Common thread

Religions rely on people for their survival. Like political parties, they have a two-pronged approach: protection and expansion. They constantly protect their own ilk while simultaneously trying to expand their base. Each religion tilts towards one of the two.

Christianity has led the charge as the expansion specialist with Islam following close behind. Hinduism, to a large extent, has not really looked at expanding in this way, but has taken a bye-lane; it has co-opted local religious practices and deities. And, like Islam, it has used its own mechanisms to keep people within its fold.

The chink in the Hindu armour is the caste hierarchy, which makes it vulnerable. The undeniable fact is that all religions mark their turf and have individuals and organisations constantly looking out from turrets. Any enemy movement near the gates is repelled and anyone trying to walk out is held back. It is when people manage to break loose or when the enemy convinces some to join its fold does ‘war’ break out. The war here is not about the choices of the individuals; it is about the power of the two religious institutions.

Every now and then our newspapers erupt with stories about Hindus being forced to convert to other religions. In all these arguments, the axial word is ‘forced’. We are told that if a person really wants to convert, no one objects but that the problem is that they are actually being forced to do so. This is used as a convincing argument to place before us the magnanimity of the faith. This is fallacious; whether it is Islam, Christianity or Hinduism, all of them organisationally are selfish.

Any use of violence, physical or emotional, is to be condemned and this discussion hopes to look at this issue beyond this basic agreement.

Let us pause just for a moment and wonder about the idea of forced or coerced conversion as against conversion by free will. The very function of religion within society makes the voluntary v/s coerced argument extremely problematic. Religion addresses our emotional needs and provides security, stability and hope. It is this that every believer seeks. How is one to judge whether this has been satisfied or not? We cannot, and hence people’s choices cannot be easily branded.

The idea of free will is as complicated. Circumstances and habituations are constantly being heard in the background when a choice is being made. Therefore, how can one rip apart the two and confidently proclaim ‘conversions’ as ‘forced’? But it is this very same complexity that allows extremists of all shades to make any conversion seem forced.

Even the most commonly stated example of tribal or Dalit childrenbeing taken to church on Sundays, told stories, given food only to influence their parents to convert, is for me complex and cannot be universally placed under coercion. What is the context of these people’s lives? Is their own religion hurting them? Is the family drawing emotional comfort and hope from these interactions? All these have to be sensitively addressed, but will we listen to their voices? Behind these accusations, there is also class at work. When the poor convert, they have been ‘forced’; the rich and famous do so of their own choice!

Even worse is the new argument that Muslims are romancing Hindu girls in order to convert them. When a girl falls in love with a Muslim boy and converts in order marry him, should we even question this act? This argument does not seem any different from upper-caste families accusing a Dalit boy of tricking their daughter into marriage.

The issue for religious organisations here is not the human being; it is the fear of losing members, strength and power. I am not saying that Christian or Muslim organisations have a pristine record but to paint all of them with the same brush is an act of sheer intolerance. We forget that our Constitution allows every person to not only practise his religion but also to propagate it. The act of propagation includes convincing people of the greatness of their faith. If this leads to conversions, so be it.

But accusations constantly fly thick and fast. Let us not be drawn into this black hole; once we fall inside we can never get out. Worse, we will lose the ability to see people as persons. Irrespective of our belief system, religious or otherwise, we have to find empathy within ourselves. Religious harmony has never been achieved at meetings held by religious heads. But harmony has always happened when nameless people listened to each other, reaffirming compassion.

Originally written for The Hindu

The musician who never spoke but we all listened to

How does one assess the work of an artist? Is it necessary or even possible for us to measure, calculate and translate art in empirical values? These are the thoughts that come to me as I try to come to terms with the death today of Mandolin U Shrinivas and his work as a musician.

Why was Shrinivas so important to the world of the classical arts?
He emerged at a time when there was despondency about the future of Carnatic music. Many of the Carnatic greats had passed on and the then ‘reigning’ generation was considered the last of the classicists. In this rather morose environment, emerged this 12-year-old holding an instrument that looked almost bigger than him — and on the Carnatic planet an extraterrestrial.

