By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Saturday, November 17, 2012


In the note on 'Spaceviews and Skyviews' (posted on Nov. 14),  I quoted a 1984 article in which I had raved about my great fascination for world maps and globes.  This is an obsession which has survived to this day, and it has a way of figuring in my writing again and again -- as it did, for instance, in an essay on music eleven years later.

Incidentally, I happened to be writing regularly on Carnatic and Western music in the New Delhi edition of The Hindu, for about 10 years from 1986.   Carnatic music and The Hindu, of course, are the classical music and classical newspaper of South India.  But in the Capital I had a very cosmopolitan set of readers hailing from all over India -- and, in the diplomatic circles, from all over the world.  So I had a natural incentive and inclination to analyze many fundamental aspects of Indian and Western music, and the following essay is a good sample!

The Hindu, New Delhi
31 March 1995

Of rivers, streams and springs

I always find it fascinating to gaze at a large globe or map showing the world's countries, cities, oceans, mountain ranges and rivers.  It invariably makes me think of the innumerable cultures, languages, literatures, arts and musical traditions which have flourished and continue to flourish in the world.

Rivers, in particular, have a close resemblance to music.  The water and the music keep flowing endlessly, but their sources are inexhaustible. 

Rivers are of many kinds, of course.  Some of them are magnificent, thousands of miles long, with deep waters which seem to flow peacefully but have very strong currents, sometimes even turning into torrential waterfalls on the way.  Others are less voluminous, less profound, but are nevertheless dynamic.  And all this is equally true of music.

Springs and streams are the origin of rivers, whether they materialize out of melting ice or rainfalls.  The rivers of music too are fed by springs --  which materialize out of tradition and innovation, which are like melting ice and rain-bearing clouds. Rivers tend to be polluted by many untidy things, but the great rivers usually survive most of the pollution.  It is because the constant springs and streams which feed them are always pure.  

Musical systems and traditions too tend to be polluted by many impurities;  but if they are truly great, they too survive most of the contaminating influences, because the musical springs and streams which feed them are also pure.

These thoughts flashed through my mind as I stood listening with closed eyes to the smooth flow of drum-beats played by a handsome, bare-chested young man, in front of the 'sanctum sanctorum' of New Delhi's Ayyappan Temple in Ramakrishna Puram the other evening, patiently waiting for the shrine's door to be opened as the idol of Lord Ayyappan inside was being adorned for worshipful viewing by the assembled devotees.

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The youngster was playing an instrument called 'edakka' which is a simple drum carried like a shoulder-bag, and struck by a single thin and curved stick. 

The variety of throbbing sound clusters which can be produced by this simple percussive device is truly astonishing!    'Edakka' is one of the five basic instruments which constitute the traditional 'Panchavaadyam' played in temples in Kerala State on festive occasions, the others being two types of more powerful drums called 'chendai' and 'maddalam', plus horns and cymbals....

The endless and massive flow of such drum music on festive occasions constitutes one of the main springs of traditional South Indian music.  It is on such rhythm-soaked soil of the West Coast that some of the greatest percussion artists of Carnatic music had grown up and got their musical bearings!

Another temple drum which is extremely popular not only in Kerala but all over South India is the 'tavil', a large and powerful barrel with tough leather surfaces on two sides, one of which is struck with a thick wooden rod, and the other with the artist's palm and hard-ringed fingers.
This is normally used only as an accompaniment to the traditional temple pipe 'naagaswaram'  (often called 'naadaswaram') on which the music performed is invariably classical Carnatic.

Both these instruments have such a powerful volume and reach that they are meant to be played only in the open air or inside very spacious temple buildings without amplification.

Some very enterprising artists have managed to use them in concert halls, but normally these are played only in South Indian temples and devotional processions, and in special religious contexts like wedding ceremonies, by musicians who usually remain anonymous.

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A remarkable thing about the naagaswaram and the tavil is that there are thousands of excellent performers all over South India --  in villages, towns and cities ranging from the smallest to the largest ones.  Their command over the quintessential melodies and rhythms of the classical music is usually very impressive, and often astounding.

Undoubtedly, their music constitutes some of the deepest and most authentic springs and streams of Carnatic music, flowing constantly and purely, unmindful of the many distractions and unhealthy influences which have started affecting its concert-hall manifestations in recent years.  Perhaps it is the performers' anonymous image which helps them to preserve the purity of their art!

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