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Musical Aesthetics

From a "marginal" performer, a role the accompanist was reduced to as debates on musical norms and aesthetics raged in early 20th century south India, he now performs solo and is even a "star" performer in his own right, thanks to the democratisation of musical performance and the demands of a growing global audience.

Musical Aesthetics

‘Accompanist’ as ‘Star’ Performer

From a “marginal” performer, a role the accompanist wasreduced to as debates on musical norms and aesthetics raged inearly 20th century south India, he now performs solo and iseven a “star” performer in his own right, thanks to thedemocratisation of musical performance and the demands

of a growing global audience.


ecent reports in national dailies have talked of the minor ripple between the internationally acclaimed sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and the tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain over microphone adjustments during a public concert at Shanmukhananda Hall, Mumbai. The reports have referred to the tabla artiste’s irritation with the sound arrangements that seemed to have been set to deliberately muffle his rendering and to work to the advantage of the soloist – in this case of the father-daughter duo. While some reports have mentioned almost maliciously how all this was largely due to the antics of the sitarist’s wife who, in her enthusiasm to foreground her offspring persuaded the sound mixers to tone down the percussion considerably, others have endorsed the sitarist’s opinion that the usual and standardised convention was to tone down the tabla by 20 per cent. Subsequently, we have also had opinions expressed on the appropriateness of the percussionist’s behaviour, which was seen as contesting the hierarchy between the principal and accompanying (‘sangat’) instruments in a concert.1

These reports set me thinking about the notion of the accompaniment as it figured in the discourse on aesthetics in Indian music from about the late 19th century onwards. What was this convention and when was this set in place? How and why was such a priority accorded to the percussion and other accompaniments in a concert? What was the social context in which this aesthetic emerged? Was it always the individual soloist’s prerogative to insist on the convention? What indeed was the function of the accompaniment? How was the integration between the instrument and the percussion envisaged in modern musical conception? What was the relationship between rhythm and melody – the twin pillars of Indian music? These are evidently questions that have had larger implications for both setting aesthetic standards as well as for the sociology of modern performance.

The present essay is an attempt to raise some of these issues especially in the context of contemporary conceptions regarding music and the affective dimensions of performance and has no direct bearing on the Mumbai incident except to use it to signpost some of the major changes that Indian music would appear to have undergone in the last two decades. My understanding of the subject is largely drawn from my interest and work on south Indian classical music, where the articulation of a fine balance between the individual performer and the accompanying ensemble became a major preoccupation for the consuming elites of the Madras presidency.2 The construction of such an aesthetic reflected the complex dynamics of social relationships involving the performer and his social functions as well as that of the consumer and patron and his sensibilities. It may well be asked whether this aesthetic, so carefully constructed, remains valid at a time when Indian music has entered into a global economy of circulation, and has no longer to conform to the older ideals of nationalist construction and sensibility put forward by the middle class.

It was around the opening years of the 20th century that a systematic corpus of writings that may be loosely categorised as music criticism emerged in Madras. This was a time, when music associations proliferated and which, riding on the wave of a growing aural taste for music that followed the unprecedented popularity of dramatic activity and ‘kathakalaksepam’ (musical discourses, both of which employed music in a big way), arranged public concerts of classical music. This development coincided with the emergent project

Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006 of cultural reconstruction, where the relocation of music in a new social space and its representation held a central place.

Creating the Performative Ideal

Implicit in the cultural project was a selfconscious commitment to the ideas of classicism that generated new models of aesthetics and performance. Broadly, these involved the privileging of certain genres of musical compositions, the foregrounding of the soloist and the scaling down of percussion and accompaniments in order to construct a composite performance unit that would remain true to the intentionality of music and its functions. Music for enlightenment as well as for entertainment became the new mantra. Not that this was especially new or unprecedented – music in India had always carried devotional and religious overtones besides being a source of deep enjoyment by court and temple. The difference lay in the fact that by the early 20th century, with the physical relocation of music to the public arena dominated by middle class consumers, the symbolism attached to music and its consumption moved to a different register. The need to maintain the “traditional” elements of music in a modern setting lent a new edge to the cultural project as the imperatives of the nationalist imagination produced an altered conception of the voice of the individual performer and the positioning of the accompanying ensemble to facilitate an integrated communication of musical wisdom and pleasure. The new aesthetics was best summed up in a series of articles written by P S Iyer for the Daily Express. “Accompanist”, Iyer said, “should be subservient to the main performance. How often have we seen a really good musical performance incessantly interrupted by the noisiest drummer who believes in the strength of his brawny arm and goes away pounding with his might and mane? To add to this sometimes, the ‘kanjeera’ and ‘konnakol’ are harnessed to the drummer and the result is pandemonium.”3 These suggestions were by and large endorsed by successive critics and by the Madras Music academy that in the 1930s emerged as the principal arbiter of aesthetic standards.

