Monday, May 23, 2011

On Indian Classical Music (Part 4b)

See --
Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4a

...  continuing.

Picking up where I left off on the point of bhakthi in music, I felt I had to address first the connection between the music and performance and the the devotion to the imaginary divine.  The vocalist, Vijay Siva, had a counterpoint to my gripes as I addressed them in part 4a.  The point was that we cannot escape the fact that the music of India exists very much because of the religion, and that it owes its very existence to Hinduism.  I don't really deny that point in the sense that religion and the various aspects of Hinduism are precisely why Indian music is the way it is.  That is a different thing from saying that its merits exist in the frame of religion, or that devotion to the religion is an integral component to the music.  Indeed, one cannot escape the fact that so much of the lyrical content is devotional, but that doesn't mean music itself must be.

Were that not the case, a song like this one could never exist --
Yes, I know it's a film song, but it is a Hindustani classical rendering of a Vaishnava bhajan [mostly] in Raga Malkauns (Hindolam in Carnatic style).  What is significant about this is that although the film and the scene depicts a legendary singer (ca. late 16th century) singing a poem that evokes a hefty devotion towards Krishna...  the lyrics, the song, and the vocals all provided by Muslims.  Is that sacrilege?  I don't think Shakeel Badayuni (the lyricist), Naushad (the composer), or Mohammed Rafi (the singer) felt that way.  They were doing their job of creating music.  The content may not have delivered a message they personally agree with, but it was pertinent to the subject matter and was high quality -- that is all that mattered.  The end result is music that everyone can appreciate regardless of whether you can agree with it or even understand it.

This gets to the gripe I have on the point of bhakti in music which irritates me the most of all.  This is the idea that one need be deeply devoted in order to even appreciate the music.  Yes, and two plus two equals pancakes.  Every time I hear this, I feel like strangling that person.  This is not merely false, it's downright insulting.  Even if you look at the youtube comments for the video above, you'll find countless sentiments that music has no boundaries, no religion, no language, and they're right.  It is a medium of expression and communication.  The scale of the raga used in this song maps quite neatly into Western music.  It is a pentatonic scale which can be derived by beginning with the Aeolian (minor) mode and simply omitting the second and the fifth.  It is also a scale which exists (performed with many of the otherwise characteristically 'Indian' qualities) in the ancient music systems of China, and many of the Polynesian cultures of Southeast Asia.  A tribal elder from Java could hear this song and still appreciate it, and more importantly, appreciate it on a level which resonates with him personally.

I also want to add that the depth of feeling that may come from someone's personal devotion is something that can be recognized by others, regardless of whether they share in that devotion or not.  It is not a unique quality to humans, because we have evolved as social creatures, and empathy is a pretty fundamental facet of our ability to maintain that connectivity of social structure.  Quite a lot of mammals have this ability (dogs are especially adept at it).  To say that we cannot identify with someone else's bhakti because we don't have the same feelings is patently absurd and it denies a quality that most all humans share.  About the only humans who don't have it are those who have certain forms of functional autism.

In an earlier part, I linked to a performance of the song Enna Kavi Padinalum performed by Aruna Sairam.  Now compare that performance to the one by Madurai Somasundaran (AKA Somu) --
To be fair, the timbre of Somu's voice may be a little off-putting to many, but one can't really fault what he does with it.  What you might notice immediately is that he strays off the straight lyrical path several times with a variety of lengthy flourishes and trills.  What is worth noting is that he is providing all those embellishments and ornamentations strictly out of feel.  This particular song has lyrics which address the deity Muruga (aka Kartikeya), and Somu definitely had plenty of bhakti towards Muruga.  It's hard not to notice that he is putting a great deal of emotive expression into his performance.  Aruna Sairam's performance, by comparison, drew more strongly off the inherent qualities of the melody itself to evoke feeling, while Somu augments it by creating his own.  Just because I do not share Somu's particular religious feelings, that does not mean I do not recognize that he has them.  Even if I was a deeply religious person, I happen to be one born of an entirely different caste lineage, and so I would not share in Somu's Muruga-bhakti anyway.  Yet, as a lover of music, I have the ability to see what he is doing, and I simply don't care that it is out of feelings to which I cannot give assent.  It is beautiful and highly evocative all the same.  This is something insanely religious people don't really get about atheists in general -- just because we realize your beliefs to be delusional, doesn't mean we fail to recognize your sincerity for them.  Similarly, I don't have to sympathize with Somu's beliefs and feelings in order to be able to empathize with them.

I would note that for all that, he never really breaks form on a musical level.  By that I mean to say that while he trails off into seemingly formless digressions, he never strays outside the grammar of the raga.  While he throws out ornamental trills because they felt right, he still knew when to stop and when the rhythmic cycle came back around.  He occasionally paused to convey his kudos to his fellow musicians on stage (utterances of "sabash").  He may have been awash in the sense of devotion unto his preferred deity, but he didn't forget where he was or what he was doing, or who was around him.  The accompanists didn't share his same feelings of devotion, but they played along carried by the feel of his performance.  They also appreciated the feeling he put into it, and similarly enjoy playing for Somu because he presents those sorts of challenges all the time.

I would like to add that people in general who are listeners of music do not tend to intellectualize it.  They often let it wash over them as a sort of nebulous experience and interplay of sounds.  They do not think about it or pay real attention to it in the least bit.  The vast majority of people simply have no taste in music;  I don't mean that they have poor taste, but that they actually don't have one at all.  Indian classical music, and especially Carnatic music does not offer room for such lax attitudes, and that is one of the big barriers to its wider exposure.  The audience for Carnatic music is typically far more knowledgeable about music than any other audience, and the performers also rise to that level.  That is one thing that cannot be overlooked when we look at the question of how Indian music gets to where it is today.  The intellectual approach to music does not have to be mechanical.  Indeed, someone can take one of SKR's ashtapathi tunes, which are in reality, the product of doing a hell of a lot of homework and serious study until it all became intuition and second nature for him.  The product, though, is hardly devoid of feeling or aesthetic beauty.  The very person who posted the audio was apparently moved enough to accompany the audio with a collection of Radha-Krishna images, and you can see the same sort of sentiments echoed in the comments.  One doesn't need to have a deep-seated faith in order to appreciate the beauty of what comes out, nor even to create it.  The most important point for the listener is that not only are the knowledgeable able to appreciate that something the artist did at point A or B was particularly good, but why it was particularly good.  No matter how you slice it, that is a higher form of appreciation than you can get with imagery of the divine flooding your mind.  I also feel an artist would much rather hear exactly what you liked about his/her performance or the skillful execution of particularly difficult trails, rather than just hearing "I saw bhagwan when you played that Bindumalini."

Religion and bhakti have a great position in the history and the content of Indian classical music.  They are inextricable on that level, and I don't dispute that at any point.  What I dispute is this idea of bhakti being of primal importance.  This is an archaic idea that needs to die.  Bhakti serves no purpose whatsoever in making music musical, even if only for the simple reason that it is not a matter of the mind.  It is patently false, and downright vile to make it valuable to the point of necessity.  Music itself is universal and should be taken and treated for what it is, and to poison it with religious language can only serve as shackles that cut off possibilities down the line.  Religion will always belong to the past, and that is where it will always belong.  It is fundamentally wrong to ever assign it any value at any other place or time.