Freeing Carnatic music from past fetters
By T.M. Anantharaman
Last Updated: 20-02-2020 8:05PM
I vividly recall the incident which smashed into smithereens my ambition to become a performing Carnatic vocal musician. I remember how difficult it was learning Carnatic music. My teacher was a learned man and spared no efforts to make me fall in line with the musical shruti. It was a long haul. I was battling to come to grips with Sarali varisai and Jantai varisai swara alankarangal. He believed in measured progress just as in measured Tal beats. That was okay by me. I was prepared for the grind.
Then came the ogre who dealt a deathly blow to my musical ambitions, tearing them into shreds!
My master's brother, a Sangeetha Bhushanam to boot, made fun of my voice saying it was staccato squeaky like a telegraph message. The pun-poking comment made everybody laugh. That was it. I felt deeply hurt and stopped attending my music classes.
I was fond of my guru and used to run many errands for him in the true mould of a dedicated disciple. But all that came to naught with the comment of my master's brother. True, I know it is not easy to learn music. Most gurus took their own time to part with finer aspects of music to their students. In those days the student lived with the guru and besides trying to learn music had to help the guru with a multitude of tasks.
This could be from fetching 'pogaiyilai' (tobacco) from the shop down the street or going to the well at the back of the house to fetch a pail of water for the guru to have a bath or to go to the post office to post a post card about his availability for a programme, or again to run to the railway station to make a train booking or receive some guest of the master. In reality, the gurukulavasam was a system which enabled the guru to enjoy the comforts of convenience with the ever ready to help student living in the household.
If the student was fortunate, the guru would condescend to make him sing and occasionally correct him. Generally the guru was a busy man, steeped in his own musings and had little time to make the student sit down and formally teach him the intricacies of the art. Much of what the student learnt was from listening to his master performing in a concert and occasionally be given the privilege of being a 'kooda padaravan', a 'sing-along singer', if one may coin a phrase.
It took a dozen years or more of rigorous practice for a disciple to be considered fit enough to assist the guru on the stage as a disciple and co-singer. It took many more years before the guru condescended to allow the disciple to mount the platform as a solo performer. Highly gifted musicians rarely, if at all, and reluctantly, at times, sponsored the disciple with a chance to be a solo performer.
But a quarter of a century makes a world of difference. The attitudes of musicians as well as those of new generation singers and students have witnessed a sea-change. Gurukulavasam (Living with the Guru under his tutelage, care and protection) is dead. Now technology has superseded the guru's intractable moods. Any top-notch musician's performance is available in the Internet within a short-span of time, if not on the very next day or week. The Internet also has brought in for keeps the many earlier recordings of the great maestros in their prime and makes them available for access at the click of a button.
Learning Carnatic music has been made much simpler. Now there is more sharing of knowledge about the intricacies of the art. Now musicians - both old and new - are more open to new ideas. Students are encouraged to experiment, explore new modes and discover new ways of doing things. Many artistes such as Sudha Raghunathan, Sowmya and Bombay Jayashri and Chitraveena Ravikiran have their own websites, embellishing the knowledge spectrum of music even more.
Many vocalists, violin vidwans and percussion artistes and musicians are using the Internet to have regular teaching courses, exchange information and ideas and share in their experiences of the art. Many have their own websites to air their opinions or record their views and provide information about forthcoming programmes. Online discussions forums on Carnatic music have become popular. Students are showing more interest by bombarding these musicians and asking them to clarify their doubts.
Healthy debate and discussions are the order of the day; witness the second annual event of Svanubhava. The event deserves special mention for the methodical way in which it was organised and held in Chennai recently. It is fast becoming a unique cultural phenomenon, a landmark event eagerly awaited by many rasikas, especially from the younger generation.
There is a mood for getting deeper involvement into the fine art's aesthetics and grammar. Students are also interacting with remarkable involvement and camaraderie with their seniors. Questions are aired frankly. The learning process is keenly pursued. The veteran musicians seem to enjoy the interaction and give meaningful insights into their own experience, both as a performing musician and as a teacher. Kudos to the pioneering young musicians and their team for freeing Carnatic music from the fetters of the past by taking the initiative to popularize it, making it accessible and welcome among the younger generation of students and enthusiasts alike!
(This article was published in 2008)