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New Strains

Lakshmi Subramanian ( is a professor of history, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata and an associate fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Nantes, France.

Musicians have always moulded the tastes of listeners, but artistes such as T M Krishna are challenging the social compact between performers and their publics.

As a historian who has been interested in writing the social history of Carnatic music, including its reconstruction in the 20th century, its representation and circulation, I have been following recent controversies with some interest.

In this context, the article by Kamala Ganesh, “Crossing the Vindhyas” (EPW, 13 January 2018), has been useful and timely to think of the larger question of the role played by musicians in creating their public. My response, therefore, is not to single out the interventions of the vocalist T M Krishna, who, by choosing to go public with his reservations about the exclusivist spaces in which Carnatic music has circulated, has seemingly upset some while winning kudos from others.

Rather, I would like to reflect more carefully on the public role that musicians have played in their time in both creating an aesthetic taste among communities of listeners and in forging their subjective pursuits and vision of music. Reviewing the oeuvre of musicians from as early as the 1930s, when they perfected a concert repertoire and intervened in the Tamil Isai controversy, to the popularisation of songs and compositions by composers other than the Thanjavur, or Tanjore, trinity, to carving out very distinct styles, it would be reasonable to accord musicians a greater agency in constituting their listening public than we have done so far.

In many ways, their role was cast and recast within the larger public domain to which they belonged. Krishna’s own work is not detached from this larger public sphere, which quite predictably is registering new shifts and concerns.

Two principal charges levelled against the Carnatic classical music tradition and practice have been that of its adherence to a mechanical, routinised repertoire and of a benign indifference to the fact of structural discrimination and restricted access, both of which are seen to still remain at the heart of the Carnatic tradition. There is also a critique of the limited nature of the Carnatic music agenda, which has remained isolated from contemporary issues of democracy, and spatial and social exclusion.

The musical public has been admittedly slow to respond to this largely because the constituency for its reception and support has expanded in and outside southern India, but neither new practitioners nor listeners seem to show a degree of reflexivity. The best instance of this blindness is the oft-heard comment that caste politics must not interfere with music.

Thus Krishna is seen as an embarrassment for raising the issues of caste and exclusion in his interviews and in his experiments, whether he is singing with the Jogappas and interacting with Koothu traditions or staging the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha in a beach in South Chennai to sing before an open audience. Many of these initiatives are part of new social engagements. But to what extent these will help in the actual opening up of public and aural spaces to Carnatic music is still anyone’s guess.

In his own concerts, the experiments that Krishna has initiated, including shortening the alapanai or following his own sequence of compositions, are not especially novel or experimental; other musicians in the past have done similar things and have been able to do so largely because of the confidence they enjoyed of their listeners.

That brings us to the inevitable conclusion that the musical public for classical music in southern India has remained largely confined to the Brahmin middle class, even if it has absorbed listeners and performers of similar status and sensibility from neighbouring states of Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, where there is a burgeoning interest in the form and practice.

Carnatic music and practice remains, however, an expression of middle-class sociability that had very concrete historical roots and that created a self-fulfilling community of listeners who were not entirely separated from the producers of music. Together, they created a sense of a public space for experiencing togetherness and affective enjoyment of music and that eventually expressed itself in modern associational strategies.

The art form was public to the extent that it reviewed structures of pedagogy and suggested reforms in the field of education; it was not public in the sense that it was able to speak for the marginalised or indeed attract groups that had traditionally stood outside it.

If, in fact, the slew of initiatives that aim at breaking the connections between particular spaces and modes of consumption, at creating creative conversations across genres can generate both an interest in the genre as it appears now and in staging new aural experiments, then the wrangles may have potential and not just remain a mere storm in a teacup.


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Updated On : 24th Mar, 2018


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