The foregrounding of the individual performer would appear to have been consistent with the larger tendency to reorder the performing space. Like in dance where the individual dancer was given a free space to demonstrate her talents, and the accompanying ensemble removed discreetly to the side, a similar reconfiguration was attempted with the soloist holding centre stage. This, according to critics like Ranga Ramanuja Ayyangar who deplored the new concert formula, was because of the disproportionate importance given to the human voice. This, in his view, had serious consequences and devalued instrumental music. Furthermore, the construction of the modern concert form – the ‘kaccheri’ in south India, according to Ayyangar was for the dubious purpose of democratising music and which needed to free the aspiring singer from the complexity of rhythm.4 While there may have been an element of truth in this assertion, it would also appear that the streamlining of the concert as a composite performing unit where the singer and his audience could collectively participate in an experience that had some elements of a congregation, derived from the special significance the cultural engineers, especially in southern India, ascribed to music. Within such a moral economy, the articulation of conventions about ‘pakka vadyam’ or sangat (accompaniments) would make perfect sense. The performative ideal was not personal display but a perfectly integrated artistic experience that would connect the singer and listener in a fine, interiorised acoustic space.

Preoccupation with Voice

The emphasis on the perfect singing voice was a major preoccupation with selfappointed musicologists and connoisseurs in the 20th century. Following the celebrated Theosophist leader who suggested that the voice was the arbiter of all Indian music and that the instruments were but its followers and who went as far as to suggest that the “East was the kingdom of the Voice and the West the kingdom of the Instrument”,5 there was a preoccupation with the voice, its constitutive qualities and merits in communicating the ideals and intentionality of Indian music. Even the instrument was meant to find that voice and anything that disturbed its field was to be avoided. Just why such a concern became so important for the self-definition of music lovers and performers is hard to explain and any attempt to reduce it either to the politics of performance and patronage or to a derived discourse following European constructions of oriental music would be at best tendentious. And yet there was the influence of Theosophists who extolled everything Hindu and ancient and urged Indians to recast their music in the light of old ideals. Note D Rudhyar’s passionate pleas in 1928 when he urged Hindu music to go back to the archaic records of Aryan wisdom and study with a dis-Europeanised mind of what was said of sound. “Let us free”, he said “Hindu music from the poison of European intellectualism and from the petty emotions of success, and applause and commercialism”.6 The emphasis was on treating the music and the concert stage as the conduit for a higher experience. The social transformation produced by the engagement with colonial modernity produced a new conception of sound and music and it is in this context that we may appreciate the construction of an aesthetic related to the voice and its accompaniment.

Would such a convention remain valid in today’s context is the question that immediately springs to mind when we reflect on the recent “event” at Shanmukhananda Hall? Perhaps not. This is not only because percussion has reinvented itself as a key instrument in fusion and has begun to enjoy an almost mythic status with western audiences but also because the modern classical performer has reinvented himself seeking not the nation or its middle class as his patron or deity as the case may be, but the global audience where the perception of the instrument as well as its player occupies a different register. Here the accompanist whose selfdefinition as an independent artist, whose music blends easily with world music and contributes to its range and repertoire, whose personality, projection and imagination are not trapped within the confines of prescriptive and even arbitrary notions of “spiritualism”, “classicism” and “tradition” exercise a different agency and command a different rapport with the audience. The obvious talent and artistic merit many of the contemporary accompanists bring with them to the public stage make it harder to parrot the old and glib platitudes about what must constitute the function of the art and the artiste especially if the consuming audience is located within a different matrix of expectations and affect.

In 1971, Ranga Ramaunja Ayyangar poured his scorn on the expectations of the performer as he referred to the commonplace boasts of the vocalist getting five applauses, while the violinist had three and the player of the ‘mridangam’ only two.7 We have clearly come a long way from the 1960s and 1970s, when it was commonplace for a sizeable section of the audience

Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006

to leave their seats, when the ‘taniavartanam’ (percussion item) began, to make their way to the canteen for refreshment. Now it is accompanists like Viko Vinayakram whose classicism is beyond question, whose genius is beyond doubt and who plays a seminal role in presenting Indian music – rhythm and sound – to a large audience whose engagement with the form is driven by new sensibilities and affect and which is bound to generate alternative models of aesthetics and convention.




1 The Times of India, Kolkata edition, Tuesday,

February 14, 2006, p 1; also see The Telegraph,

Kolkata, February 18, 2006, p 18.

2 Lakshmi Subramanian, From the Tanjore Courtto the Madras Music Academy: A Social Historyof Music in South India, OUP, Delhi, forthcoming, 2006.

3 P S Iyer, Articles on Carnatic Music, 1937, p 5051.

4 In 1971, Ranga Ramanuja Ayyangar bitterlylamented the consequences of the newly createdconcert format by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengarsaying that it presented but a truncated pictureof classical music. “Its apotheosis of vocalmusic has led to the neglect of the veena andthe venu which are languishing. The undueimportance of vocal music and the prestige itahs acquired encourages cram. This advantageis exploited by charlatans who suppress talentedaccompanists, especially percussionists withrhythm. See R Ranga Ramanuja Ayyangar,Musings of a Musician, Bombay, 1977, p 41.

5 Margaret Cousins, Music of Orient and Occident: Essays towards Mutual Understanding, Madras, 1935.

6 The Rebirth of Hindu Music by D Rudhyar,Theosophical Publishing House, Adayar,Madras, 1928, p 11.

7 Musings of a Musician, ibid, p 49.

Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006

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