He was holding the so-called mandolin, which was nothing other than a mini-electric guitar. He did not come from the kind of Brahmin home that is in the Carnatic world, nor from a position of any affluence. Yet he emerged as an icon, a child icon of the ’80s. A little boy broke down imaginary and real barriers without uttering one word — his discourse was music and remained that right through his life.

More than the wonder boy Shrinivas, it is the seeker of music who emerged that we are indebted to. Seeker, not of the intellectual kind, but one who wanted his instrument to say all that needed to be said. He sought the Carnatic form and sound, all non-literal ideas that can only be sensed.

Imagine the child sitting in a room, looking at the frets, discovering this all by and for himself. His father, Satyanarayana, was a band clarinet player and also part of the film world. Initially, he translated the music of his father into the mandolin and this was how his father knew that here was a gifted child. He soon received tutelage from Subbaraju. But the truth is that Shrinivas had to discover the mechanics of the instrument, its aural shape and place the Carnatic within it. He listened to many great artists rendering ragas and recreated them with spectacular success.

This was only the beginning of his musical search. Soon Shrinivas had gone beyond the instrument, he was creating artistic spaces and moments that were not driven by his skill, ability or instrument. The raga just stood in all its majesty before you.

I remember one such Kalyani he played at the Music Academy in Chennai when Shrinivas disappeared and the Kalyani pervaded the arena, letting all of us just “feel”. This movement of Shrinivas from a raw performer to an artist was something to behold.

One could go on about his mastery of composition, mathematics and his sheer genius, but all these are irrelevant when we experienced those musical moments. Soon he travelled beyond the Carnatic world, jugalbandis followed and then the famed partnership with Zakir Husain and John Mclaughlin as part of the new ‘Shakti.’ This took him to a completely new orbit in a much larger solar system.

Yet he kept true to both spheres. Never did you hear the ‘Shakti’ Shrinivas in the Carnatic concert nor did he impose a Carnatic condition on the ‘Shakti’ floor.

I must also state that usually when musicians become part of these performance spaces, they forget those small temples, street corners and little lanes in some obscure village where they were first heard and acknowledged. Shrinivas was one never to forget. Until the very end he performed at many of those spaces, respecting the simple audiences.

Over the last decade or so the Carnatic world began to have some reservations about his music. His music had become too fast, a lot of dazzle, razzmatazz, with very few of those precious silences that he touched. This change was attributed to his over indulgence in fusion music. There is, I must say, some validity to this criticism but the Carnatic world needs to do some self-questioning.

The Carnatic music world has over the past three decades become primarily a space for vocalists. The idea of an instrumental narrative has been destroyed. Even for a Shrinivas, after a point he could never level up with a leading vocalist, even if the vocalist was of far less artistic ability. They always had greater bandwidth as musicians. The Carnatic community had become so obsessed with lyrics and language that it refused and still refuses to look at instrumental music as being its own abstract discourse. Did this affect Shrinivas and his music? I don’t know and sadly we will never know. But the truth is that he did move to other musical domains and maybe he needed to see himself beyond limitations imposed by the environment.

Shrinivas’s life is a social, cultural, political and aesthetic commentary on an artistic form and beyond. We will treasure him for all that he gave us, learning from his life so tragically short and yet so full. He never spoke but I hope we were listening.

Originally written for The Indian Express

Fused electronic with Carnatic

Shrinivas’s emergence in the world of music was startling. His mandolin (actually a mini-electric guitar) was the first major electronic sound in Carnatic music.

But even more important than his introduction of the mandolin to Carnatic music was the way he used it to dem-onstrate his respect for the art. His instrument was for the music, his music was not a companion for the instrument. I have heard him play at some exquisite concerts where the in-strument became, in fact, incidental in his music. He adhered very consciously and with clear success to the tenets of Carnatic aesthetics. He didn’t manipulate the music to push the agenda of his instrument—that was the integrity of his art. He used to, for instance, talk of listening to geniuses like Rajarat-nam Pillai and wanting to play todi like them.

He made his musical choices and he stood by them at all times. He never tried to explain them, you could take them or leave them and I admired that. He straddled so many musical worlds and with such ease. He would play for Shakti with John McLaughlin one day and perform at the Music Academy the next and there would be no sign of conflict at ei-ther place.

