Can’t stifle our song

I understand that YouTube has been flagging online streaming companies such as Parivadini when compositions of Thyagaraja are uploaded by saying that the copyright for the ‘composition itself’ and not a particular rendition belongs to another com­pany. There is an appeals process, but it doesn’t really work. The nonsensical part is that there are cases where the company that has first claimed copyright has reins­ta­ted their claim over the composition. This is, in my opinion, not just illegal but aga­inst the very fabric of traditional oral music systems. The company can only claim rights over a particular rendition and not the composition, as no one has copyright over it.

I don’t think recording companies and YouTube understand the idea of composition and rendition within an oral music system. The compositions in traditional oral systems are living beings that have evolved with every masterly rendition of the composition. It belongs to the community practising the art. Secondly, each rendition of the same composition is a new creation of that very composition. This is a very crucial and nuanced idea embedded in the fabric of oral artistic cultures. Even among schools of thought there are so many different versions of each composition, no one has the right to copyright each one of them. When any company claims copyright over a composition of Thyagaraja, it is actually absurd. Will we then have companies copyrighting Raga alapanas?

This has serious implications over the creative freedom of every musician to render the compositions of Thyagaraja, Dikshitar or any other composer whose works have been sung for the last 200 years. Will this mean that I cannot upload my rendition of ‘O rangasayee’ by Thyagaraja because a music company claims copyright over it? They just cannot claim this. This has to be stopped immediately since this affects the freedom to practise, propagate and share not just Carnatic music but so many such living art forms that have believed in the idea of ‘open source’ even before the West invented that term. This smacks of a complete disregard to oral artistic traditions that are not just found in India but around the world. This is insensitive to the art, the artist and the composer himself.

Any company or person uploading a rendition of Carnatic or Hindustani music or any other such oral tradition must be allowed only to copyright that particular rendition by the artists who have made that recording. There cannot be any copyrighting of the song itself. This means that YouTube may have to rework its uploading systems, but this needs to done immediately, as large audio companies will use this loophole to push their records and the renditions they possess, and stop artists and organisations from sharing so many other wonderful renditions.

Originally written for Outlook

A politic lyric

Before this century ends, I am certain that every day of a year will be celebrated for some specific human emotion, expression or action. Not one day will be left in the calendar, which is not dedicated to some ‘cause’ or another.

One such ‘ringed’ day is World Music Day, designated on June 21. This year, in Chennai, I witnessed its celebration with an unusual turn to the offering. We, the audience, were told that a few kirtanas (a type of composition in the Carnatic music tradition) would be rendered centered on a ‘special theme’. A prominent Carnatic musician led us into the ‘theme’ by expounding the oft-repeated Sanskrit line ‘Yatha Raja tatha praja’ meaning that the character of the king determines the condition of a citizen’s life. He said (paraphrased): “Today we have a great leader in Narendra Modi and hence we will render a few compositions in which the word Modi appears” and proceeded to render the kirtana ‘Ada Modi galade ramayya’. Then another musician rendered another Tyagaraja kirtana where the line Chintadirchuta entaModira appears, followed by another composition Modijesevelara. Obviously the meaning of the word ‘modi’ in any of these contexts was not relevant to this ‘theme’. It was the mere appearance of the syllabic combination of mo and di reflecting the name Modi that was being celebrated. The general audience enjoyed this presentation and applauded the idea. I was both amused and disturbed, because within moments music had degenerated into a puerile expression of electoral loyalty.

World Music Day, which was to celebrate music, became in one stroke a political occasion. Keeping my political inclinations aside, the question that persists within me is whether this kind of political pandering is necessary or right.

One can argue that the musician and his music cannot be separated from the political construct within which he lives. But can such ridiculous transferences be viewed as the musician’s response to his context? What is the role of the organiser in all this? Will musicians then choose not to render compositions that have certain words, if the establishment has a different political stand? I must specify that I am not referring to political or social music that uses art to protest and nudge society to change or respond. But musical forms such as Carnatic music or Hindustani do not function with an aesthetic intent that is political. Musicians, as citizens, have every right to have strong political positions and express them but how does one — can one — retain musical aesthetics while using music to advance one’s own socio-political positions? This is where such actions completely fail the test. Here the composition of Tyagaraja was transformed into a trivial political endorsement. The triviality is not from the fact that the word ‘modi’ is of no relevance to the actual person, but more in the way the composition lost its aesthetic reason to exist by turning the focus on one word.

There was a time when Mahatma Gandhi’s name was invoked and compositions that eulogised Gandhi became part of the Carnatic narrative. I am not sure if Gandhi’s name was artificially implanted into existing compositions or whether the syllables ga, in and dhi were brought together from different words to create the phonetic combination ‘Gandhi’! But songs on Gandhi and his ideals were included in concerts. Of course the kind of people who were invoked such as Gandhi, Tilak or Rajaji through compositions about them or by rendering their compositions reflected the community that practices the art. For example, I don’t think Babasaheb Ambedkar or Periyar were ever thus invoked.

