayaka-s speaking on the subject are to be believed, there was a drop in the level of sponsorship, compared to the support extended to them in the 1995-96 season. Data collated by Sruti certainly showed a drop in the number of business and other organisations providing support, from 144 to 109. The extent of the decline in the quantum of money provided is not known but, judging by information made available by a few sabha-s, there was indeed a decline. Festivalmongers, riding a rainbow seemingly stretching beyond the horizon, had not anticipated the fall; hence they had apparently gone ahead and fixed up the programmes. Where the sponsorship revenues did not match their expectations, the overly optimistic organisers found their surplus revenues shrinking, though none seems to have registered a loss.

 It is possible that, with an economic recession looming in the horizon, sponsorship funds would decline further. (See text of speech on sponsorship delivered by Editor-in-Chief Pattabhi Raman at a Rotary Club meeting, reproduced in the previous section). If such a decline occurs and it results in the exit of a number of festivalmongers who have entered the fray only because sponsorship is available, and if it also results in a decrease in the number of concerts, it might induce the rest of the festival organisers to reflect soberly and seriously on the state and fate of Carnatic music. Regrettably, with rare exceptions, they have remained indifferent so far to the stark reality beneath the shimmering surface.

This reality, to which attention has been drawn time and again in this space, is that live conceits of Caraatic music, except those of a small number, fail to attract sufficient numbers of listeners to fill more than a couple of hundred seats in concert halls which can accomodate many hundreds more. Reportedly, the audience turnout for festivals conducted in the Mylapore area was a shade better this year, but it is too early to conclude that this denotes a reversal of the trend of several years. In any case, the attendance was meagre in many venues, particularly in the T.Nagar area. This is not a particularly new phenomenon. Listen to this tale true. Two young musicians singing in tandem had an audience of only 15 persons for their concert at a venue notorious for poor attendance. When the girls mentioned this regretfully to a seasoned observer of the scene, the latter quipped: "But you were lucky to have an audience of 15; often this place fails to attract a double-digit number even!" Some logic! Some consolation!

Attendance is particularly poor for most of the young musicians given the platform during the season. This punctures the claim that the performance opportunities given to a large number of youngsters amounts to talent promotion. The logic staring everyone in the face is simple: giving opportunities to youngsters to perform before wafer-thin audiences does not, at any time and by any stretch of imagination, amount to talent promotion. Certainly not during the annual season when there is a flood of performances seeking to draw from the same pool of a relatively small number of listeners. And, it should be remarked again for the record, even this pool comprises a large percentage of temporary visitors, men and women from out of town and from abroad who make a pilgrimage to the city every year; likely they would be more keen to hsten to the performances of established musicians and the new "stars" in the firmament than to neophytes and nonentities given performance opportunities without any kind of publicity.

 Quantity > Quality

The emphasis during the season, as in the previous seasons, was on quantity, not on the quality of music. Maybe the festivalmongers do not compete with each other in a numbers game, but they do take pride, in their reports, in the number of performances organised by them. Virtually, all of them have been presenting afternoon, evening and late evening programmes, with some packing in two performances each afternoon. Some organisations were offering morning concerts too, on a limited scale, but lately many others have joined the parade. So much so, those music enthusiasts who are interested, especially visitors from outside the city, have a sumptuous choice of concerts from morning till night.

The larger the number of concerts, the wider is the circle of 'talent' from which the required number of performers have to be found. This is true even if festival organisers tend to recruit their 'star' performers from a small pool, thus contributing to a situation in which a very small number of 'main' musicians end up cornering or accepting far too many concerts each. Inasmuch as the supply of qualified performers with prior concert experience is not unlimited, even if the number of individuals wishing to enter the concert arena exceeds the demand, it stands to reason that, as the organiser moves from the centre to the periphery, he will see the quality of available talent diminishing. Hence the equation reflected in the season's musical offerings, with the emphasis on quantity or numbers.

Perhaps it is a fact that the number of 'talented' young musicians is greater today than ever before. With performing opportunities expanding, the number of musical aspirants entering the 'market' has increased substantially, by leaps and bounds in fact. But between the musicians falling within umbra of the suppply circle and the penumbra immediately surrounding it, on the one hand, and those hovering around or subsisting in the areas abutting the periphery, on the other, there is a substantial difference in quality. So, not surprisingly, the season's offerings range from the excellent to the mediocre or worse.

 In season or outside of it, listeners who are able to sift the chaff from the grain should be able also to find out which Carnatic musicians are really talented and measure up to the potential of art music. That may be all that matters to them; not for them any worry about the misalliance between supply and demand and the danger this poses to the future of Carnatic music. Perhaps, though, they can use some guidance, such as that provided by Sruti from time to time. When Sruti completed its first decade of publication, it undertook an assessment of the competence of a large number of musicians— established as well as up-and-coming; vocalists as well as instrumentalists (including accompanists)— who were performing in India during the magazine's first 10 years, using a set of criteria it had developed with the help of experts [Sruti 118, 119, 120). While these criteria are still relevant, research conducted by Pattabhi Raman has suggested the need for developing new approaches to the assessment of the competence— in terms of knowledge, skills and attitude— of musicians in the performing arena. As a first step, the Editor has outlined, in the accompanying article, a fourfold categorisation of performing musicians.


