Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On Indian Classical Music (Part 3)

See --
Part 1   Part 2

Given parts 1 and 2, I feel like I've provided enough of a background on the systems of Indian classical music to begin with the actual topical rants I had intended to put out.  While I haven't really provided a thorough or complete explanation of anything, it was only intended to set the stage for people who are otherwise unfamiliar to have some understanding of why and in what context I bring up the topics I will be covering.

The first of the topics I want to get on is the question of importance of sahityas (lyrics) in Indian music.  This is also somewhat of a significant topic for me as a would-be instrumentalist (once upon a time), an atheist (insofar as so much of Indian classical music is devotional), and as part of a musical family where most of the people in my family are vocalists.  Almost 20 years ago, my father also published an article on the very same topic, and he approached it from his perspective as a vocalist, but one who had also studied violin originally.  I have some expectation that I will exhibit only a slight divergence from his viewpoint, but that view has also expanded on his part.  In any case, while I'm not going to go in the same format as he did in his article (where he simply takes the presentation of opposing arguments), but I am going to be fairly even-handed in the conclusions I draw.

My first point here is that music, no matter the region from which it originates, is ultimately a pattern.  There is no real specificity to it to say that it communicates a very particular message or carries a well-defined baggage in its output.  It is simply a pattern, and any piece can be recognized based on some characteristic of its pattern.  If I play for you : A-A-A-F-- , you'd probably recognize it instantly as the opening to Beethoven's 5th symphony.  But then, why would you?  Beethoven's 5th begins with G-G-G-Eb--.  Regardless, the relative shape of the pattern is still the same;  it's merely shifted up a step, and you recognize that pattern.

Given that, it is very hard to say that lyrics are significant to a pattern, except in one key factor -- the presence of N syllables in the lyrics means that one needs to parse rhythm in N units, and that offers room for at least N distinct notes in a phrase.  Obviously, it gets more complicated than that, but coming from an instrumentalist's point of view, that is how we distinguish performances of songs which have otherwise similar progressions.  Some songs, you might find, are actually melodically identical (even all the way through!), but because the lyrics are different, we subdivide rhythm differently.  It's also a way to differentiate between when we improvise in the form of neraval (improvised tunes set to the song lyrics) and swaram (improvised tunes using the swara/solfeggio syllables).  Where the latter has us parsing rhythm according to the format and pace that the performer sets, the former needs to follow the lyrical pattern.

I find that Carnatic music puts some weight on this aspect quite a lot more than a lot of other systems.  As mentioned in Part 1, it's a very vocally conceived form of music as it follows the exposition of an individual voice.  Even while I was studying violin, I was always taught to sing something before learning to play it.  It wasn't just because singing is higher priority, but also because a violinist is equipped to be an accompanist to a singer, and needs to be prepared to have some idea in his/her head as to how a vocalist would approach something (i.e. you have to think like a singer).

Some people take the position that a dedication to sahitya-bhaavam (lit. "the form of lyrics") is not valuable in instrumental performance.  The pair of brother violinists simply known as Ganesh & Kumaresh apply this sort of idea to the extreme that when the performance is strictly instrumental, that sahitya-bhaavam is entirely non-existent.
Personally, I don't completely agree with this, because of the fact that it is a form of music which is vocally conceived for one.  Secondly, many of these songs have been written with the lyrics in mind and can be distinguished by that parsing which is endemic to the poetry.  A differently structured poem can yield a differently structured song, even if the tunes are similar.  In a concert I attended a few weeks ago, the elder of the two brothers (Ganesh on the left in the video) raised an example where he played a short few lines in the raga Suddha Hindolam.  Immediately, we all recognized the tune as the song "Manasuloni"...  to which he laughed and said "I didn't play that.  I played 'Thunai Purindarul'."  Indeed the first few phrases are melodically identical (though not the rest of the song), but it is worth noting that he did parse the rhythm as if there were more syllables.  "Ma-na-su-lo-ni"  has 5 syllables.  "Thu-nai-Pu-rin-da-rul" has 6 syllables, and if we had paid attention to the rhythm, we all might have caught it.  Instead, it so happens that Manasuloni is the more popular and famous of the two songs, so when we heard the pattern, that was the song that crossed our minds first.

The counterpoint to this is that he also played it in such a way that the difference between the songs was there.  I should also mention that it leaves out the importance of a instrumentalist's role as accompaniment to vocalists.  While it is difficult to do this with many instruments (e.g. flute, because it is too pure or nadaswaram because it is too loud), an instrument like a violin is perfectly suited to that sort of a role, and it is why it is the single most favored accompaniment instrument (the formal word is "pakhavadhyam").

I will say, though, that I applaud Ganesh and Kumaresh for their compositions in a new format they've termed as Ragapravaanam ("formatted melody"), where it is essentially a song with no lyrics.  That is something that is perfectly valid from a musical standpoint, and I don't see any reason to consider it any less Carnatic or Hindustani simply on the basis of that.  True, we already have the form of Thillana and Tarana, which technically have no words (or only a small section of lyrics in the case of Thillana), but they also have a well-defined focus on rhythm which already separates them from other songs.  At the same time, I don't quite see the point of the other format they've created called Kriti-darpanam ("kriti mirroring").  "Kriti" is another existing song and lyrical format, which is pretty much the most common in concerts.  The idea of their Kriti-darpanam is to have a song without lyrics that sounds very similar to existing songs which do have lyrics.  Well, if you're going to go that close to existing songs which already have lyrics, why not just play those songs?  I can only really see this format as a vehicle to get their viewpoint about importance of lyrics across to listeners.