Shrinivas was one of the nicest human beings you could meet. There are few musi-cians who genuinely appreciate the work of another musician but Shrinivas had no qualms about talking about another artist’s work. When you experiment with a new instrument in a musical genre you have to create a language for it. And he created a language for the mandolin when he was all of nine! I don’t believe in divinity but there are moments when I have wondered how this was possible.

Even when he was playing the most mathematically complex piece of music he would be smiling. He played the most exquisite music with ease, none of that ‘look at me, I am playing something so complex’. He smiled and the music came, with such grace.

Originally written for The Times of India

A flood of rhetoric

On October 8, 2005, an earthquake of magnitude 7.6 shook Kashmir. The tragedy was of epic proportions. Most of the casualties were on the Pakistani side. Over 80,000 people in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and about 2,000 people on the Indian side lost their lives. It was a tragedy that should have moved the two countries beyond political positioning, but unfortunately did not.

The Indian government sent assistance in the form of food, blankets, tents, medicines and opened three border points on the Line of Control (LOC). But, to my knowledge, Pakistan did not accept the most obvious offer: to conduct joint relief operations. Many of the affected places including Muzaffarabad lie close to the LOC and, logically, relief operations should have been a joint effort; it was, after all, a shared tragedy.

Material help poured in from countries across the globe but only we — India and Pakistan — could have helped people together on the ground. Cooperation did take place in the immediate aftermath but this was nowhere near proportionate to the extent of the tragedy. And, in any case, it was very short-lived. Politically we keep talking about people-to-people contact but, at a time of human suffering, it seems to evaporate.

Today, we have a similar tragedy on our hands. Large parts of Kashmir are under water, communications have been cut off and access to many areas is almost impossible. The scale of the disaster is unprecedented and it will be weeks before we actually understand its magnitude. Across the LOC, people are suffering, needing help and support. This is the time when synthetic lines born from violence and jingoism have to vanish; and very quickly indeed. The political establishment needs to remember that they are not programmed robots that protect national interest; they are human beings who are placed in a position to primarily ‘care for people’. While national identity draws them to respond to ‘their own’, hopefully a sense of humanity will push them beyond national identities. Those receiving help will not question rescuers on their nationality, they will be grateful that someone — anyone — has come in time to help.

We forget too often that the world is only a geographical being; its political features are not real. At any border, you will find nothing in nature that tells you this is India, and Pakistan begins beyond this point. The fences you see are artificial impositions. In a previous column, I had said that the Kashmir dispute is a property dispute. Shouldn’t neighbouring landowners work together when a landslide hits both of them?

Nature does not recognise political borders and, when its fury strikes, it strikes with a remorseless logic of its own that has nothing to do with the ingenious devices of human beings. It is time India and Pakistan, with Nepal and Bhutan, come to terms with the fact that all of them face a common challenge in the shape of environmental unpredictability. Clearly, business cannot be as usual with the ecological preservation policy of these border regions.

It is time a Karakoram-Himalayan ecological region was brought into being. This will naturally cover political areas that traverse multiple countries, instantly changing the way we see the region. Scientific research, seismic study, hydrological status and conservation policy must be worked out on the basis of the shared ecology. Imagine conservationists travelling between both countries working out ways by which this fragile ecosystem can be protected. Involving the people living in the region in these projects will make this a community effort, with the ‘community’ being defined only by the common geographical sameness.

A shared disaster-management force for the region that consists of citizens of both countries is well conceivable. They must be able to respond immediately to disasters without tripping over political barbed wires. This could re-define the concept of political borders in South and South-east Asia. Such a proposal is as viable for the border regions we share with Bangladesh, China or Myanmar.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has offered to help Pakistan and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif has reciprocated. Unfortunately these signs of humanity last only till the tragedy is alive. We forget that the disaster lasts for a few days, relief work for a few weeks but the rehabilitation goes on for months, even years. Is it not binding on the Indian and Pakistani establishments to remain together rehabilitating people of the region? Suffering is one area where politics must yield place to humanity.

