Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On Indian Classical Music (Part 5)

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

Those who have read through any of my previous posts, any of my articles or papers I wrote in college on the subject, or for that matter, my much older and very disorganized rant on thePolygoners -- a site which I have not updated in well over a year (the next update will probably only come when I can unfreeze the research on my simplified modular BRDF equations) -- know my stance on tradition.  It's inexcusable, indefensible, and has no place in society.  If I were ever to form a religion of my own, I would definitely put into its "commandments" the edict that tradition is a sin.  So it should come as no surprise, then, that I can offer no assent whatsoever to any notions that exist within the classical music circles on the weight of tradition in music.

If you haven't read my stance on it, then let me just make it clear here once more :  Tradition is simply a flowery word that people use to justify what it actually is -- NOT THINKING FOR ONESELF.  I'm not at all sorry to say this, and it will never really be possible to overstate this.

Specifically as it applies to music, I can offer no agreement to the idea that tradition should be a filter of any kind nor should it inform any systematic concentration of boundaries.  This is ridiculous, and ultimately limiting to what should be an art form.  The weight of tradition is pretty well-cemented in Indian culture, to the point where it bleeds into everything and poisons the waters of life in every corner.  So it's no surprise that tradition has its talons gripping onto something like music.

Indian classical music has a history of not really being passed down in quite as systematic and theoretical a fashion as Western music often is.  One of the things that makes this difficult is the nature of how the music is expressed.  On a technical level, you can essay it with terminology of microtonal inflections, 22-tone just temperament, linear and non-linear glissandos, etc.  It so happens, though that people in India haven't really put that down to such a degree of formality, and approach the teaching in a hands-on sort of way where demonstration becomes the tool of choice.  Which in a lot of ways, is strange to me, especially for Carnatic music, which is extremely technical and is generally attended by very technically knowledgeable audiences.  Nonetheless, we don't tend to learn how to evoke the characteristics of raga X by going over the properties of raga X and going over development of those properties...  rather, we hear phrases performed by our gurus, and how they present both in freeform melodic essay of a raga (i.e. alapana) and in song, and draw patterns off of those that we pick up from these sources.  What this leaves in is a lineage of style, because we tend to learn a raga the way our guru taught us, and with the same example sources.

This, by itself, is not so bad, though, because it still leaves room for a variety of artists to sally forth carrying a variety of different style lineages.  The difficulty lies in how new ground is covered.  New ground and new exploration is done through the active study, in-depth analysis, as well as new compositions, and absorption of what other people do.  There are definitely artists who do this, particularly the major scholars of music like Prof. S. Ramanathan and Prof. S.R. Janakiraman, but there are relatively few who attain any sort of major acceptance on that basis (often, one has to attain popularity separately from that).  The weight of tradition and also benediction unto your guru and the fact that even those who do develop their own schools of thought are typically raised into music through a path that involves strict adherence to the way they are taught.  Irrespective of the potential to use that knowledge and advance further, there is a ballast there which is difficult to shed because it is so deeply ingrained in how one came to understand music in the first place.

In terms of the damage done by tradition, this is comparatively less significant, because artists are the ones affected, and artists are the ones capable of attaining the knowledge to break those shackles.  It is much more of a problem when it is the weight of tradition which blocks change, and it makes for some results which are, to put it mildly, disgraceful.

A seemingly innocuous example of this is the very existence of rare ragas -- that is to say, ragas which are not often explored or used (some not at all).  One should expect, of course, that there are going to be scales which are used more than others.  Also, the system of having "mela" or "master" scales (which are largely derived using simple rules means that there are some which are going to exist simply because they fit into the equation, and not necessarily because they have some use.

Where tradition weighs in on this is when people have very hard-set notions on what is and what is not permissible.  Some performers as well as large sections of the music audience out there have views that breaking away from the "major" ragas and delving into vivaadhi* ragas or dvi-madhyama (two fourths) scales.  There exist major stalwarts of the field who never so much as dared to step outside the boundaries of common "major" ragas that have already been explored heavily.  At best, they might touch on rarer ragas for lighter quick tunes which involve very little depth of exploration.  Take someone like Lalgudi Jayaraman, who is a major institution in Indian classical music (throughout India, though he's a Carnatic musician at base), and while the man is unimpeachably brilliant as a musician -- as one would have to be in order to be as prolific as he has been -- he refuses to perform dvi-madhyama ragas.  Moreover, religious language is often used to describe these conditions of refusal.  Many of the artists out there who refuse to touch vivaadhi ragas refer to them as evil or unholy or sin.  This sort of language paints a picture to other artists as well as to the audience that people should not venture into these areas and anyone who tries is somehow 'tainted' in some way.  The worst part of it is that when it comes from people who are major institutions in the field, more people take notice.  Add to that, language that triggers irrational responses, and you end up with cases where some ragas get more coverage from Jazz musicians than from the very people who actually created the source content.

As a point of comparison, one of Lalgudi Jayaraman's students, Pakkala Ramdas, has said that when he first attempted to play SKR's tuning of a Meera Bhajan in Deepali (a dvi-madhyama raga), it was confusing to his muscle memory which had been trained to separate the fingering for octaves into sections around the fifth, but to have 2 fourths in a scale required a different approach.  While this is something that can theoretically be overcome by practice, even if he'd given up on playing dvi-madhyama ragas at that point, his reasoning would at least be something about technical difficulty (though he mentioned other difficulties besides that one).  That is not the sort of reasoning that inspires listeners to shun performers who would dare to venture into the realm of rare ragas, nor would it scare other artists from venturing there either.

