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Unequal Music

T M Krishna ( is a Chennai-based Carnatic vocalist, writer, activist and public speaker.

Any discussion about the Carnatic music world’s social composition must focus on the concert, which is the art form’s central and most influential manifestation.

In “Crossing the Vindhyas” (EPW, 13 January 2018), Kamala Ganesh has rightly pointed out that we should not be surprised that a caste-based society’s art forms are also caste-based. But does this mean that we should not examine or question the specific manifestation that caste has taken in different social spheres, such as Carnatic music? I also welcome the article’s aim to introduce nuances into discussions about Carnatic music’s aesthetic, social, economic and political dimensions. Nuance is essential to any discussion, but intelligent debate is always about whether this or that nuance is empirically valid and accurately represents the phenomenon in question. My effort is to represent the ground reality as I have experienced, observed and studied it, not to achieve a “balanced” view for the sake of it. It is in this spirit that I would like to respond to several of Ganesh’s contentions.

Concert Form

Ganesh suggests that Carnatic music’s social base is narrow only as a concert form. But for both the musician and the listener, the entire Carnatic music idea revolves around the concert form—its content and performance. Every other element of the art form feeds into and off its concert identity. Consider the different realms of Carnatic music, namely teaching, performing, research, audiences, and the spaces and localities in which these activities take place. Brahmins predominate in all of these. There is very little diversity in any aspect of Carnatic music, musically and sociologically. While music research remains to a large extent alienated from performance, every other aspect contributes to the same cultural crustiness of the concert. One has merely to observe a music class and the spaces where music is performed to understand the obvious connections. Therefore, it is incorrect to imagine that other elements of the Carnatic universe are more open than the concert stage.

Shifting the basis of the concert form can help change the social–caste–religious narrowness of the music, as much as any concerted effort to diversify other aspects of the music, namely teaching, spaces and audiences, can influence the concert form. As of today, this is rarely happening. Let us keep in mind that the concert form is not just a musical idea; it seeks to create, establish and reiterate identity, and hence controls the music itself.

Ganesh also says that Carnatic music has percolated into South Indian society and the diaspora. To some extent, Carnatic music has seeped into society at large, but this is true of all art forms and does not change the fact that the central and most influential manifestation of Carnatic music, in terms of aesthetics, its influence and the number of people involved, is the concert form. Any discussion about the Carnatic music world’s social composition must therefore focus on the concert form.


Let us turn to the diaspora that patronises Carnatic music. This consists of exactly the same South Indian Brahmins who dominate the form in India. They have now gone abroad and want to retain their roots. Carnatic music in the diaspora has not travelled beyond the Brahmin community. Ganesh also talks about the Sri Lankan diaspora’s deep involvement with Carnatic music, which is undoubtedly true. Jaffna’s Ramanathan Academy of Fine Arts, at which the well-known Indian singer Maharajapuram Santhanam taught for several years, influenced a large number of students. Then when numerous Tamils left Sri Lanka after riots in 1984, seeking refuge in countries across the globe, they took with them the Tamil language, Tamil Isai, or music, and Bharatanatyam. These cultural forms became central to this diasporic community’s identity. So it set up music and dance schools wherever it went in Europe, the United States, South-east Asia and Australia. A large number of young Sri Lankan Tamil boys and girls learn these art forms, and arangetrams, or debut performances, are celebrated in grand style. To this day, this diaspora hosts large music festivals. In Europe, Carnatic music survives only because of the Sri Lankan Tamil community, not South Indian Brahmins. We need to acknowledge and respect their unparalleled love for these art forms and realise that Brahmin musicians from India also benefit hugely from the Sri Lankan diaspora’s patronage of Carnatic music.

But we must also attempt to honestly answer the following question: how much has the Indian Brahmin community done to support talent from the Sri Lankan Tamil community? Very little. Sri Lankan Tamils do not have a presence in the Brahmin-dominated mainstream of Carnatic music. I would go as far as saying that many Brahmin musicians look down upon
Sri Lankans’ musicality even while gaining from their financial success. South Indian Brahmin music organisations established in many countries across the globe look down upon their Sri Lankan counterparts. It is therefore not easy for Sri Lankan Tamils to break through the Indian Brahmin-dominated system on their own. Like all social systems, doing this requires familiarity to navigate. You have to know whom to approach, how to speak to those in power, such as the Sabha secretary, how to dress and so on. We do not make it easy for outsiders. Even if we feel that the musicality among Sri Lankan music students is below average, what have we done to change that? We could at least have actively encouraged specific instances of talent. But we regretfully do not see Sri Lankan Tamils as serious music aficionados and practitioners.