Originally written for The Hindu

Unsung songs

Whenever we describe a city and say what it means to us, we are actually describing ourselves. We only see, hear and feel that which we have been exposed to and experienced. In fact, our idea of the city is limited to how we live our lives in the city, and how we deal with life itself.

Our cities are only our perceptions of them.

As we wander every day from home to work, to shops, hotels, and restaurants, or meet friends and family, we do so within the limits we have drawn for ourselves. It is through this paradigm that we perceive ourselves and inferentially the city itself. We do “receive” impressions generated from what we read in the papers or notice on television screens. But even those get filtered through the virtual map our life draws on the city.

Now, this begs the question: Do we really know a city? More, can we ever know a city? The answer is self-evident. We cannot grasp all the myriad experiences a city has to offer, with the sites it is home to sometimes constantly altering its contours. Not just space, but time creates its own landscape for a city.

Our sense of a city’s music is also more about us than about the city.

The music of a city is only one more facet or expression of itself that any city has to offer. I hear only that music which my life seeks and I am, therefore, limited in my understanding of the music of a city. Chennai’s music is no different.

I am a Carnatic musician, born here, in Chennai, and have lived, live and will continue to live in this city. I just said “this city” but the city I know as Chennai is geographically south Chennai, with my “circle” being the Brahmin community. Inevitably, “my” musical sound for and of this city will remain Carnatic with the all-pervasive cinema music following behind. But what I seek to do here, in this essay, is to stretch my mind beyond this limitation and peek into other sounds that permeate and enrich the musical land of Chennai. I think the reader must forget for a while the overdone Chennai of “filter coffee”, The Hindu newspaper, mallipoo (jasmine flowers), Kancheepuram saris, Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam.

In music, like in anything human beings create, there exists a hierarchy, a ranking system. People like me, from the “Classy Carnatic” environment, have strong ideas of subtlety, sophistication, class and complexity. “We” like to think of this as classicist but it is more like classist. This self-congratulatory illusion keeps us away from understanding without prejudice many musical forms. Like any other Indian metropolis, Chennai is a city of densely populated slums spread across its expanse. The city attracts many people from rural Tamil Nadu who come in search of work in what is seen as a far more lucrative option than being landless labourers in their native villages.

The class of people I speak about is Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBC) in composition. These people have come from villages around towns such as Tindivanam, Chengalpattu, Villupuram and Gingee with the hope of making it here. In Chennai, they inhabit an intriguing space, its “underbelly”.

These migrants and the Dalits among them in particular make their homes along with local people who already live in these slums. It is a hard life of poverty, oppression and differentiation. They mainly work as vegetable, fruit or flower vendors, manual labourers, cobblers, loaders, autorickshaw drivers, or food sellers on the street, or are employed in low-level jobs at government offices or hospitals. In this move from the village to the urban slum, there occur many changes to their lifestyles, habits, values and rituals.

But Dalits have brought their own sense of music into these habitations and through the process of an intangible sociocultural-political negotiation created a musical genre called Gana (pronounced gaanaa). It is always in reflexive analysis of the created works that we retrace these transactions.

The music of death

Gana in Hindi means to sing. It is quite possible that this was a borrowed term. No specific instrument is used for the rendition of Gana except for some accompanying percussion. Therefore, the word Gana here seems to refer to the voice itself as an instrument. The use of Gana, ganam, referring to singing, is also found in older Tamil writing. Gana music was originally part of the death ritual of Dalits and rendered in front of the house where a death had occurred or even on the death of a houseless person. It is from this death ritual that Gana has now emerged to become a separate genre of performing art. It is philosophically transcending to understand how faith inspires an artistic idea only to allow it to go beyond the faith itself. With the death of a person, family and friends are called, and a Gana performance is arranged.

Gana seems to have been influenced by a few Tamil music traditions relating to death rituals such as Oppari (lament), Maradi Pattu and Aravana Maradi Pattu. Different aspects of these traditions have been incorporated into the Gana genre. Various influences have shaped Gana, particularly songs of Siddhars, songs composed by the 18th/19th century Muslim mystic Kunankudi Mastan Sahib and the Christian composer Vedanayakam Pillai (1826-1889), tunes of Islamic songs and, of course, Tamil film music.