It is all the more problematic when you have major figures in the field of music who would speak ill of those who dared overstep the artificial boundaries of tradition.  Today, of course, many of these older walls are being torn down and the music is evolving, but at the time that people were first exploring outside the boundaries of tradition, you had nothing but trouble.  Many of those people even had their careers actively destroyed on account of some barrier of tradition, whether it be a strictly musical traditions, social traditions, or religious traditions.  And this is the sort of thing where I cannot help but curse the rasika community with boundless rebuke and have them wear the merits of great musicians whom they all rejected long ago as a scarlet letter of shame.

One must always be ready to allow music to evolve and advance.  Once upon a time, grahabedham (shift in tonic) was considered untouchable...  now, it is no longer an object of revulsion, even if not really highly common.  Once upon a time, rare ragas were kept rare, and now, many of the top performers are interested in the challenges presented by some of the more obscure areas of music, and this is what happens when people start thinking more.  When people don't think, and just obey the hard-lined rules of tradition, you end up with stagnation, you end up with people not having a career if they're not of a Brahmin caste, you end up with people who don't get recognized for their contributions because they're too intellectual for the crowd.

In the past, when I brought this up, I've often got the response from traditionalists that I'm totally in favor of some of the wilder and more destructive breaks from tradition which try to bring Indian classical music more up-to-date by fusing Amjad Ali Khan with Metallica or something to that effect.  I can't imagine this as anything more than the typical oppositional strawmanning where my anti-tradition stance becomes transformed into a stance against all that tradition has produced.  This is simply not the case.  I am not the sort of person who likes change for the sake of change.  I advocate change for the sake of improvement and advancement.  The simple way of stating it is that I am a meritocrat.  I value things on their merits and not whether those merits may have come from ancient or modern practices.  Old or new is not the question -- better or worse is the question.  Why I stand against tradition is because it is a matter of old because it is old, and not because it is better.  And it is against new because it is new, not because it is worse.  The part of tradition that makes tradition a problem is that there is no thought involved.

Thinking is everything.

Great strides in the field come because people put pencil to paper and did their homework and did more with what was available than what was previously done.  I often find the comment that particularly innovative musicians whose work we now appreciate far more than we used to still stayed within the boundaries of tradition.  This is simply not the case.  What they stayed within was the boundaries of the rules.  There is a difference.  The grammar and pitches and particular characteristics of ragas were not changed.  What happened was that they found new ways to work within and manipulate them, as well as perform similar explorations on other scales which had previously not seen in-depth study.  Pretty much the only thing upheld is the notes and the fact that they are use the way they are meant to be used.

It's almost curious that a system of music which is so dependent on thorough improvisation would actually shackle itself with the bindings of tradition and yet you'll find people who describe comments like those that Dr. Balamuralikrishna made in the video above as "blasphemy."  Once again, they seem to forget that what we think of as tradition today was blasphemous even 40 or 50 years ago.  Moreover, you have people who today reject certain concepts as "sinful" which were not thought of that way to composers who lived 2-3 centuries ago.

Again, being a meritocrat, I don't advocate the loss of certain base components.  The point is that we shouldn't think of it as more than a base.  There are several things that people have tried which I'm not entirely in favor of, but not because they broke with tradition, but because of sacrifices made in the process.

For instance, Indian classical music (whether Carnatic or Hindustani) has no real concept of harmony or chords, and people have tried to innovate down this angle.  The idea, in itself, is not such a bad thing.  There is, however, a serious challenge here because harmony depends on coordinated simultaneous patterns, and in order to ensure a well-structured harmony, you need a more fixed composition and performance structure.  This is problematic when improvisation is a major component of the music.  The only ways to accommodate this is to either limit the improvisation to limited time windows when experienced artists might be able to read each other well enough to support harmonically (which is typical of Jazz/Blues ensembles), or you have to hold back on the improv/encode it into the raw composition, or greatly simplify the harmonics to a point where underlying tones are almost effectively drones.  Sometimes, you might just have to bite the bullet and limit yourself to even try.  For instance, a raga like Amrita Behag, although amenable to basic drone-like harmonics, doesn't even allow the possibility of counterpoint harmony because of its restrictions to use nonlinear melodic paths that contain leaps and backwards retreats as a rule (unless going downwards, in which case it merely omits the fifth and second).  Unfortunately, you are left with a number of sacrifices, especially if you go with either of the latter options, and you are left with rather weak facsimiles of your original material.

Personally, I much prefer not having to lose any qualitative merits in order to gain another, though I accept that this may have to be done in the end in order to achieve certain end goals.  For this reason, it is something of an inevitable outcome that there will be wild transgressions which are far removed from classical renderings and those which are about as "pure" as you can get.  I may not always agree with certain goals, and others may not particularly care for the types of things I value in music, but the real point is that someone out there is actually thinking about this stuff, and doing something about it.  It's when people don't think that we should really be concerned, because that's where all discovery stops.  It is fine to accept tradition as a foundation (or more accurately, the merits and qualities of what tradition has produced), but it should never be more than that.  That is a fundamental mistake that people make, and it needs to end.  Not just in music, but in everything.  It's time to pluck this thorn from humanity.

* Vivaadhi can very specifically be defined as the dissonance that comes from adjacent notes in a 
scale being very close to each other in pitch. Vivaadhi scales, because of the proximity of notes are often very difficult to perform precisely without giving an "off-key" feel to it because of the small degrees of difference. The fact that they present these sorts of challenges is how they got to be marked as taboo.