An unequal music

Gender discrimination is very much alive in the field of Carnatic music. We need to face it and find answers.

As I write this article, I feel that I am writing about something that we prefer not talking about. Should I write this or not? Do we in the musical fraternity have the maturity to accept this or not? I don’t know.

Carnatic music is a celebrated classical art and over the last decade its reach has definitely increased and multiplied as more people are contributing to its growth in various ways.

Over the last two years many have spoken and written about discrimination of caste and religion in carnatic music in the past. There is no doubt that discrimination of various types did exist in the past, as it did in society at large. At the same time, there has also been a genuine lack of understanding of the relationships that were built between many great musicians, between teacher and disciple, singer and accompanists irrespective of their caste or creed.

Grim reality

Interestingly, there is a kind of discrimination that still exists and to me seems truer than any of the above — the discrimination against women in the carnatic music fraternity. To put the facts straight, many musicians in the past and even today have refused to accompany women musicians or be accompanied by women musicians. In the past, various factors including social taboos and mindsets contributed to this attitude. This is not to ignore what happened in the past but one must understand that women did not have any freedom those days. Only those who could fight social pressures and attitudes stood out in their field. What astounds me is that such an opinion still persists today even among us, and the generation next of carnatic music.

Many male musicians today are willing to accompany women till they themselves reach a certain level of popularity and fame. To put it more crudely, till male musicians start using them as accompanists. People even consider it a proud moment when they declare that they have stopped accompanying women. Worse, such a stand is encouraged. Let’s face it; this is no great social or political statement. When they needed concert opportunities and exposure they needed to accompany women but once that’s done it’s not necessary. I guess we live in a utilitarian world. “Use and throw”.

In the case of women accompanists, they feel that even if they are as good as their male counterparts, many male artists do not prefer them because of their gender. There is definitely some truth to this. As a male singer myself I can only think of one reason for such attitudes — chauvinism.

The arguments from the male side are as follows. One of the famous arguments is that the sruti (pitch) of the women is high and therefore it’s difficult to play for them. The tonal quality of both the mrudangam and the violin are not pleasant in these higher pitches. On the face of it this sounds valid, but look a bit deeper and it breaks down. Where was this concern when these artists did accompany women? If the tonal quality was the issue then, how are these artists able to accompany instrumentalists who play in higher pitches? What happens to the tonal quality then? Some male musicians also accompany young boys whose voice might not have broken. So obviously this argument does not hold good.

The other argument and a very popular one is that when they accompany women, the attention is completely on the women despite their huge contribution to the concert’s success. There are also concerts where they may not get any recognition for having accompanied a male musician but I guess that’s all right. A most common statement (translated from Tamil) is “we do not get status by playing for women”. Some even believe that one gains status only by not accompanying women. I think this whole argument is baseless. “Status” comes from respect and acknowledgement of one’s musical acumen by musicians and the public, not from not accompanying women.

Accompanists sometimes say “we cannot play freely for women”. What does this mean? This means that they believe that there is a certain way they want to play and this they cannot while accompanying women. So what? When, as accompanists, you are willing to adjust to the different vocal styles in men then why not women? All vocalists, whether male or female, do change their singing style according to the accompanists so what’s the big deal? These are all natural adjustments.

Celebrating difference

Secondly, why should women sing like men? There was a time when the best compliment a female singer could receive was that her music was like a man’s. This is the most sexist statement I have ever come across. Women’s music will be and should be different. We need to celebrate this diversity. Therefore you have to accompany them differently. I don’t think any male accompanist can argue that it is a question of quality. This implies that all men produce great music and women don’t. Obviously this statement holds absolutely no water and is honestly laughable.

I have also heard male accompanists say that female musicians don’t treat them well. Let’s go into this issue as well. If I ask my accompanists to play softly or a shorter solo on stage it’s wrong. Period. The singer’s gender is immaterial. If a female singer asks them to do it, it’s perceived as a greater wrong. Again, on a journey, if I ask for a favour, the same from a female musician becomes an abuse of position. My point here is that bad treatment can be dished out by any individual and this is not based on gender.

Female accompanists are never able to achieve the same level of recognition as the male. There is no logical or rational justification for ignoring good female accompanists. We prefer male accompanists who do not accompany women. This is the most ridiculous attitude in recent social history. One’s choice of accompanists must be on the basis of quality as perceived by the singer or the main instrumentalist.

I am sure many must be thinking “He does not know what he is talking about; he has never been an accompanist”. True, but I know one thing. When I listen to some of the great female singers, I know I will be as proud to accompany them as well as their male counterparts. At the same time I have been accompanied by many female violinists. Many of them have been as good as men who have accompanied me.

We need to think about our attitudes and find answers within ourselves. Why is this topic a taboo? Why do we men never talk about this issue in public if we feel our stand is justified? We are educated individuals who should have the courage to stand for whatever we are and more importantly the strength to accept it when we are wrong. Here I believe we are wrong.

Originally written for The Hindu

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