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

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