A compilation of Carnatic compositions rendered by the stalwart Maharajapuram Santhanam, who taught Jaffna’s Ramanathan Academy of Fine Arts for several years, training scores of Sri Lankan youngsters.


Ganesh then points to Carnatic music’s presence in Tamil films as a source of Carnatic music’s diversity. But the presence of Carnatic music in films is a result of the cinema world’s openness, not that of the Carnatic music world! ­Cinema music’s very nature gives it an aesthetic fluidity that allows it to absorb from other musical genres, unbound by culture, geography, caste, language, religion and ethnicity. This is the marvel of cinema music, not Carnatic music.

Until the 1950s, Tamil film music depended primarily on Carnatic music and rural musical forms. Even before Ilaiyaraaja, Carnatic sounds were present in cinema music. Composers such as G Ramanathan, K V Mahadevan and the duo Vishwanathan–Ramamurthy used a lot of Carnatic elements. But this changed with the rise of the Dravidian movement, technological developments, the kind of stories being told, globalisation and other changes. Film music began borrowing less from Carnatic music and more from Western popular music, disco, and later, from Latin American and African genres, electronic dance music and other forms.

Ilaiyaraaja’s genius lies in the way he has brought together the music of rural Tamil Nadu, Carnatic ragas, intensely complex Western classical harmonies and even 1980s electronic music. Therefore, we cannot be selective in choosing Ilaiyaraaja’s use of ragas as a representation of our influence over his music, as some do. To him, Carnatic music was a source as much as disco music was. A R Rahman has given Sufi music, ghazals, Hindustani and African–American forms such as hip-hop a cinematic presence. But all this goes to show the unfenced character of cinema music, not Carnatic music.

Also, Carnatic music’s once strong presence in Tamil films did precious little to increase diversity in Carnatic music itself. This is because the few people who took to Carnatic music after listening to Carnatic-inspired film music were also largely Brahmins. They had already been exposed to Carnatic music to varying degrees but had not engaged with it earlier. We only have to do a simple census of Carnatic music audiences, practitioners, researchers and teachers to verify this.


Ganesh suggests that Carnatic music’s exclusive social make-up stems from its complexity and depth, that becoming a performer requires long years of rigorous training while making a career as a performer carries high risks and modest rewards relative to other fields. This is certainly true. But this is an exclusive argument, because many art forms that we do not describe as “classical,” such as Koothu, which is a form of traditional Hindu Tamil religious theatre, and Theyyam, which is a Keralite Hindu religious performance art, take years to master and are very difficult to make a ­living from, in fact even more so than Carnatic music. Yet we never cite these forms as being complex and requiring discipline and training. Why not? We do not even allow ourselves to enter their aesthetic domain yet we assume that they are not as demanding as Carnatic music. We should be careful not to imply that Carnatic music’s rigour is a unique stumbling block. Such an argument has an uncomfortable caste underpinning.

On what basis can we claim that Carnatic music is deeper and more complex than other forms? I should clarify that I exclude from this discussion social music, such as lullabies, occupational music and traditional devotional songs sung at religious ceremonies. I am talking only about structured art forms. What are the yardsticks we are using to compare such art forms? To begin with, comparing two arts forms is fraught with aesthetic, social and philosophical dangers. It is akin to comparing history with physics or Tamil with Hindi. In the case of art forms, we often end up using parameters derived from what we have designated as the “classical” form, such as Carnatic music, to judge other art forms. This approach, by design, favours the art form that is being used as a reference point, proceeding from its own understanding of complexity. We can compare subtleties and look at the evolution of aesthetics within one art form, but it is deeply problematic to do this across art forms. We must recognise the existence of multiple ideas of the complex, the subtle and the sophisticated. It is our inability to do this and our ignorance that blind us to this fact. Should we not examine the roots of this attitude and think about whether it is tied to our caste privileges?

A prominent example of this attitude is how elite groups constructed the notion of the “classical” during the nationalist movement. Only some art forms, such as Carnatic music,came to be chosen as “classical,” which the Oxford dictionary defines as an art form “representing an exemplary standard within a traditional and long-established form or style.” So elites decided to pick Carnatic music, Hindustani music, Bharatanatyam, etc, as the “exemplary standard.” Why? It is because the upper-caste social groups who dominated the nationalist movement were votaries of these art forms. There is no a priori aesthetic reason for Carnatic music to have been chosen over Koothu, for instance.

