Carnatic Music’s Crises

by rexplorations

While I have written briefly about how erudite and involved so many amateur and upcoming pro Carnatic performers and aficionados are, I have not encapsulated my views of the many trifling and not-so-trifling problems with contemporary Carnatic musical performance and appreciation. This post serves to jot these things down, from the point of view of an average concert-goer, albeit a young one compared to the generally older Carnatic music concert audience.

Perhaps I didn’t jot this down in any measure earlier, for a reason. The tendency of most rasikas and critics of Carnatic musical performance seems to be to eschew the negative and focus on the positive, regardless of the artist. This is a rather generous trait of most who write on the subject. There is some kind of unwritten honour code (perhaps there are aspects to this that are discussed in anecdotal ways or in exemplary ways by critics and sundry rasikas) for Carnatic music reviews, and popular publications and newspapers have no small part to play in sustaining these viewpoints and styles of reviews and shape the nature and discourse in criticism itself. That said, the more I sit in concerts, the more I feel the need for speaking out, especially since the bulk of the Carnatic concert going audience is what it is.

Like anything, even constructive, positively oriented criticism eschewing the negatives has disadvantages. The advantage, in my view, is allowing a wider interpretation of the art form than previous generations would allow, including quirks and improvisation that would, in another time, have been frowned upon by the leading artists and critics of the day. The disadvantages ironically stem from the same lack of “intolerance” for what is wrong with the status quo. As weird as it may sound, art encompasses within itself the tolerance levels for what defines the art form itself, as such and such. It is one view, perhaps a pervasive one, that art has no boundaries and should seek to liberate and create new aesthetic and intellectual experiences. While this is true of the superset of art itself, within specific pockets of the arts, within idioms of music that we know and relate to, unwritten (and eventually, well defined) boundaries start to form based on consensus. This leads to whatever we like or dislike about the extant of an idiom, and helps it evolve too. Constraints are the very foundations of musical performance. As much as shruti and laya provide structure, they also provide boundaries. Without binding rhythms and scales for music of any kind, music turns very quickly to noise (although if you smoke up enough, everything may sound like music).

Music, like morality, is determined by statistics. I heard the bit on morality and statistics from one of my old bosses, who uttered this a few times during our three year professional association, although I never understood the full implications of this retort at the time. With experience, the arbitrary (and statistical) nature of aesthetics came to light. The things we take for granted as beautiful, or correct, or precise or cute seem, at some level, arbitrary. Since it is these arbitrary measures that are used to condition ourselves and others we influence, memes of the aesthetic experiences of one propagate much like other memes. If aesthetics are determined by statistics, the popular representation of an art form can be understood from the pulse of the aficionados and critics.

Crowds may flock to a concert by one artist, who a certain classicist may find delectable, even as another may simultaneously detest them. The artist and the critic thereof gain a currency, a prominence, because of the crowd. The crowd, the mob, the statistical mode, the average and the layperson are what provide legitimacy to contemporary musical experiments, and make them more than experiments. It is therefore of absolute importance to develop the crowd’s sense of musical taste by exposing them to the very best the art form has to offer. Again, this “best” is a consensus, because, as we all know, mobs are problematic things to deal with.

You know who the popular artists are – and I mean popular artists in any genre of music, including Carnatic music. They offer the crowd something that they like. Regardless of how deplorable their performances may be at times, compared to someone who, in your view, truly represented the art form, compared to how arbitrary their rise to fame may be, these are the artists that determine the bulk of the crowd’s taste. There is a term for this in the Carnatic music circles, and that is “janaranjakam” which roughly translates to “adhering to that which the crowd likes” – a more exact representation of the (usually pejorative) English phrase “playing to the gallery”. Carnatic music doesn’t necessarily see janaranjakam as a bad thing. Debates abound in forums in the real and virtual world about how this artist is playing to the gallery or that one is, and there is truth in that. The average Carnatic artist, especially the top ones, want to sing to a full house, and increasingly this apparently seems to be the case at whatever cost to the music itself. They want people to throng to concerts and stand in long queues outside ticket counters staffed by inefficient clerks to buy tickets to their concert (and perhaps see fanboys gloat about their hard fought ticket). These rasikas are fanboys, in the most contemporary sense of the term. Old and young people alike, cutting across demographical groups, are part of sometimes fanatic fandom for the specific artist in question, despite their depth of understanding of the art form (or lack of it). It is no different here in Carnatic music from other musical forms. Fandom is a universal human burden. The art to them means less than the person performing it. As with all historically recorded cases of subject-object dissonance, the messenger is often mistaken for the message, and the musician is mistaken to be the music. This is the very beginning of fan cults and backyard revolutions, Carnatic music’s very own storm in a teacup.

Emphatic artists generally have the upper hand. Shruti is a problem? No worries! Can’t stick to the rhythm of the unfailing mridangam and ghatam? Don’t worry, most of these old fogeys don’t notice. As a mridanga vidwan, can’t change nadais seamlessly? No worries, they will all nod their heads to the beat anyway. Can you shout your phrases at the top of your voice? You’ve got it covered. Experimental artists also have an advantage. So, you didn’t try out some of these variations in rehearsals and practice before your concert? No problems, practice right there in the concert in front of your audience. Not imaginative enough to introduce variations? No problems, just holler loudly, knead virtual dough, play the deaf guy cooking pizza bases, or mimic imaginary steam turbines on the stage. It worked in rock music (actually, it didn’t), so it should work in Carnatic music too!