My favorite violinist ever, M.S. Gopalakakrishnan (or MSG) exemplifies the power of the violin to levels unimaginable.  His style of playing is one that stresses the ability to make as close-to-vocal inflections and effects and clearly enunciate every tone as it would be done by a singer.  More importantly, when playing as pakhavadhyam, he adapts his style to that of the lead performer.
In the video linked above (embedding disabled) of MSG and his daughter, Dr. M. Narmada on violin, you can hear rather distinctly how every note he plays stands out on its own and is clearly "shaped" such that its tonal inflection is clearly present.  Part of that lies in his characteristic bowing technique and the way he accelerates the bow to create a sort of "rounded" sound out of the instrument.  Yet he will functionally violate that in some instances.  If a song contains, for instance, a thick double-k sound in the lyrics somewhere, he will deliberately scratch his bowing on those points -- the reason being that a "double-k" when vocalized has that same sort of scratchy character to it.  In essence, he pronounces the words on his instrument.  In the same video linked above, around the 6:50 mark, he does a few heavily stylized expressions which emulate recited spoken vocalizations.

Where I think I differ from the people who do put a lot of weight on the importance of sahitya is this -- the meaning is not that significant.  The classical counterpoint to the people who value lyrics is the case that when we really look at a measure of how much people really understand the depth of a raga, for instance, the exposition of that is in raga alapana, which has no words to it in the first place.  It's simply pure freeform melodic improvisation with no constraints.  A complete exposition of the capacities of an artist with a particular raga would lie in ragam-thanam-pallavi, and while the pallavi section of that contains words, it only really contains a single line of poetry (and it's not rare to take that line from an existing song), which is hardly enough to convey a whole lot of meaningful content.  For that very reason, it doesn't really matter to me a great deal if someone writes beautiful lyrics about a god or about an eggplant.

Secondly, I highly disagree with the practice in Indian classical music with associating a song with its lyricist.  Regularly, we tend to say that the "composer" of a song is actually the person who wrote the poetry, and not necessarily the person who set it to music.  In many cases, these may well be the same person, but this is not always true.  Some 1500 Carnatic songs are attributed to a legendary 16th century female poet named Meera Bai, when in fact many of them are set to tunes in ragas which did not even exist in her time.  In reality, she composed the poetry, and dozens and dozens of people after her have set these poems to music, and indeed many of the same poems have been set to several tunes.  It is also not uncommon for the original composer to write his own tune, but someone else comes along and sets that poem to a different tune...  and yet, the poet is the one credited with the song.
In the video above, Thanjavur S. Kalyanaraman is performing a tune he wrote in the raga Sumanesa Ranjani.  Yet, the composer is apparently Subramanya Bharati (commonly referred to as 'Bharatiyar').  Well, Bharatiyar wrote the poem, and he also did set it to music in a completely different raga (Mohana Kalyani, or so I'm told), but this tuning in Sumanesa Ranjani is entirely SKR's.  I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why that task of setting the lyrics to music is secondary to the actual drafting of lyrics.  True, poetry, especially in South India, is intimately tied together with music and many feel that the default mode of performance for a poem is to sing it rather than merely recite it.  I also get that we classify a lot of forms based not on musical format, but on poetry format (e.g. bhajans, ghazals, qawwalis, etc).  When all is said and done, however, we are talking about music here, and music does not lie in words alone.

Because of this, I also don't put a lot of importance on understanding of Hindu mythology for people to really "get" Indian classical music.  "Getting" the poetry thereof, sure...  but who says that that's what good Indian classical music is all about?  Having a rudimentary understanding of characteristics of Hinduism as a religion and how it differs from others is certainly meaningful in elucidating why Indian music is the way it is;  I elaborated on this somewhat in Part 1.  If you're really interested in the significance of a certain set of lyrics, then, yes, having a background in the mythology and the stories does help.  The bhajans written by Meera Bai are written in praise of Krishna, and make passing references to certain events which lie in the collected stories of the deity.  Being able to catch those references is something that could only really be done by someone who knows the stories, to be sure.  My contention is that you don't need to have that knowledge to be able to appreciate the tune, the rhythm, the performance, the structure, the quality of support from accompanists, etc.  There is a big difference in what I might be looking for if I was going to a musical concert as opposed to, say, a dance drama or a harikatha performance, where it pays to have some context.  Sure, you may have some greater understanding than someone who is simply listening to the music, and not to the lyrics, but I don't accept the idea that such an appreciation should take a higher precedence in a musical rendering.  The flipside of this is that a lot of Indian classical music performances tend to involve the audience to a great deal, and the audience often needs to have some depth of knowledge about music itself to really appreciate the finer points of the performance.  In fact, they often do, depending on what level of concert you're talking about.  Many times, when I've seen friends of mine go to a Carnatic concert for the first time, they are surprised by how audience members are keeping track of complex rhythmic cycles, or engaged in discussion with the artists.  This behavior varies widely, of course.  There are singers like Aruna Sairam whose performances can be considered "beginner-friendly" vs. people like Sanjay Subramaniam who goes so deep on a theoretical level that you'd pretty much need to be a musician yourself to follow anything he does.

As a student of music, I suppose it is natural for me to put some weight on tunes over lyrics.  Some part of it also comes from the fact that India has so many languages that you're going to hear lyrics in languages you don't understand.  Then of course, there's the fact that I'm an atheist, and a lot of devotional songs are going to have lyrical content that I simply don't care about.  I simply have to say, though, that if you care so much about the lyrics, it begs the question of why you're listening to music as opposed to going to some poetry slam or dedicating your time to harikatha essays.  Forgive me for giving a damn about music when I'm listening to... well...  music.