Carnatic music is not the only “long-established” form in South India. We must also not exaggerate its antiquity. Carnatic music as we know it is not more than 300 years old; it is a myth that it is 2,000 years old. If we are looking for cultural continuity we will it find with most aspects of our life, but to draw a linear line of direct inheritance from ancient forms to current-day Carnatic music is historically incorrect. Ultimately, it was the social, economic and political power of the class that dominated Carnatic music and not the form’s aesthetics that gave it a special status.

It is also wrong to assume that all other art forms besides Carnatic music are “popular.” Koothu, for instance, is not “popular.” It is an equally niche form, one requiring specialised training to perform and specialised knowledge to appreciate. Moreover, we tend to discuss only Carnatic music in aesthetic terms, while other art forms interest us only in anthropological terms. In other words, to some of us, the classical form (as we have defined it) is an art experience but the so-called non-classical, non-popular and subaltern forms are sociological curiosities. This has to change.


As a practitioner, I simply do not agree that Carnatic concert music has undergone any substantial change from the Ariyakudi model ushered in at the turn of the 20th century. The vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar played a big role in establishing the contemporary concert structure, even though he may not have invented it. Some musicians did make changes to their concert formats, but they only adapted the existing model; they did not change it. Moreover, they adapted the format to suit their musical abilities. There has been no significant challenge to the concert idea itself.

The only musician who might have posed a challenge was the flautist T R Mahalingam, popularly known as Mali. But he was conveniently branded an eccentric and hence his work did not influence the mode of performance at large. Further, he was an instrumentalist at a time when vocal music had become all-important, so the community ignored his unarticulated musical questions. Like Mali, M Balamuralikrishna was an outlier and treated as an extraordinary exception, not a representative of the music. This is exactly why his aesthetic has not greatly influenced musicians of the next generation.

Ganesh mentions M D Ramanathan, or MDR, and T Brinda as those who were different and influenced Carnatic music. They were indeed different, but their examples actually prove how rigid the Ariyakudi plan was, because the unfortunate fact is that they did not influence the mainstream, either in their lifetimes or later. Brinda became a repository of compositions, and many musicians went to learn from her, but she and MDR attracted only a small, niche audience; the mainstream had no place for their art. It is only in retrospect and out of nostalgia that people think that they were influential. They have come to represent the alternative to the mainstream, and in some circles, it is fashionable to say that you are a votary of this alternative. Unfortunately, they were marginalised during their own lifetimes. A study of Carnatic music today will clearly prove that Brinda and MDR have had minimal influence in its aesthetic direction.

One could argue that they and others subtly influenced the music, and this did happen, but they did not change the thrust of the concert mainstream. This is the important point. I will be happy to point out so many other musicians, such as Madurai Mani Iyer and Musiri Subramania Iyer, who also made a mark in their lifetimes and whose musicality certainly rubbed off on others. But the real question is whether their musical sensibilities led to substantial change.

M S Subbulakshmi’s influence on the concert format is more complex. She increased the number of tukkadas, which are considered to be non-serious musical items presented at the end of the concert, and began including items in non-South Indian languages, such as abhangs and bhajans. She also infused Carnatic music with a Brahminical devotional ethos, which only further entrenched the music in a specific caste and one narrow idea of the Hindu. Those beyond the Carnatic community who heard her music did so because of this quality. Very rarely did a rank outsider move from being an MS-bhakt to a rasika of Carnatic music as a whole.

Flautist T R Mahalingam, or Mali, whom the Carnatic music community branded an eccentric and ignored his unarticulated questions:

T Brinda was admired for her exquisitely chiselled style and repertoire special to her devadasi lineage. She was treated as an invaluable repository but the mainstream had no place for her music.

MD Ramanathan’s style, which was leisurely and suffused with emotion, won its share of admirers, but he, too, did not have a big presence on the concert circuit:

M S Subbulakshmi increased the number of tukkadas, which are considered to be non-serious musical items presented at the end of the concert. Here is one example:


MS did support the Tamil Isai movement in theory, but in practice never left the Brahmin fold. She travelled widely, but all that exposure did not influence her music. One need only compare her with someone like Ravi Shankar to see how narrow her music remained. Let us also acknowledge that even though MS consistently sought acceptance from the inner circles of Carnatic music, it eluded her, unlike her contemporary D K Pattammal, who enjoyed it in abundance.


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Updated On : 24th Mar, 2018


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