Of course, the point of that last paragraph isn’t to take on specific artists, but highlight behaviour that I find jarring, but that much of the crowd, strangely, finds interesting. The crowd does find this interesting, perhaps because the target audience doesn’t get enough excitement from their daily tele-serials with 25 minutes of advertisements and five minutes of actual tele-serial content. Just kidding. We know that crowds aren’t homogenous – there are the vocal ones that respond to a certain thing, and from that point on, it is all emergent behaviour. This works especially well when you have to react, rather than understand, critique, or analyze something. Fast and slow thinking, a la Daniel Goleman? Perhaps, perhaps not. 

Below, I will list a number of things in Carnatic music concerts, that, for better or for worse, have made the concerts what they are. Of course, these are listed in the spirit of complaint (if there is such a thing). Then there is the fact that this is, by no means, an exhaustive list.

  1. The audience applauds every half baked kalpanaswaram, however poor the adherence to shruti is. This is a classical art form, yes, so it is rather disturbing when audience blindly applaud what is obviously flawed. Again, defences here include “music is what sounds good to the ear”, and I have not enough rage-inspired patience to create Maddox-esque videos about all this, but I’ll let you know this that if you intend to sing a classical composition intended to be in a certain raga (or set of ragas), please sing the ragas at least well enough. Pointing a finger at the audience is futile. If the artists improve, the audience will learn to appreciate the right things about the music.
  2. Audiences don’t have a healthy respect for all artists (or even fellow audience). Walking out during thaniavarthanams is, of course, the most common manifestation of this passive aggressiveness. I suspect this has to do with bladder control, especially among the geriatric rasikas. A friendly plea, especially to geriatric audience members: please wear a diaper, or don’t attend the concert. Those who don’t have bladder troubles exactly during the thaniavarthanam, kindly refrain from leaving during it. If you can, leave after the piece is complete.
  3. Audience, don’t talk during the violin performances. Period. Let the poor violinist play. His ghatam accompaniment is usually weakly heard too, so this is a double whammy for those who actually want to listen to the music.
  4. Violinists, please don’t play stock phrases too often. Yeah, we get it – to a point, they’re useful in sketching out the raga. If, for a slow piece, you provide fast phrases, the effect of the original composition is lost. I am certain there are many nuances here that I am not qualified to cover, but squeaky violins, mouse-like running through ragas with zero adherence to the theme of the original composition, apaswarams, random variations in speed and randomly attempting the same things (grihabhedas, especially) that the vocalist attempted are all jarring. Please tune down your violins, if possible, especially for female artists. The higher pitches become intolerable at times. Please modulate volume – nobody likes to hear a boring constant volume alapana. Please use Ockham’s razor to reduce the length of some phrases. Don’t let the musical flow you experience when playing, make you blind to the value and impact of the silence between two great phrases.
  5. Mridangam and ghatam artists – please work out the right volumes for your instruments before the concert begins. We know sound engineering is a problem in Carnatic music, but alternately excessively loud or inaudible rhythm instruments are the flavour of every Carnatic music season. And I believe this is a flavour nobody likes. Please use more subtlety. There are far too many artists who can play fast, and we get it, you’re the Crazy Train that Ozzy wasn’t and you’re faster than Speed King. Please use more UKS and Palghat Mani Iyer style subtlety. Less can be more.
  6. Vocalists – please refrain from poor pronunciation. Play it safe when you can in your choice of compositions. If you don’t know Telugu or Kannada, or Tamil, for that matter, please learn it (even if it is an occupational hazard for you). We don’t want to hear Koguls and Bathmas from you, nor unflattering conversions of sahityam to cuss words. If we do, I suspect you may hear cuss words from some of your audience.
  7. Vocalists – don’t insert garbage syllables in between sahityam syllables when performing kalpanaswarams. Yes, I mean the “ka”, “ga”, “oo” and “ha” syllables that you use to separate consecutive syllables, especially in varnams. There is a way to not do this and still sound authentic and aesthetically beautiful.
  8. Vocalists – once and for all, refrain from using the rest of your frigging body to sing. Sing with your mouth. Your ridiculous facial expressions that you copied from leading artists including aas and oohs, waving hands, virtual dough kneading, obsolete yogic postures and other bowel movements are unwelcome on the stage. Then again, I say this at the peril of most Carnatic concert goers lynching me. After all, it is when these ridiculous things happen on stage that they actually get involved in the music. Such is the quality of the lowest common denominator audience in most concerts.
  9. Sound engineers and sabhas: please provide good sound engineering and high quality audio. The least you can do, given the number of concerts you host, is to provide glitch free audio. Nearly all sabhas, save a few, have this problem. All the major sabhas have these problems, save one or two. Historically important sabhas don’t have even basic audio facilities in good order. Crackling speakers, feedback, unbalanced volumes and poor equalization are just the beginning. Sound engineering can make or break the entire concert experience. Even great artists who are performing very well can sound poor as if they are on an off-day, when sound engineering goes kaput. Pay your sound engineers well. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Better yet, main artists could hire their own sound engineers, just like they hire the pakkavadyams.

So there it is, an incomplete list of peeves and crises in Carnatic music. I am certain that these aren’t going to change that much from this season to the next – change is, after all, a slow process. Maybe next year, I’ll strike some of these off the list? Maybe not. I think most of these problems are here to stay.