Gana is a result of musical and lyrical influences from various faiths and traditions. It is also said to have received influences from some north Indian traditions, probably qawwali. Although Gana is basically an oral tradition, it has taken in ideas from written lyrics of film music, making this a wonderful blend of both. Gana songs are very adaptable in form, and many musicians make changes in the lyrics during rendition. Musicians render well-established Gana songs and they also compose their own songs. In fact, most Gana musicians are composers themselves.

Young boys who want to become professional Gana singers begin their learning process at the age of 14 or 15. Like in many Indian traditions, they learn by observing and listening. It is only after a period of time that they are accepted as performers, after which they form their own Gana groups. Men usually perform Gana although there are some women musicians, too. They earn anything between Rs.2,000 and Rs.5,000 for an all-night performance. Some of the leading names in the Gana genre are Mylai S. Venugopal, Nochikuppam Kumar, Puliyanthopu Pazhani, Marana Gana Viji and Rajangam.

Percussive accompaniment for Gana pattu is provided by some commonly available household items such as a steel pot or even a matchbox. Of course, musical instruments such as the dholak and the tabla are also used. Although the music itself is related to mourning, it is not always depressing. The songs are spirited, with a flavour of courage, although the underlying tone is melancholy. The most attractive part of Gana songs is their rhythmic structure. In fact, it is this rhythmic structure that forms the basis for the syllabic and melodic structure, holding the song together. Other than the day of the death itself, Gana musicians are also invited to perform on the 16th day after the death of a person and then on his/her first death anniversary. Most of these musicians cannot hold a day job as their music calls on them to be awake all night singing. It is also common for performers to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs while performing.

The lyrical content of Gana songs is varied. They are born out of the travails of these Dalits when they reinvented their life in the slums of Chennai. This is the musical expression of Chennai’s most unheard community. This is also the music of spaces that middle and upper classes consider dangerous and dirty. These songs are the voices of true-life experiences where the words are as blunt and sharp as the lives of the Dalits.

Gana as social comment

While Gana deals with death as such, there are different songs for the death of different members of a family, such as the mother, the father or a son. Other than death, there are songs targeted at the youth on social morality, songs that tease women, songs addressing the relationship between a man and a woman or a husband and wife, songs on love, sex, trust, god, alcohol, drugs, depravity, politics, politicians, violence, actors, work, the difficulties of rickshaw pulling or autorickshaw driving and poverty in general.

Local heroes are celebrated through Gana songs, the most famous among them being Alththota Bhupati. Being chased, beaten and arrested by the police is common among the Dalit youth, and this finds its way into the songs. Alcoholism and drug abuse are sometimes condemned but sometimes celebrated. Illicit sexual relationships such as a mother-in-law living with a son-in-law, which society rejects, are openly spoken about in Gana. Gana songs can also be extremely tender in dealing with love, sorrow and life’s hardships. Gana musicians also use the genre to spread awareness about AIDS, the environment and many important social issues.

The language used in Gana songs is typical “Chennai Tamil”, where Telugu, Hindi and English words seamlessly blend into the lyrics. If we disengage from our conditioned idea of linguistic sophistication, we will find within these words the most profound and the most banal emotions of man expressed in the simplest way.

Gana music began travelling beyond the boundaries of a death ritual from the late 1980s. The popularity of the music created a need for products. The recording age had arrived, and Gana musicians used that to propagate and promote their music. This also allowed for the outside world to realise the potential in Gana. Naturally, Tamil films became most captivated by this form.

Cinema Gana

Cinema in its own way has been a leveller of social inequalities, and therefore, it was natural that the music of the downtrodden was imbued into its creativity. This did have some serious repercussions for Gana and people’s perception of the form. In the early 1990s, Gana songs came into vogue in Tamil cinema. One of the early popular Gana songs was “Vethala Potta Sokkule” in Amaran. From then on, Gana music has become common in movies, and unsurprisingly, advertisements have used, or I should say cashed in on, the genre. The music director Deva popularised Gana in Tamil cinema, making his name synonymous with the form.

