Friday, May 13, 2011

On Indian Classical Music (Part 4a)

See --
Part 1    Part 2    Part 3

I'll admit that I've been writing these to a certain extent keeping in mind that a majority of the audience will be people unfamiliar with any of the characteristics of Indian classical music in general.  The average person outside the community knows Indian music only in two forms -- wildly famous personalities like Ravi Shankar, or Bollywood dance numbers.  Both of these hold their attraction generally on account of the aura of being exotic and unusual...  well, and in the latter case, the opportunity to ogle sexy starlets.  Many otherwise don't really know what makes Indian music the way it is, or even the difference between a tambura and a sitar.  For the most part, the explosion of interest in Hindustani music in the west during the 1960s was made up of hippies who, under the influence of irresponsibly high quantities of experimental drugs, found themselves entranced by the timbral qualities of instruments like the sitar and tabla.  That has changed somewhat over the past few decades where most any student of music in any system has at least a cursory understanding of it on a theoretical level, even if seriously outdated.

There is a common sentiment throughout most of the world that Indian music has a deeply meditative quality to it that delivers a sort of religious experience.  Even if you ignore the qualitative aspects of it, it is hard to ignore that the lyrical content is almost entirely made up of devotional music, with perhaps padams and javalis being the only real exceptions which are inherently non-devotional in form.  This gets into another point on Indian classical music, which, for me, inspires a fairly heated rant;  that is the notion that bhakti (devotion) is somehow an essential, and even of primal importance to the music.  Not merely the performance, but to the appreciation thereof.  I find this not merely ridiculous, but tremendously insulting...  and by insulting, I mean to say that it is an insult to humankind itself.

I suppose I'm a little bit more free to speak on such a matter in that I'm not a practicing artist.  When a practicing Carnatic vocalist, namely T.M. Krishna, expounded the same sentiments, it raised quite a controversy.  By contrast, when Sanjay Subrahmanyam (who also doesn't really buy into this belief) was asked to comment, he is left with little recourse but to dodge the question.*

I suppose the first point that makes me fume with anger is this idea that it is only through devotion to the divine that one can truly come to understand the beauty of the music.  There are countless occasions on which a member of the audience will comment to an artist that some particular song brought to his/her mind, the very image of "the Lord."  Fine.  That person may well have such a deep devotion that the level of artistry evoked such imagery in their minds.  But is it fair to say that that was the true measure of quality?  Is it fair to presume that because the artist's rendering of a song had that effect on that particular person, that the artist as well shared in that same feeling of bhakti?  What if someone else in the audience had a similar experience with respect to a different deity?  What if a non-believer in the audience was moved to tears, when none of the believers were?  What if the artist(s) themselves were non-believers, or at least followers of a different religion?

I find it an egregious insult to say that without sharing in the very same bhakti, it is impossible to deliver a quality performance or to even enjoy a heartfelt performance.  I have seen all too many an article on this topic from the faithful which asserts that devotion to the divine is inextricable from music.  If that were really true, there could never be a non-believer who contributes to the field of music.  Similarly, one would have to say that it is sacrilegious of a Muslim to sing a song about Hindu deities or their respective folklore.  Oh wait, that actually happens...  quite often, in fact.  There's a simple reason why this is the case -- musicians actually care about music.  I figured this would go without saying, but apparently not.  How did figures like Jon B. Higgins or George Harrison attain any sort of proficiency in Indian styles of music or classical instruments without having a deep devotion to Hindu gods, or at least converting?  It's because they took it seriously as an art form on its own irrespective of its origin or content.

The characteristics of ragas, the various pitch effects (or gamakas), the interplay of rhythm, the overall flow and structure of a song, the purity with which it's rendered, and the inventiveness of a performer to devise intricate tunes and variations from there... none of these are religious qualities in any way.  Similarly, we associate a lot of ragas with the divine in ways that have absolutely no extrinsic justification.  Rather, people simply decided by fiat, for example that Shiva was fond of a particular raga, so it is called Sankarabharanam (ornament of Shiva).  Does this mean, for instance, that Mozart carried a deep Shiva-bhakti?  Most of his symphonies, save for #25 and #40 are effectively in Sankarabharanam**.  Symphonies #25 and #40, by the way, are in Natabhairavi**.  I know the system he applied is completely different, but the point here is to illustrate the absurdity of associating a tune or scale with a deity and asserting that this is a necessary association.
The main reason I bring this video of Prof. S. R. Janakiraman to your attention is not just to bring up technical details about the ragas, but to point out that the details are strictly technical.  The qualities of the raga lie in those technical details, and it is through the knowledge of these aspects that one is able to bring out those qualities.

Say that I wanted to do an RTP in a rare raga.  For the sake of discussion, I'll choose the 14th melakartha raga -- Vakulabharanam.  At no point in my decision to do so am I necessarily expressing a motivation deep down in my heart towards worship of the supposed mother of Tirupathi Balaji.  If I was to do such a thing, it would be out of interest and curiosity in trying to explore an area rarely covered and see what I can find out.  To be sure, we have to at least acknowledge that the raga Vakulabharanam (Basant Mukhari in Hindustani) is not really Indian in origin.  Its history traces back to a Persian scale named Hijaz.

I feel that to address all the aspects of this particular gripe I have will take more than one post, so I'm going to divide this up and cover more in a later posting.  Whatever you want to believe about the sort of religious experiences you might have, what cannot be escaped is the fact that devotion is a very personal thing.  There is no other person in the world who is going to share exactly your particular flavor of bhakti.  Delivering a performance that is provocative to your feelings of devotion says nothing about the devotion of the performer.  For all you know, that person's devotion may simply be towards a faithful reproduction of the qualities of the raga...  it may be a devotion to his teacher and his teacher's particular style...  or it may just be that he/she is more knowledgeable about music than you are and is demonstrating that gap through imaginative and well-thought-out tunes that elucidate the feel or bhaavam of the raga very very well.  That is the first point I want to get across.  It is not devotion to any imaginary divine being that matters, but devotion to the search for knowledge and depth of understanding of the system of music that makes all the difference.  It is through that knowledge that not only can one individual artist come to achieve mastery, but also a rasika (fan of music) among the audience can truly appreciate all the qualities of it.

And conversely, if you are so dyed-in-the-wool with your faith that you see a god when some musicians are singing/playing, you're obviously too preoccupied with your god on the brain to pay attention to the fact that there's still more music being made.

...  to be cont'd.

* For the readers out there who don't know Tamil, aside from the joke he referenced from the drama series, the main point is that he replied by saying that he's not equipped to answer such a question, and that he has never had any sort philosophical understanding to even attempt it.

** The raga Sankarabharanam has a scale which is equivalent to the Ionian or Major scale, albeit in just temperament.  Natabhairavi, similarly, is equivalent to the Aeolian or Minor scale.