Classical music or the other music
By Lakshmi Sreeram
Being a performer in two traditions is not easy. Sruti N. Pattabhiraman once told me, “At least use different names. It gets difficult at various levels. When, you are, for example, being considered for an award, committees don’t like it if you have two profiles.”
Let me say this straight away – and this is just my opinion - it is not optimal to try to manage two systems of music such as Carnatic music and Hindustani music (HM). Being ambidextrous here is not just redundant but could be treacherous. But, like the ambidextrous, it is rare and interesting. And it does give one a vantage point from which to view the two musical systems. And varied encounters with music and musicians.
For the worldlings of Hindustani and Carnatic music, the other might well be an alien. “You sing bhajans, don’t you? Oh, you have aalap also?” “Is there any tala structure? Do the lead performer and tabla player signal to each other when they come together as they often do with great flourish?” Plain ignorance, to lazy stereotypes to disdainful prejudice--there are a myriad hues. And it all begins with nomenclature.
“She sings both Classical and Carnataki”, my music teacher, Madhubala Chawla, told the redoubtable Mohan Nadkarni. “That is why I taught her this natyageet”. Nadkarni was a special guest at our school’s Guru Purnima celebration, when every student has to make a musical offering. Nadkarni had high regard for my teacher and before her, for her mother and aunt who ran a music school in Dadar, Mumbai, for, and by women - a small part of the movement of Khayal from the cloistered precincts of royal patronage to the great public spaces.
I had just rendered the stage song Sura sukha khani tu vimala in Keeravani - hence the relevance of my “Carnataki” background. It is another matter that it includes a to-the-South-Indian-completely-unacceptable foray into Pilu (Kapi) in its last part. But a mild to brazen departure from the main raga is a delicacy in these songs.
“Carnataki and Classical?” I, all of 13 years, bristled: “Carnataki is as much Classical!” I growled inwardly, but kept quiet.
Many years later I encountered a similar question in Chennai, but here, “classical” was Carnatic. “Do you find Classical music more difficult than Hindustani music?
By then I did not much care for “classical/non classical” terminology. More about this later.
What are the moments of being ambidextrous? Singing a bandish in Yaman at my music school with other students, I looked around to see who was singing that different nishadha: it was I!! And that was because of my “Carnataki” training! In CM for the past several decades (it was not always like this) our kakali or sharp nishadha is sharper than the corresponding suddha nishadha of HM. That is because it is oscillated all the way up to the higher Shadjam. Think Sankarabharanam, Kiravani; (Kalyani demands the unoscillated nishadha as in the charanam of the varnam Niluparani stressed my guru, VVS, in one of our meandering conversations).
Sruti differences in negotiating swaras, accent in the movement from one swara to the other, are all danger zones when one is trained in both. Sakuntala Narasimhan was probably among the earliest ambidextrous musicians and I asked her about this when she had come to my college, S.I.E.S, in Sion, Mumbai, as a chief guest for an event under our Tamil Association. “Don’t worry about srutis, just sing” she told me. That was wise advice as far as it went, when one was young and all that. But advancing on this path surely meant being aware of such nuances. Marwa has a chadhaa hua rishabah (a higher rishabha) and the Multani rishabha has such a dainty, reticent presence, the sruti value is lower. And what about the Varali madhyamam or Begada madhyamam? They have a regal identity all of their own. Many identities even!
Personally I have found the laya aspect more challenging: not the circus of calculations and korvais, but just the overall madhyama kala of CM versus the overall vilamba laya of HM. The weave in CM is much tighter and to keep that texture consistently is a challenge even when brought up only on a diet of saralivarisais, alankarams and varnams, and more so when one also knows intimately the relaxed, porous fabric of Hindustani music.
Does it not help in any way? Being able to sing both? Training in HM might be thought to give you a voice culture that will help your CM. But, the way the voice is used in the two is so different that training in one does not give an edge in attempting the other. It is another matter that a few leading Carnatic musicians have a “Hindustani-ish” glaze to their voice which finds acceptance, even adulation, among certain sections of rasikas. But this must be said-that the kind of grounding CM gives you because of the well crafted abhyAsagAnam, does help in grasping the basic musical material applicable in HM too. And the practice of plain notes in the lower ranges– the Kharaj Sadhana of HM – does strengthen the voice for all purposes.
Going back, what is this word “classical” doing while referring to Hindustani and Carnatic Music?
More than its descriptive content, its evaluative sense jumps out – the term indubitably privileges what it qualifies.
The expression “classical music" first appeared in the 19th century to refer to works of Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden and others of that period; in a broader sense it also refers to the tradition of Western Music that has evolved out of liturgical music over the past ten centuries in the west. This is its original context.
The word “classical” itself refers to forms that are of considerable antiquity, with something of value in terms of their content and / or form. Sanskrit or Tamil are classical languages; their antiquity, the richness of literature to be found in them, all make a claim to their "classical" status. Carnatic music or Hindustani music as we know it do not have this kind of antiquity. Maybe 3-4 centuries. That is old – ask a white Australian or white American! But for us who can throw back collective memory across 5 millenia, 4 centuries is not antiquity! What the word then carries in the context of our music is its value, the weight of cultural privileging.
When did the expression “classical music” first make an appearance in this context? Not in P. Sambhamurthy’s famous series or in C. Subrahmanya Iyer’s “Grammar of South Indian Music” - they simply use the expressions “South Indian Music or “Karnatak Music”. North Indian writers too such as Sourindra Nath Tagore have not used this expression, nor have western scholars and writers. If we must have a general expression for HM and CM, it would be Sastriya Sangeet or sangeetam, which indicates that the music is grounded in shastra or is governed by a set of rules. More specifically they are simply referred to as Carnatic music, khayal, dhrupad etc.
“Art music”, as suggested by many, is more appropriate, capturing as it does the broad intent of this music. The Carnatic or Hindustani musician does not perform to fulfil a ritual (ritualistic music, folk music) or to heighten religious fervour (religious music like nama sankeertanam) or try to appeal to the greatest number of people (popular music). The Carnatic or Hindustani musician stakes claim to artistry above all.
But this is often lost sight of in our obsession with sastra and parampara!