Thus, from being a purely funeral-related musical practice, Gana evolved to become a form of entertainment in the Dalit community. Gana troupes are invited to performkutcheris (concerts). This has resulted in an interesting class issue. Once they have come on to the kutcheri stage, Gana musicians do not sing at funerals. They cite two main reasons for this. They claim that they cannot sing without mikes any more as that would hurt their voices. Secondly, they are unwilling to be seated on the ground while performing (which is the case when they attend a funeral). For their kutcheris a stage is erected, even if it is only a makeshift platform created by putting together two bullock carts. The real reason is understandable. If Gana musicians were to go back to singing at funerals, they may lose out on kutcheri opportunities. This creates an aspiration among funeral Gana singers, which quickly becomes a commentary on quality and class.

Gana music in Tamil cinema, and now south Indian cinema, has also resulted in a certain appropriation of the form itself. Today, Gana singing in cinema is mainly about gyrating women and item numbers. Gana in movies seems to ignore the rather broad spectrum of content that it has to offer. Cinema has divorced Gana largely from its roots. With the visuals that are only sexual in nature, there is a natural tendency to think of Gana only as some orgiastic form of music. This is how many Gana songs have been picturised and contextualised in cinema. Drugs, sex and violence are part of the Dalits’ life but all these elements have various interpretations in Gana. This fact is also ignored. Even the fact that sex and social taboos are expressed openly in Gana songs has been reduced to a form of titillation. The most serious nature of Dalit society, which Gana represents, has almost disappeared, exceptions not included. Tamil cinema has further marginalised the people of the slums by giving us a skewed idea of their lives.

Rocking Chennai

Let us now in a dramatic shift move from the music of the underprivileged to that of the privileged.

While the beautiful city of Shillong nestled in Meghalaya has come to be accepted as the rock capital of the country, many do not know that Chennai had and still has a small yet vibrant rock scene. Right from the 1970s, this city has had many young bands performing in clubs, parties and hotels. Madras then and Chennai now has been seen and perceived as a conservative city, an observation that has validity. But behind this sense of “tradition”, the city has always welcomed music and dance of various forms. Although rock music has not really become a part of the mainstream musical narrative of the city, one cannot deny that it is for a large section of the upper class, English-educated youth, its very own music.

In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the upper middle class and higher classes sent their children to convent schools. That was also the time when Christian colleges were considered superior. India was still a “new” country and the British hangover was heavy. The interaction of upper-class youth with Anglo-Indians and Christians had a significant effect on the listening culture of this class. It is also true that these Christian institutions were inclined to English music rather than Indian music. Many old English-speaking Madrasis will vouch that Radio Ceylon was also an essential part of the listening culture. For the youth, “Binaca hit parade” was the programme to tune into to hear the latest popular music from the West.

Dean Martin’s singing “That’s Amore” or Frank Sinatra’s “Singing in the Rain” and “White Christmas” were hugely popular. There were other favourites such as Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star”, Bing Crosby’s “Don’t Fence Me In” and Doris Day’s unforgettable “Que Sera Sera” from the movie The Man Who Knew Too Much. Young college-goers had on their lips Pat Boone’s “April Love”. Many of these were theme songs or were featured in movies, performed by these actor-musicians. The young loved the music of these stars as much as they followed their films. At the same time, black musicians such Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong and their renditions of “My Personal Possession” and “What a Wonderful World” respectively were the “in” thing. While a listening culture was clearly developing, there was no real vibrant local band culture. They probably remained as small college groups.

Bonding in bands

By the late 1960s and 1970s, young bands emerged with intriguing names such as Missiles, Versatiles, Vital Statistics, Voodoos, Wild Angels and Silencers. Some bands had brothers playing together and they were in general four-member outfits. The music played included Beatles, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Santana, Steppenwolf and Elvis Presley. This was a different era when getting the right equipment was difficult. These bands played with basic Ahuja mixers, electric guitars from stores such as Violin Craft or Musee Musical and drum kits that were basic, yet the passion and love for music drove all these guys. The bands seem to have been mostly male. This is where, maybe, the conservatism of Madras shows its head. The music was driven by the attempt to sound as close to the original as possible. The band members were usually dressed in suits, and belted out these melodies.

