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Shades of Grey

Kamala Ganesh ( was a professor of sociology at the University of Mumbai.

We need to go beyond stark dichotomies when discussing any art form, including Carnatic music.

T M Krishna responds to my piece as a serious practitioner whose musical socialisation was steeped in the Carnatic concert system, which he has subsequently critiqued. I share his concerns. But Carnatic concert music is one among a plethora of rich art forms in this country. Moreover, the current explosion of performing arts in popular culture has influenced audience tastes and shifted power dynamics between genres; for instance, it is no longer infra dig among the intellectual elite to enjoy film songs. Therefore, unlike Krishna, I must begin with the caveat that I do not see the Carnatic concert world as especially powerful and influential, except in its own eyes.

Complicating the Classical

Outside the field of classical performing arts in India, it is well-established that the category “classical” is not self-evident. T M Krishna reiterates this position. But drawing upon postcolonial debates on structure and agency, I would elaborate this to argue that what gets constructed as “classical” is not an act of volition by a single group. It depends upon historical, sociopolitical and cultural contingencies. The influence of power is a contributing, not determining, factor. Without addressing the conjunction of multiple factors, volitional as well as the accidental influence of multiple agents—individuals and groups—history gets constructed linearly and monochromatically and this dilutes the potential for change in the present.

The complicated story of how, after independence, the Kuchipudi dance form fought to cast away the “folk” label to achieve “classical” status is a pithy illustration of the cultural politics of nationalism. Equally instructive is the case of diasporic Tamils from Sri Lanka, whom Krishna has mentioned. Their current engagement with classical arts is also intertwined with the project of nationalism—militant Tamil nationalism.

With such caveats, “classical music,” in India at any rate, can also be seen as a term of convenience, to be used not in a substantive but relational sense, that is, it is not a fixed entity with enduring characteristics, but dynamic and changing, being evoked at any given time, in relation to other genres. The late musicologist Ashok Ranade preferred the term “art music,” but it is only a name change. He rightly insisted that art music is in a continuum with folk, devotional and tribal music, even though each has its own aesthetic and appeal.

Music-making by the Manganiyar caste from the Jaisalmer–Barmer region dramatises these linkages in vivid splendour. Their intricate raga-based melodies, in confluence with unique local instruments, rhythms, lyrics and full-bodied singing demolish exclusivist notions of the classical as existing in a unique sealed-off space. Given its rootedness in community ritual life, Manganiyar music could well be called “social” music, but it is no simple form. Traditionally, it traversed classical and folk genres with élan and sophistication. In the past few decades, with ethnomusicologist Komal Kothari’s support, their music has reached inter­national destinations, reaping critical appreciation as well as income and status enhancement. In contemporary social sciences and humanities, if not among the lay public, there is no basis for hierarchising art forms or for positing the classical as a fountainhead for all other forms. To ask which came from which is fruitless as a general question, since intermingling and syncretism are deeply interwoven into the cultural fabric.

The Manganiyar Seduction

This was filmed at the Melbourne International Arts Festival 2011, where Indian director Roysten Abel masterminded the coming together of 42 musicians to bring the centuries-old sound of traditional Rajasthani music to life in a spectacular, contemporary setting.



Having said that, one has to recognise that the demands of skill, stamina and ability to engage the audience by a performer in an individual-based concert format are higher than in group performances of whichever genre. In popular media such as film music, success is defined commercially, governed by dynamic intersections of market, audience and film. Music is just one part of the totality of the film. The psychological costs of the associated manic work schedules and box-office compulsions on singers are high. The scale of film music is also huge. Song production is supported by dozens of technicians, composers, arrangers and accompanists. The musical demand on the individual singer is not comparable to live individual performances with three accompanists.

Many playback singers in the Chennai and Mumbai film industries are trained in classical music; sometimes they are specifically asked by music directors to get such training. Playback singer S P Balasubramanian poignantly recounts how as a child he would listen to his father, a Harikatha artiste, giving religious discourses interspersed with songs in Carnatic ragas. This “kelvi nyanam,” or knowledge by listening, enabled Balasubramanian to navigate film music. Formal training would have benefited him even more, he says wistfully.


S P Balasubramanian on training in classical music:


Social Base

Popular perceptions of the classical performing arts in India invest them with antiquity and purity, both loaded terms. In contrast to musical structure and content, theorists as well as practitioners, with the exception of Krishna, give scant attention to questions of the social composition of and access and opportunity for students, performers and audiences. This must change.

At the same time, two issues that Krishna raises, of social composition and musical content, are connected, but not comprehensively or inevitably so. Regional, religious, caste and other background factors do leave an imprint on the protagonists’ musical expression, but do they by themselves change the music fundamentally? Of course, this begs the question of what is “fundamental” to Carnatic music. Analytically and practically, social structure or composition and internal structure or content should not be fused and need to be considered on their own terms.

The exclusivity of Carnatic music, particularly in terms of the prevalent concert form’s Brahminical orientation, addressed by Krishna, is a valid issue, more so if there is an
intent to reform and a practical programme of redressal. As I wrote in my earlier piece, the issue needs contextualising in order to remove the idea that this is an inherent condition in Carnatic music.

Let me briefly rehearse the major factors. The social composition and cultural context of this music in the pre­colonial era, based on the non-Brahmin devadasi tradition and patronage from temple, court and non-Brahmin and Brahmin elites; the British dilemma of which traditional art forms to endorse and which to denounce, depending on whether the Orientalist’s fascination for Indian antiquity or the Victorian’s prudery or the colonialist’s self-interest prevailed; the response to colonialism from the colony in the form of reform and nationalism and these movements’ agendas and social compositions; post-independence Nehruvian nation-building and the role envisioned for the classical arts—all these have a bearing on the present and how we tackle it.