One Tear For Semmangudi Three Tears For Carnatic Music

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the grand old man (89) of Carnatica, gave a recital, in a ticketed performance slot, on New Year's Eve at the Music Academy. It was a sad event in the annals of Carnatic music. I had taken the stand in 1989 (in an article in the special two-part feature devoted to Semmangudi's life and magnificent career), that he should cease giving ticketed performances which have a formal status. My argument was that, while it was entirely upto Srinivasa Iyer to save his personal reputation, the great vidwan was, because of the infirmities caused by ageing, no longer able to stay aligned to sruti and this was creating a perception among listeners who admired his musical prowess and his ability to give glimpses of it even at an advanced age, that sruti alignment was not important. My conclusion was that this incipient view should be nipped in the bud lest it take wings and attack the very foundation of our music.

To his credit, Srinivasa Iyer took cognizance of this viewpoint and more than once told me that he had ceased to give formal kutcheri performances in 1989 itself. But he also maintained that he could still sing (Naan kutcheri paadaratha nirutitten-, aanaal ennale paada mudiyium).

 Semmangudi explained to me that he was accepting singing engagements only on an exceptional basis, for example, to continue the tradition of giving a performance at the annual Dussera series in Tiruvanantapuram. The list of exceptions grew over the years, as he was pressed to sing elsewhere too  like at the celebration of the birth centenary of Mysore Chowdiah, the Dassera programmes arranged by film-music composer Ilayaraja, and so on. Lately he has been giving quite a few performances, both formal and non-formal, and receiving hefty compensation in the bargain.

It was Oscar Wilde who once observed: "I can resist anything except temptation." This seems true of Semmangudi also. The fact that kutcheri organisers are willing to pay Semmangudi substantial sums must give him a deep sense of satisfaction because, in his heydays, the fee paid to him and other stalwarts was only in the low four-figure range. But likely it is not the monetary aspect alone that makes it difficult for him to resist the temptation to continue or renew his career as a concert artist; his ego— he is human after all  is also a factor. Although he is long past his prime and although he has more than once admonished producers making documentaries on him not to use any music derived from his post-1960 performances, and, again, although several performances, including radio broadcasts, provide proof, if proof is needed, that he is no longer able to stay aligned to sruti, his ego makes him believe he can still sing well. His willingness to give performances now and again reminds one of this witty statement made by someone who was known to eat heartily and often, but who claimed he fasted regularly: "I fast between meals."

Four Categories of Carnatic Musician                                   

I will start with a definition, as follows: A full-fledged (or 'compleat') Carnatic musician is one who:

• understands that concert music is rather must be art music;

• understands that art music is rather must be raga music and that its purpose is to image the raga-s selected for presentation, with appropriate bhava, through varying combinations of the components of a raga suite;

 • knows and respects the canons, comprising both the grammatical and aesthetic aspects, which determine whether the art music of Carnatica is classical or not;

• has abundant talent and creativity;

• has the requisite voice culture or instrumental mastery; and

 • has the necessary acumen and skills to present his talent in such a manner that it yields him, as well as his listeners, an elevating experience.

 In the case of a singer, voice culture will mean the musician has, through training and practice, developed a voice capable of effectively handling the different dimensions and nuances of Carnatic classical music. In the case of an instrumentalist, it will mean the musician has, through training and practice, acquired sufficient mastery in playing the instrument to be able to manipulate its 'voice' so that it can effectively handle the different dimensions and nuances of Carnatic classical music.

 Such a musician may be described as an 'uttama', borrowing the lexicon  if not the connotations of the Natya Sastra. [In this connection I refer to the broader discussion of concert-art-raga music in my article The Carnatic Music Concert: An Analysis of its Evolution [Sruti 145)].

 Following this definition, it may be tempting to say that there are only two categories of concert musicians in Carnatica, namely, (a) those who fit this bill of particulars; and (b) the rest.

But such a categorisation would be too simplistic, as well as unrealistic. Nor would it help us to understand where Carnatic music is at today and decide whether, and how, it can be improved.

 Therefore, after considerable reflection and after surveying the concert scene during the festival season in Chennai, I propose a fourfold categorisation of concert musicianscomprising both vocalists and instrumentalists, sidemen included. These four categories, which I briefly describe below, might be considered as the the four varna-s of the community of concert musicians, but with room for mobility across the dividing lines. The four categories I see are:

 Category I

It consists of musicians who more or less meet the criteria I have delineated for a 'compleat' musician. I have qualified the original definition somewhat to allow for a modest shortfall in meeting one or the other criterion, except the two relating to the understanding of what concertart music is all about. I don't believe we can expect any concert musician to get a perfect score on a scale of 1 to 10. A high score, say around 8, should do. (I have not included nonmusical criteria, like social behaviour, in my list, although these could also be important to the career of a musician).