College culturals have always been another major platform for bands. With hormones being at their most potent stage, dandily dressed young band members were the girls’ heartthrobs. Indian Institute of Technology Madras’ Mardi Gras (now renamed Saarang) cultural festival, and the culturals conducted by Loyola, Vivekananda and Stella Maris colleges were huge platforms for these young bands. Soon Jethro Tull, Deep Purple and then the folk wave with Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Bob Dylan engulfed the city. Through the 1980s the platforms were the same, it is only the music that changed, and Madras kept pace (maybe just a teeny-weeny bit slower!) with the rest of the world. Louder rhythms, electronic music and more equipment entered the musical spaces as it did elsewhere. Who can forget the AC/DC mania of the 1980s? The late 1990s witnessed the boom of recording. Though nothing compared with the explosion in the world of cinema, the rock bands found it far easier to release albums.

With the virtual digital world, this has only become much easier with Sound Cloud, YouTube, etc. Chennai event managers, colleges, hotels and clubs have also been more adventurous in inviting bands from across the country and from other countries to perform. Music festivals have become more eclectic with the acceptance that rock can coexist with Carnatic in the same festival. But opportunities for rock music shows are still limited in the city. Spaces such as Unwind Centre have their draw and dedicated audiences, but many concerts are in other cities such as Bangalore and New Delhi. In these cities, the idea of a Chennai-based rock band carries with it an intrigue. Bands such as Skrat, LBG, Tails On Fire and Franks Got the Funk play different kinds of rock music, including rock ‘n’ roll, acoustic, funk, alternative, progressive and electronic, with each having its own cult following. Many of these bands not only present covers of great bands from around the world but also write and compose their own original music.

But it is a fact that Chennai has not been an incubator for great bands. Insiders argue that the issue is not a dearth of talent but limited exposure leading to the stunting of great talents. There is no doubt that the image of Chennai as not being a “happening city” has also played a role in the lack of acceptance of Chennai-based rock musicians. But things are changing, and the Internet has played a crucial role in giving these bands a great reach beyond the confines of Chennai.

Jazz and the like

But there is one curious fact. Neither in its older avatar as Madras nor as Chennai has the city been truly welcoming of jazz, rap, hip-hop or R & B. A few musicians have presented the occasional jazz show and a few bands have dabbled with blues, but that is still not the mainstay of the city. Rap is non-existent. I am tempted to speculate that there is probably a subtle racial angle to this but one cannot be sure. But some of these forms do influence the Chennai “world of fusion”, but the world of Western popular music in Chennai has largely ignored these forms of music from the West. I wonder whether the greater influence of black music on fusion is also a form of class revolt.

Contemporary Chennai

In Chennai, there exist two dominant musical forms. The largely popular film music with its ever-changing sound and the much-celebrated classical form, Carnatic music. Therefore, the world of contemporary music here is foundationally based on these two genres. All interpretations and departures have a connection with these forms. In this world, where geographical space is of no consequence, artistic space is only further blurred. Musicians are exposed to music from Brazil, Africa, Europe, West Asia, India and South-East Asia apart from Western popular music. Today, Chennai is flooded with musicians who are trained in Carnatic music, Western music or musicians from the film world coming together to create new music, which they believe is accessible to all. Chennai, of course, hosts the KM Conservatory, founded by the celebrated music composer A.R. Rahman, and the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music. Both these institutions provide students wide exposure to numerous genres of music.

But what is this contemporary music? For long, musicians used a simple formula of using a keyboard and drums and adding Western grooves and simple harmonies to Carnatic kritis. This was some sort of neo-Carnatic. Now, they have moved to using ragas as melodic basis for their own compositions. The piece is composed, rehearsed numerous times and played on stage. At times, a solo improvisation is given to the lead instrumentalist or vocalist. Included in the mix are many percussion instruments. For bands that use a Carnatic base, the mridangam, the ghatam or the kanjira is common. Other percussion instruments such as the darbuka or cajon are also a common sight. Drums are almost a given! Some bands use film songs as their base for fusion, and this is naturally the most popular form.

