Dawn of a new era

Chennai’s famed December season of music and dance showcases the talent of a number of young performers. What does this infusion of young blood hold for the future of the classical arts?

Talented youngsters and endless opportunities have transformed the face of Carnatic music.

Madras 1984: At every discussion over coffee and dosai during the December music festival, the constant refrain was Carnatic music is dying. “There are no young people singing; the next generation will not be interested in this music.”

Was this true? Was there no talent? The truth was that there were many talented youngsters winning prizes in competitions but, except for a few organisations in Madras, the opportunities for concerts were far and few in-between.

By 1985 a group of young musicians and music lovers decided that this next step would never happen by itself unless they did something about it. Thus was born the Youth Association for Classical Music (YACM).

Vision and passion

To proclaim this as a landmark year for Carnatic music would definitely not be an overstatement. Most of these people were in their late teens and early 20s but had vision and a passion for Carnatic music.

The most heartening part was that this organisation had the complete support of almost all the senior vidvans like Lalgudi Jayaraman, S.Balachander, D.K.Jayaraman, Tanjore Upendran, R. Vedavalli and many others.

The primary objective was very simple: to provide regular platforms to showcase talents of the youth on the concert stage. In a few years the organisation’s strength grew incredibly and almost all the talent in Carnatic music was part of YACM and working for the future of Carnatic music.

With YACM came the youth revolution in Carnatic music. Almost all the top stars of today — singers N. Vijay Siva, Sanjay Subrahmaniam, P. Unnikrishnan, Bombay Jayashri, Nithyashri, violinists R.K. Shriramkumar, S. Varadarajan, and percussionists Neiveli Narayanan, Arun Prakash, Selva Ganesh, S. Karthik and many others — either débuted or got a breakthrough via YACM.. Not only did YACM transform the concert scenario but it also created a place for the youth to talk and, discuss music. YACM organised numerous lecture-demonstrations and conceived many innovative games to show youngsters that Carnatic music was fun. This was unheard of — “fun and Carnatic music”. Today Carnatic music owes a lot to these active members of YACM without whom I may not be writing this article.

Love of music

To me, personally, YACM was family. I joined the organisation actively only around 1990 but right from the beginning it was fun, friendship and lots of learning. I can never forget the music chats, pillion-ride discussions with Sanjay (Sanjay Subrahmaniam), the arguments at Vijay’s (Vijay Siva) house and those late night chai sessions at Anand Siva’s office over some project.

Everything was discussed — ragas, talas, pallavis, GNB, Lalgudi, Ariyakudi, Ramnad Krishnan, Mani Iyer … An important aspect of YACM’s success was that everyone worked in it for the love of music. Nobody worked to get opportunities. That was never in anyone’s mind; it was passion for the art and the fun of doing it with friends who shared the same passion.

The resultant domino effect created a situation where, by 1993-94, every organisation in South India had started holding youth series. This created a huge number of opportunities for youth. I will never forget the buzz in the early 1990’s at the concert of young artists.

New talent

I remember sitting on the steps of the Music Academy and listening to these concerts. The audience was eager to hear new talent. They wanted to see what they called spark, attitude, courage, flair … They saw all this and more. These youngsters were the future of Carnatic music.

Chennai 1995: By now everyone was sure Carnatic music was safe. More young people were coming to concerts. They connected better with young performers. To them these were people of these times and the fact that they were singing Carnatic music only attracted them. By the end of the century, almost all the top ticketed concerts in every leading organisation had a majority of people below 45 performing. The face of Carnatic music was completely transformed.

Chennai 2007: The talent available is incredible. Their access to information and exposure to music is so much easier with technology. Their objectivity and awareness levels are to be admired. Today the music of all the greats can be carried in a simple ipod.

Changed process of learning

There is no lack of opportunities and avenues to display talent. I find their confidence, self-belief and surety in what they are doing amazing.

But a few things have also changed; more due to the physiology of the day rather than being specially related to the performers. With so many opportunities available right from a very young age, the objective of learning has changed. Today people practise for competitions, for concerts … There are definite targets to be met. Parents want a timetable from the guru: ‘When will my son/daughter perform?’

The learning process in turn has been altered. Once this happens, quality definitely suffers. I don’t mean to say that this is true of all the youngsters but I do see these signs in many cases. Packaging is also the ‘in’ thing. Audiences earlier looked for creativity, the ideas and the flow. The energy of the talent was important to them.

Today I feel even the audience wants only well packaged music from young talent. I remember people not being bothered by a slip or an experiment by a 20-year-old performer as long as it was an attempt to do something special. Today in the afternoon concerts I see the audience wanting a clean and well rounded concert.

Is this wrong? You may wonder. I think it is. You need the rough edges. You have to appreciate those rough edges, only then will talent flower. The roundedness and polish come later. If an artist starts focussing just on presentation from a very young stage, it kills creativity.

Talent selection

A big issue has always been on how young talent is selected. In the past most, senior vidvans recommended their disciples or even other talented young artists they saw at competitions. These recommendations were taken very seriously by organisers and opportunities were provided.

There were also many organisers who came to junior concerts looking for talent. The application process was only supplementary to actually listening to the artist. Today every organisation gets hundreds of applications and it is physically impossible for them to hear all these people and therefore omissions are unavoidable. At the same time I also think some gurus either give in to the pressure from parents to allow their children to apply for concerts even if they think the boy/girl is not ready or sometimes they themselves don’t take enough care in this regard. All this makes the job of the organiser tougher.

A new phenomenon is the business of making money out of very young talent. I think the word prodigy is the most abused word in music. Baring few people like U. Srinivas or N. Ravikiran I cannot think of very many prodigies. Many 10-year-olds have talents but that does not mean that they must be singing concerts. Small troupes are formed with these kids to perform in sabhas, marriages and other platforms. Some people act as managers and promote these kind of concerts.

Is this truly a way of nurturing talent? None of the top performers today came up this way. Yet they got opportunities and their music grew to the highest quality. What are the damages? First of all it does not allow these extremely talented youngsters to develop into complete musicians. Performance is not everything in music. I learn that, of late, some organisations allow their youth slots to be coordinated by promoters of such ‘early bird’ youth talent.

Dangerous situation

One cannot outsource such functions; thereby making things difficult for individuals who apply on their own. This is a very dangerous situation. It will lead parents and youngsters to believe that they have no chance of getting opportunities or the only way to get an opportunity is through such promoters. We will possibly lose a lot of genuine talent.

Organisations must hold the right of opportunity and the organisers have to be directly responsible for this. In this context, I sincerely hope that the allegations of youngsters pay for opportunities to perform in certain places are only rumours.

Overall I think we are in the beginning of a golden era for Carnatic music. The opportunities both within the country and internationally are incredible. Talent available is outstanding. But we, as a society of music lovers, must take collective responsibility on how we plan to project Carnatic music for the future. Do we want to show case genuine talent and let the musicians in these people grow? Or are we looking at just letting Carnatic music being performed? If we are responsible, Carnatic music will only grow in quality and depth but it’s all in our hands.

Originally written for The Hindu

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