Such historical subtleties apart, it is fair and reasonable to argue that Carnatic musicians should consciously endeavour to include, and music organisations to promote, students from castes other than the Brahmin. In general, a diverse social base is indeed important for inclusiveness as well as the robustness of a genre. But there is no denying that ultimately it is an individualistic art. A musician may be a performer, teacher, musicologist, organiser, a social activist depending on what passions fire him or her, his or her existential situation, capacities and opportunities.

Rather than focus on individual performers, how to institutionalise the issue is the key question. In addition to reservations in government institutions, a constructive plan for specialised civil society and private organisations to take the lead in enhancing exposure, access, training and placement is necessary.

Musical Structure

The second issue, that of changing the musical structure fundamentally, is not always on a performing musician’s agenda. After all, creatingrasanubhava can be within the aesthetic or in changing it, and this is up to individual inclination. What is significant change and whether altering the concert format is a significant change are debatable points.

In India, enormous numbers and varieties of genres are in mutual jostle; the universal process of differentiation and boundary maintenance of categories are in dynamic equilibrium with the native genius of intermingling and syncretism. At what point do changes to Carnatic music stop being accommodations? When is a new genre born? When does its basic sound with its flourishes and oscillations, distilled over time, and the established grammar of the musical sentence change unrecognisably? This moment cannot be legislated by the canon and inevitably needs involvement of the larger music community, which in turn is an amorphous entity subject to global currents that influence notions of taste and appeal.

Performers such as Krishna could well become cult figures. But to bring about change in the mainstream needs negotiations with the canon. For complex reasons, not only aesthetic, the “classical” will continue to command a dedicated space, even more insistently now than during the national movement. Living as we do in the globalised era of “compression of time and space,” to use David Harvey’s pithy words, the classical seems to be performing a new psychological function of fighting against homogenisation. It buttresses the search for eternal values in the face of the unprecedented contemporary transformations of everyday life. This is why popular music has made peace with the classical, and not gobbled it up like it did the erstwhile “folk” music.

Concert Form

To claim that the concert format defines Carnatic music is reductive. The concert could be termed as currently the most visible face in urban, elite circles. But it has and continues to exist in a close relationship with other forms and formats. How can we forget the dense undergirding of allied, source and derivative forms? What about the centrality of nadaswaram music in temple rituals, the crucial role of musical accompaniment in Bharatanatyam, not to mention the outstanding musicality of some devotional genres, from simple namasankirtanams to elaborately developed Tamil Isai songs? Among important recent developments are the collaborations of classical Indian music with Western classical, jazz, Blues, medieval church music and other exciting genre-crossings. Roopa Mahadevan’s splicing of Carnatic alapanai with the Blues genre is one such creative experiment that is a sign of the times. Carnatic music in its colla­borative, syncretic and popular forms reaches out and draws in new audiences. The concert is a showcase. It carries prestige, but only within its miniature universe. In daily life, it is rarely convertible to other currencies such as fame and wealth. Most Chennaiites, even those fond of music, are not really touched by the hullaballoo about the music concert season.


Roopa Mahadeven in Flux at the Park, New Delhi India

The concert form is a work in progress and has its flaws. I would mention just one. The Chennai concert scenario sees itself as the cognitive centre of Carnatic music, a kind of elite club. Those from outside its hallowed space do find it difficult to break through, whether from Andhra, Kerala or Mumbai. They sometimes relocate to Chennai to succeed as performers. Diasporic Sri Lankan Tamils are admittedly treated as rank outsiders here. But interestingly, this diaspora is not just a victim. It had its own reasons for deploying not only the classical arts, but also the Tamil language, Tamil literature, Saiva religiosity and temple-building as arsenal in waging war against the injustices of the Sinhala state. It pursues Carnatic music selectively, focusing exclusively on Tamil composers, compositions and deities, as a means of keeping alive the Tamil cause in the island. Sabha politics can be rendered trivial in the face of mighty Tamil nationalist politics!

The concert is governed by the competing pulls of the canon and the popular. It is a creative tension, constantly being negotiated, is irresolvable, and in fact necessary for the form’s survival. MDR and T Brinda were and are venerated as icons in the canon, but it is true that they were not hugely popular with audiences. Although organisers like crowd-pullers, the concert scene is influenced by the invisible hand of the canon behind it. It comes down heavily on some musicians for being openly populist, despite their technical virtuosity and emotive power. M S Subbulakshmi, of course, is an example, and, in the present day, Aruna Sairam, each for different reasons, many unstated.

Colour of Devotion

The devotional ethos of Carnatic music is a knotty issue; it cannot be ascribed to a single community. Leaving aside the famed trinity, non-Brahmin composers such as Marimutha Pillai, Papanasam Mudaliar, Annamalai Reddiar, Arunagirinathar, Arunachala Kavirayar, Muthu Thandavar and others have composed outstanding songs in Tamil in the devotional mode, which are part of the Carnatic repertoire.

The difficulty of those not inclined personally towards religion is understandable, given the overwhelmingly devotion-based lyrics. The inclusion of songs with other themes is no doubt neglected in the concert agenda. But the core of Carnatic music lies in the musical interpretation of compositions along with considerable improvisation. To posit devotional and secular as opposed concepts is off the mark. To imply, as several musicians themselves do, that Carnatic music coloured by devotion is somehow narrow and inferior is preposterous. I have heard Carnatic music that is at once devotional and universal. As I read feminist scholar and activist Kalpana Kannabiran’s beautiful and thoughtful evocations (EPW, 10 February 2018) of her childhood journey through classical dance and music, it struck me that we need an inclusive, non-polarising discourse that allows a diversity of personal musical inclinations to coexist with social activism.


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Updated On : 24th Mar, 2018


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