The idea of contemporising involves using Western grooves, chord arrangements and a huge mix of influences such as jazz, blues, rock, country, bossa nova (Brazilian music), African music and West Asian sounds and patterns. There has also been an attempt to create a modern interpretation of Tamil folk music. With this background, I found this comment by a young contemporary musician on the lack of original work valuable. He asks, “We don’t find musicians who write, compose and perform their own material. Why isn’t Madras a hub for independent artists?” These are telling thoughts as they describe both the music and the market. The music obviously still banks on the familiarity of Carnatic music and film music. The musicians are basically piggybacking on this to make a living. In general, contemporary music in Chennai is essentially a way of making Carnatic music cool! Or reinventing film music.

This has automatically led to the limited growth of a truly original contemporary music. In short, today contemporary music is about a lot of mix and match. There is also a lack of understanding among listeners about what or why they listen to contemporary music. It is young, casual, fun, melodious, lilting, light, exciting, etc., etc. But they seem to miss the fact that it also needs to be serious, and in not giving it that respect, they have trivialised the music and limited its possibilities. Maybe this is a sense being generated by contemporary musicians themselves, but that is only something they can answer. The search for a new sound, musical thought or expression is still elusive. In spite of these obvious musical issues, the professional world of the contemporary musician in Chennai is viable. Unlike the rock bands, these groups have numerous opportunities to perform. Wedding concerts, corporate gigs, contemporary music festivals, parties and hotels are all welcoming. In many ways, they have replaced film music concerts and Carnatic music concerts in many spaces. Bands such as Sean Roldan and Friends, Poorvaa, Oxygen and Karthick Iyer Live are popular in the circuit.

There exists an interesting dynamic between rock and contemporary musicians in Chennai. Rock musicians in general seem to have a sense of superiority about the music they play. Like Carnatic musicians, they too believe that their music is authentic. They are being true to a form, while contemporary musicians are just picking things from different “musics”. This undercurrent is quite evident when we speak to Chennai’s rock musicians. They may have respect for individual musicians in contemporary bands but do not think much about the music that is being made.

There is another line of separation which is as intriguing. In general, rock musicians come from upper-middle-class backgrounds and many do not look at rock music as their mainstay in life. Some seek that upper-class acceptance through the music. They love the music and are serious, but there will be a time when they will leave all this behind. Therefore, many do not look at music as a profession or with a long-term perspective, though I must confess that opportunities for growth may be limited. I am sure there are exceptions to generalities but this trend seems real. You will find that many young rock musicians do not really have a connection with the Carnatic or the film world. The connection between Western popular culture and the higher sections of Chennai society is nothing new and this is only a continuation. There is definitely a sense of elitism that is connected with musicians who are part of rock music in Chennai.

The contemporary bands are filled with middle-class boys and girls who are seriously considering this as their future. These musicians use their skills gained from training in Carnatic, Western or film music to create a contemporary band. Though influenced by rock, they try to reinterpret the music in their own terms. They need to make money from playing music and look at music as a career. I must also mention that many contemporary musicians also straddle the Carnatic and film music fields. To the contemporary musician, rock musicians are not experimental and creative enough. They are even considered repetitive, and therefore contemporary musicians view themselves as being part of a far more creative genre. Between the rock and contemporary musicians, we find different sounds of discord. Elitism versus middle class, amateur versus professional, authentic versus counterfeit and creative versus repetitive. These are the different counterpositions held silently that keep the musics apart even when they share common ground.

The reader may wonder why this piece has not dealt with Chennai’s vibrant film music industry or its Bradmanesque Carnatic stature. There is no doubt that these are the two forms that dominate any musical discourse of Chennai, but maybe it is time we looked beyond them to understand Chennai differently. We have today traversed an unusual landscape. The oppressed Dalit, the middle class and the upper class belong to different communities, castes, classes, religions, geographical spaces, political positions and social environments, yet they have been bound together by their passion for music. This is a celebration of different people living in some shared and some differentiated spaces, all in one city with art connecting and in many ways disconnecting them.

Originally written for Frontline