Category II

It consists of musicians who more or less meet four of the six criteria I have listed but lack an adequate understanding of the purpose of concert-art music and/or the ability to bring this understanding, if it exists adequately, to bear on their music. This means that most, if not all, of them could possibly become more or less 'compleat' musicians if only they would try to understand that the purpose of concert music is neither the promotion of bhakti nor mere entertainment, but to achieve at a personal level and provide to the listeners an elevating experience through raga music, which is unique to our country; and bring this understanding to bear on their performances effectively. A substantial proportion of the population of concert musicians likely belongs to this category.

Category III

It consists of those musicians who use their talent, voice culture or mastery of instrument, and skills of presentation these combined cleverly to cover up modest deficiencies  mainly to entertain the audience. They play to the gallery and, to succeed in this game, compromise the integrity of their music to the extent that commerce takes precedence over art. The more lucky among these musicians become 'stars', with a large following, but they are really small in number, a miniscule minority of the total population of concert musicians.

 Category IV

It consists of the rest of the population of concert musicians, perhaps constituting a large majority. Except for those who may be considered merely unlucky, the others in this category probably fall considerably short of meeting the six criteria that describe the 'compleat' musician. They will likely remain in the shadows of success.

I have observed that there are a number of musicians who belong to one or the other of these categories who have yet another identity as well. These belong, additionally, to the sub-category (avarna, maybe) of what I like to call Noisemakers. Irony of ironies, those who fit into this sub-category as well may belong, at other times, to Category I or II, for example. Category I musicians also may be said to cross the line when they choose, now and then, to play to the gallery throughout a concert.

I leave the matter of who belongs to which category to the reader's conjecture, for my purpose at this juncture is merely to present the four categories for the serious consideration of scholars and lay persons alike. The identification of individual musicians according to the categories can come later, after this matrix of categories has been sufficiently debated and if and when there is a reasonable consensus on its utility, among those taking part in a discussion of the proposal. Yes, utility. I have not suggested the fourfold division to satisfy intellectual curiosity. I have done so in the belief that it can help avoid subjective and fuzzy notions of what is good music or who are the good musicians; and help develop strategies and programmes calculated to enlarge the pool of 'compleat' musicians by encouraging and assisting those in the other categories, especially those in Category II, to "move up".

 I have, I should add, tried to keep this presentation as simple as possible, and saved for future discussion other details which may be characterised as relevant but not essential at this stage. I have also avoided the kind of discursive distension that is often misconstrued as the hallmark of academic scholarship. But I hope that both scholars and others concerned with the state and fate of Carnatic classical music will respond.


Hindustani Music In Chennai

T he season generally features a few Hindustani music concerts. The Music Academy, for instance, seems to have established a convention of sorts to feature one on the eve of the New Year which is also the last concert in its festival series.

Hindustani music programmes are not well attended, but this fact does not really mark them out from Carnatic music programmes, especially the late evening ones; for, except a handful of the front- ranking Carnatic musicians, the rest do not draw a respectable audience when performing in this slot.

This apart, the question is why Hindustani recitals are featured at all: It is possible that festivalmongers wish to make their programmes more eclectic and cater also to those who like the music of the North. But it is a moot question whether they except for one or two would bother to include Hindustani music at all without the sponsorship of either the central Sangeet Natak Akademi or a business enterprise.

 The other side of the coin is the attitude of the Hindustani musicians invited to perform here. They surely know that Chennaivasi-s are nourished on Carnatic music, and that North Indian music is very different from its southern counterpart. So, not surprisingly, they try to tailor their concerts to the "taste" of the local audience as they believe it to be. The sad part of it is that there is little or no great understanding of Carnatic music among the Northeners. Typically, the perception is that Carnatic music is composition-oriented, which is true as it is practised; that it is mostly fastpaced,- and that Carnatic musicians revel in sargam-singing (swaraprastara), in calculations. In tailoring their music to the Chennai audience, many Hindustani musicians therefore feel obliged to include segments of sargam, even if they do not usually include it in their "normal" presentations. It is no doubt thoughtful on their part, but it generally backfires, because Hindustani sargam-singing is apt to strike a Carnatic music aficianado as being "a weird something" resembling our swaraprastara. Again some musicians choose longish compositions and make a bare presentation of these in their concerts in Chennai, something they never would do back home. Comments in some earlier issues of Sruti point out that the real problem with such compromises, otherwise understandable, is when the musicians believe that anything they offer here would do. Thus a leading khayaliya, in a recital at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, sang only bhajan-s till angry members of the audience met him during the interval and demanded that he sing a khayal or two. Leading instrumentalists too sport such an attitude and offer much less than serious music.

Such compromises and this kind of attitude do more harm than good for the image of Hindustani music here and for developing an audience for it. Those who do understand something of Hindustani music are put off by the less than wholesome concerts, while it is unlikely that concerts of this kind will win over new admirers for the system or the musicians concerned.

Hindustani musicians performing in Chennai would perhaps do well to present what they regularly do before "their own" audiences and leave it to their listeners in the South to work their way up towards appreciating their music. (To be fair, there are a few Hindustani musicians who do not try to sing differently while singing here.) Also sabhanayaka-s should perhaps be on the alert lest the musicians they bring down from the north "bring down" the music they offer.