The raga of a riposte

I will address some of the issues raised in the letters (South Pole, Aug 25) but will not be able to go into the nuances that lie within each one. Assuming I were to accept all the criticisms that have been levelled at me, I should rejoice believing that Carnatic musicians have created this perfect world of religious music, which is open to all and if any one finds himself outside it he has only his own lack of interest to blame. Also that we are completely nonsectarian and have no social prejudices.If this is the assumptive, self-congratulatory position we are going to take then I have absolutely nothing further to say.

On the observation that Carnatic music is spiritual music and only its religiosity is important, with the understanding of ragas, svaras, etc being incidental, what do I say except that if that were the case then we need not have a form called Carnatic music at all. Namasankirtana and bhajan would do a great job for religion and bhakti, so let us just go there. These `minor’ things such as `aesthetic structures’ that have been built into the Carnatic form can then be given up.

But that is self-deluding in the extreme. If one was to analyze the compositions of the great vaggeyakaras, study the treatises and trace the practice of the music itself, we will experience at once sanctity in musicality , and a bhakti in its aesthetics going to make the integrated beauty in the `Carnatic.’ I am well aware of the various nonbrahmin names thrown at me as examples of inclusiveness. I don’t have space for it here but I request readers who want to feel justified by bringing up those names to also read about the caste-related discrimination and obstacles most of them faced. Whether it was TN Rajaratnam Pillai or Madurai Somu the underlying caste battle they had to fight is evident and obvious.

I wish everything was as simple as “if you have talent you will be heard.“ There is a social structure built around an art world and everyone has to maneuver through that. Here it is brahminism and it excludes the rest of society.

Let us not trivialize the great art of nagasvara by saying “There can be no auspicious occasion without the great nagasvara“. Do we really listen to the `great’ nagasvara at a wedding? Temples today are not the main stages for Carnatic music and therefore even if nagasvara vidvans have some space left there it does not do any good for them. Where do they feature prominently in any major festival? How many nagasvara concerts can you hear in a December music season? Let us not become sanctimonious and blind ourselves to patent facts when we raise these arguments.

It should be understood that my critique of the system is also a self-critique, hence I accept that I have also been closed and elitist. I am trying to change and hope to succeed. It is completely wrong to say that there are a lot of accompanying musicians from other castes. There is a very small number of them in Tamil Nadu and rather more so in Kerala but in the Carnatic world as a whole they still constitute a tiny part.

It is quite astounding that we do not realize that hegemony and hierarchy are complex socio-psychological pressures.The elite groups exert a huge amount of psychological pressure over others and we need to recognize this. As a Carnatic community we have to accept that we are an unwelcoming lot. I know for a fact that when some people from certain other sections of society enter a sabha they do feeling somewhat self-conscious, as the Sanskritised atmosphere of the sabhas does impose a cultural pressure. I must add here that my demand for inclusiveness goes far beyond the traditional isai vellalar community. Nobody can be forced into the system but it is our duty to provide access with the sensitivity to understand the underlying fear and diffidence that the `others’ have when they want to enter the Carnatic world. What I will be doing will, I hope, be seen in what I do and I will not say more; the interviewarticle (Aug 22) says enough.

Originally written for The Times of India

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