Between tradition and evolution

Any form of music is, at a basic level, only defined by its aesthetics. This is beyond the technicalities and complexities that may define the form. This aesthetics gives the form a definition that draws people to it or sometimes even repels them. The beauty of aesthetics is that it’s never constant. As the forms have changed through the years, so has the aesthetics. But, like any tradition, the roots are well laid and all changes are only additional branches on the original tree.

In Carnatic music too, changes have happened through the years. Even if we look at the recordings of some great musicians of the early 20th century and compare that with others of a later era, there is a difference, however subtle. But even in this difference there is a connection; one interpretation has led to the other. This has been a result of either a single musician’s own perception or a change through a school of thought.

Individual interpretations

Even musicians of the same era had different aesthetic expressions to the same gamakas and ragas. Each of these was their own interpretation. They were never distortions or compromises. I think this is very important to understand. How does the aesthetics differ from person to person? It’s a result of a creative instinct, the knowledge of music and the influences of other styles. Therefore, it happens as a natural expression of the individual artist. The artist does not do it because he is incapable of producing the other aesthetic or because the instrument he plays is incapable of the same. This distinction has to be very clearly understood. Every variety of musical aesthetics must be a result of the expression of the musician using his complete ability and full understanding of the idiom.

Distinct flavour

The basis of Indian classical music and its aesthetic is the extensive use of gamaka (various musical ornamentations) on the swaras. This gives our music a distinct colour and flavour. Every raga is different. The same swara in two ragas is still different and the relationship between each swara in a raga changes according to the context. The complexity is enormous. Even within Indian classical music, the differences between the Carnatic aesthetic and the Hindustani aesthetic are huge. The same raga sounds different in each system because of the beauty of the gamakas.

Now, keeping this in mind, I am quite surprised with some of the instruments that have been and are being adapted to play the Carnatic idiom. In the past, instruments like the harmonium and the jalatarangam have been used as instruments in Carnatic music and there are a few artists who play them even today. Though the harmonium is still a part of the bhajana sampradaya of South India, both the jalatarangam and the harmonium have never been given much recognition as regular Carnatic classical instruments. This, I think, is very logical, as the very nature of these instruments does not suit Carnatic music.

Unfortunately, today we seem to easily accept Carnatic music played on any instrument. Have our sensitivities to music become so dull or is any novelty acceptable?

The saxophone, among other instruments, is today very popular. The artists have made some modifications and changes to try and make it sound Carnatic but that has just not happened. The inherent limitation of the instrument makes the artiste limit his choice of ragas. Is this necessary? This is, to me, ridiculous. Are we willing to limit the bandwidth of a musical idiom to accommodate an instrument? If an instrument, even with adjustments, cannot be a complete representation of the Carnatic aesthetic, then why play Carnatic music on it? I am not questioning the ability of the artists who obviously must have put in tremendous work to even get the Saxophone to produce what it does today, but unfortunately, it still does not work. We need to question the very idea of using it as a Carnatic instrument.

Any Western classical music student would first learn the piano. In India, many children who just want to learn to play an instrument (excluding the classical forms) first takes to the keyboard and this has become fashionable. Unfortunately, this has entered the world of Carnatic music. I have seen so many schools of Carnatic music mushrooming over the last 10 years or so offering Carnatic lessons on the keyboard. Sadly today there are quite a few youngsters trying to play Carnatic music on the keyboard.

Question of aesthetics

The problem here is not only a question of an instrumental limitation but more seriously an aesthetic distortion. Of course, technologically, the keyboard has advanced tremendously and today can produce microtones. But then this still does not mean it can be used to play Carnatic music because there is a greater damage happening here: of distortion of Carnatic gamakas. Many gamakas are very subtle, with minute movements that are difficult to produce even in the human voice. The keyboard not only approximates this, it also creates a completely distorted interpretation of the same. The emphasis is often wrong, the curves on the notes are incorrect and the ragas lose their elegance. Some of these points, unfortunately, can only be explained by actually singing.

Through a period of time, this can influence the way we produce a gamaka or listen to an aesthetic movement. Yet, we want to spend time teaching people to play Carnatic music on it.

The responsibility is completely on music teachers to advise students that their incredible talent must be either used on vocal music or some other appropriate instrument. Maybe, in the future, technology will make it possible to play Carnatic music with all its grandeur on the keyboard. So be it. Let us wait for that day.

Other than trying to use the keyboard as a main concert instrument today, there have been also Carnatic concerts where the keyboard has been used to accompany or collaborate with the vocalist or main instrumentalist. All these experiments sans the basic aesthetic of Carnatic music are an insult to Carnatic music.

Successful adaptations

Carnatic music and musicians have always been open to adapting different musical instruments. It is good for the form and its growth and versatility but the choice of instruments has to be done judiciously. There have been some incredible adaptations into Carnatic music.

European Violin: The violin is today considered almost an Indian instrument (at least in South India) because there is no vocal concert that takes place without a violin accompaniment. The instrument is the same but has been very intelligently adapted. The strings used are different (sometimes viola strings are used), the tuning method is different, and the playing technique and position are different. But the fact remains that the violin, instrumentally, is capable of producing every Carnatic nuance.

Similarly the clarinet was adapted to play Carnatic music by the maestro A.K.C. Natarajan. Though the roots of the clarinet in Tamil Nadu can be traced to the 18th century, it was not accepted for a long time. People felt that the clarinet in the form that it was then, couldn’t produce the complex gamakas. A.K.C. Natarajan changed this perception by making some changes to the instrument and mastered the playing technique to make it a Carnatic instrument. He made no compromise of musical integrity in the name of instrumental limitation.

Suited to the idiom

Take a look at the electric mandolin. U. Srinivas has made it synonymous with Carnatic music. This is of course primarily due to his genius but also because the instrument itself gives him the scope to play the Carnatic idiom. I remember listening to his concerts where the alapanas have sounded like a Veena in terms of aesthetic subtleties. Today, there are many people who are pursuing the mandolin as a Carnatic instrument and rightfully so.

There are also people who play Carnatic music on the electric guitar, which definitely works.

As the world shrinks, our exposure and curiosity towards various instruments and technologies will only increase. Therefore, it is imperative that we understand our responsibilities towards Carnatic music before we venture into these unchartered territories.

The art of adapting instruments into the Carnatic idiom lies not just in the interest and ability of the artist; the driving force behind the adaptation must be Carnatic music and not the instrument.

Ultimately whether we sing, play any instrument or use technology, our loyalty must first be towards Carnatic music. Nothing we do should mar the very soul of Carnatic music, which is its aesthetic character.

Originally written for The Hindu

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