Song of Surrender

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Voicing concern over a trend

By V Ramnarayan

Instrumental concerts in Carnatic music were probably at their most successful in the 1960s and seventies. Stars like Lalgudi Jayaraman, Mali, Chittibabu and the violin-venu-veena trio of Lalgudi-Ramani-Venkatraman vied for top spots in the LP bestseller charts with the likes of Ravi Shankar, Amjad Ali Khan, Shiv Kumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia from the north Indian system. This was because violinists and flautists tended to be the matinee idols in the post GNB era,if you did not count the MS-DKP-MLV triumvirate among vocalists. Came the 1980s, and Mandolin Shrinivas drew excited audiences to his concerts, as did another child prodigy Veenai Gayathri before him.

All that seems to be a thing of the past, with instrumental music no longer a spectacle attracting huge crowds, though more and more practitioners of merit are emerging all the time in a significant range of instruments. Maestros like T.N. Krishnan, N. Ramani and Ravikiran still command a following as soloists, though they continue to be musicians' musicians and not mass entertainers. Perhaps not satisfied with literally playing second fiddle to singers, some of the more talented violinists have reinvented themselves as vocalists, a tendency that has been depriving the concert platform of some excellent instrumental talent.

Solo violin, veena, chitraveena, or flute kutcheri-s simply do not seem to be box office attractions any more, despite sporadic attempts to conduct festivals of instrumentalmusic. Every now and again, a whiz kid is spotted and hits the headlines as a soloist for a while, only to be consigned eventually to an accompanying role on the concert platform.

How do we explain this apparent change in the tastes of the listening public over the last couple of decades? Given the undoubted excellence of many of our leading exponents of wind and string instruments, are we to assume that the standard of vocal music has reached greater heights during this period? Is there greater awareness among audiences about the lyrical content of our music? Are our vocalists presenting their art more effectively, more emotively than their instrumental counterparts?

In such a milieu, the most accomplished of our instrumentalists, including percussionists, must know right from the start that they will never play more than supporting roles in their careers. On the concert platform, even the greatest of them can at best hope for their fifteen minutes of glory, even if they enjoy a large fan following. Though they will never be anonymous like cellists or oboists in Western classical music orchestras, or reduced to the role of a bowler in a 20-20 cricket match, they must work constantly at honing their considerable skills, fully aware that unlike the performance of the lead vocalists, their efforts on the stage will rarely draw paeans of praise or immortal prose. They should consider themselves lucky if their contributions escape being described by critics as adequate or at best admirable.

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