Musicians and composers have always sung in praise of kings and patrons. How is this any different? The difference lies in the conception of the composition. Those were complete creations linguistically extolling the virtues of the patron, but went far beyond being just about the characters. Here the actual composition was manipulated in order to make a political statement. Similarly, in the past, a raga was constructed and named after a chief minister.

Such events force me to go beyond the incident, to further explore my own actions, such as rendering of patriotic concerts on our Independence Day, where the nation, Gandhi and other political figures are celebrated. Behind this is a desperate need to create a literal connection between art and politics, where art appeases politics. It is the extension of that very same liberty of using these art platforms for political ends that results in the kind of aesthetic manipulation that I witnessed. Artists in the Carnatic, or for that matter Hindustani, tradition need to seriously consider the relationship between themselves, their art and society at large before placing art music at the disposal of politics.

Originally written for The Hindu

Disputed territories

India, a visual image — the tantalising hanging gardens of the north east, the little crab claw of the Gujarati west, the south diving deep into the ocean and the Kashmiri queen seated on her throne embracing the Himalaya. In this imagery lies our sense of ownership, right, belonging and faith. Every map gives us this form, the Constitution of India defines it, and it is today ingrained in our political psyche. The ‘our’ encompasses the idea of the nation and any challenge to this from the outside is belligerent and if from within, is considered sedition. Among all these creative visuals and poetic expressions of what is primarily political, Kashmir stands out as severely divided and disputed.

In an atlas downloaded from the net by an Indian girl, Kashmir is shaded with linear strokes, some light and short, some dark and continuous. The shading lines are seen better by her on a closer look and therefore do not disrupt the poetics of the image. A little to our northwest a young boy living in Karachi looks at his land in the atlas and political poetics are at play once again. The lines across Kashmir are similar, alternating light and dark ones. His sense of ‘his’ land too is growing within him and by the time he is an adult, he ‘knows’ what belongs to him. History lessons in each country give diametrically opposite narratives leading to two stories for the same land. Is there therefore a ‘real truth’ and does it even matter?

Most of us in India or Pakistan are not constitutional experts, nor were we privy to the many forms of political trickery that have got us where we are today. All we hear is what politicians claim and the media accentuates. Politicians continue to reiterate the story that fans each country’s jingoistic nature. To Indians, Jawaharlal Nehru, the instrument of accession, Sheikh Abdullah, the Indo-Pak wars, Tashkent, Shimla, Siachen, cross-border terrorism and Kargil are some of the commonly sounded words that entrench our right. To the Pakistani, the Rights of the Kashmiri, the United Nations, plebiscite, ‘self-determination’ and the wars form the political tapestry. Behind all the sound and fury, claims and counter claims for the last nearly seven decades, two nations have been battling overtly and covertly to claim land ownership. Every war, terrorist act, negotiation and show of power has been about establishing that simple idea. Never part of the primary issue is the truth about shared people, heritage, culture, languages and religion. These do not disintegrate at the ‘line of control.’ The continuum lives on, only with the regret that the connections have been singed.

This is where we have to ask ourselves whether nationalism and the sense of ‘my nation’ leave us empty. The ‘my nation’ idea affects the way we see Kashmir? When and how does a sense of nationhood turn into a sense of property? It cannot be allowed to degenerate into a property dispute that divides people. For people who live in that old undivided Kashmir, not involved in this identity and ownership battle, the nationalisms of India and Pakistan are of very little consequence.

Look at the terms Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) that we use and Indian-occupied Kashmir that Pakistan uses. Occupied? Both states call the other occupiers. Then there is such a thing as ‘a line of control’ — that same dotted line! A serious engagement with these ‘titles’ given to pieces of land only reveals linguistic violence. Violence on people has to cease whether it is caused by people from across the lines, within the lines or even if it is by the people who protect those lines. But will it ever when the issue is seen as a dispute over landed property?

Let us imagine, just for a moment that both countries set aside ‘ownership of Kashmir.’ Then all of a sudden fascinating ideas and possibilities that have to do with the people of all parts, shaded, un-shaded, dotted and un-dotted, of Kashmir — including those displaced — appear on the horizon. But without placing the ownership syndrome aside, discussing people, culture and even trade loses meaning because they will continue to be seen as an incidental part of the property dispute. ‘Making the borders irrelevant’ has been talked about in the Kashmir context but that is not possible unless we move away from our obsessions with geo-political proprietorships. I end here abruptly because the rest is left to your imagination, one, which I hope, will not be burdened by you being Indian or Pakistani.

Originally written for The Hindu