By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Indian Cultural Ethos : Strange Mixture of Pride And Diffidence!

In my two preceding notes in this column (March 28/31) I had recalled a couple of articles I had written in different contexts in 1973/'77, concerning the social and cultural ethos of the average Indians.  Now, here's an essay I had written on the same phenomenon in a concert review of 1971, skipping some technical details.



(in same order as in text)

Carnatic music  --  Classical music tradition  of South India.

Vidwan  --  Sanskrit word for 'accomplished musician'. 

Music Academy, and Brahma Gana Sabha  --  Prestigious cultural institutions in Chennai dedicated to preserving the integrity of Carnatic music.

Carnatic jet set  --  Unorthodox musicians and music-lovers who would like to modernize and secularize the ancient, sacred Carnatic music culture.

Rasikas  --   Music-lovers.

GI  --  World War II had made American military terms like GI (soldier) quite familiar in India, although we have no idea what exactly the G and the I stand for!

Jibba, dhoti  --  Traditional Indian menswear:  long shirt reaching down to knees, and long fabric draped round waist  --  conservative if plain and all-white, glamorous if colorful and embroidered. 

Tani aavaratanam  --  Solo session of supporting percussion instruments.

Defining the raagas  --  One of the basic features of Carnatic music is the sketching and exploration  of standardized melodic patterns called raagas  in imaginative ways.


Indian Express, Madras
30 Jan. 1971

Jon B. Higgins :  just a very good Vidwan?

I must confess that there was an element of curiosity in my anticipation when I turned up in Jon Higgins' Carnatic music recital at the Music Academy's hall on Sunday.  I could sense that the major portion of the sizable gathering was more or less in the same frame of mind.

For most people present, as for me, this was going to be the first full-length encounter with Jon.  And  while everyone knew that he would be causing a sensation, few among the audience could have guessed precisely what was to come.

The predominant element in the audience was not the Carnatic jet set, but the regular membership of one of our responsible organizations, the Brahma Gana Sabha.  The jet set had gained entry through the daily-ticket counter, of course;  but it formed an insignificant minority.

This occasion, therefore, was an admirable one for measuring the impact of Jon Higgins on a cross-section of our music-loving public as a whole, rather than merely on an experimenting set of jazz-loving, pop-oriented rasikas.

The first brief numbers drew unconventional applause, which was obviously more in cognizance of the fact that an American was singing authentic Carnatic music than in appreciation of any particular merit in the renderings.  But as Jon settled down, the crowd cheered less frequently and with more discrimination. 

Paradoxically enough, what this signified was not diminishing response, but developing respect.  As the concert progressed, it had become increasingly evident that here was no fumbling foreigner who needed your patronizing pats on the back, but an artist of merit who deserved a hand only when he surpassed himself.


Although Jon could acquire the characteristic look of a GI if he wore battle-dress and helmet, in his snow-white jibba and dhoti he looked every inch an Indian musician.  His participation in the music was complete and unabridged, to the last beat of the tani aavartanam.

Jon Higgins has a fine masculine voice, which is most arresting in the lowest octave. The technical side of his music revealed a high degree of precision, which enabled him to define the raagas compactly and with telling effect, and to render the compositions with faultless pronunciation. . . .

What really captured the imagination of the audience ultimately was not Jon's technical competence, but the inexplicable warmth which he was able to infuse into his music.  It was clear that he had put his heart and soul into this enterprise. . . .

A full assessment of Jon's achievement must naturally take some time, for the extent of his repertoire and the scope of his future interest in our music remain to be seen.  But even on the basis of Sunday's concert alone, I can safely say that his music shows much promise, and does carry conviction.


I wonder why we Indians are so intrigued that a Jon Higgins has managed to get a grip on our music, while we are not in the least surprised that a Zubin Mehta has become one of the world's greatest conductors of Western classical music.

Is it because we think our artistic potential is superior to the Western people's, so that their arts are well within our grasp while ours are not easily accessible to them?  Or is it because we have some kind of subconscious misgiving that their arts are superior to ours, which makes it worthwhile for us to copy them but not for them to copy us?

Much as I would like to find a flattering answer to these questions, I am afraid the truth is far from comforting.  There seems to be a self-conscious streak in our character which makes us value any foreigner's interest in our arts as a favour done to us.

An American does not have to be as accomplished as Jon Higgins before he can delight us with his curiosity about our culture.  It does seem to matter a lot to us what even tourists and hippies think about our music and dance, and we are not wanting in exhibitionism.

To make up for this built-in diffidence which we harbour in our hearts, we seem to have a compulsion at the conscious level to project an exaggerated picture of our arts and culture, in our own mirror as well as in the eyes of the outsiders.

In striking contrast, cultured people in the West do seem to be enviably free from the tyranny of artistic introspection;  accordingly, they tend to take the universal appeal of their arts for granted.

They seem to be pleased with Zubin Mehta's success mainly because their music has acquired another great conductor, and not because another Indian has taken to Western music.  We, on the other hand, are inclined to be excited by a case like Jon Higgins' more because a white man has studied our music than because Carnatic music has acquired another promising exponent.

To the extent that Jon's music is good enough to compel us to evaluate him as a musician rather than as an American, I must say he effects a certain degree of reconciliation between the genuine pride and hypocrisy which condition our cultural postures vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

I have a feeling that much of what I have said only echoes and amplifies what a doyen of Carnatic music critics had written four years ago in the context of Jon's first full-length recital in Madras.  If he had become a familiar figure in our music circles since then, there might have been no occasion for me to make a fresh assessment of these factors. 

But somehow he still remains an infrequent and mysterious visitor, and therefore continues to intrigue us.  Only if Jon Higgins cares to assimilate himself into our cultural framework can we cease to think of him as a phenomenon, and start recognizing his true claim for our appreciation, which is just that he is a fine Vidwan!


PostScript, 2013
Transient triumph, permanent paradox

This was one of my earliest essays on music;  and it has a place in any short-list of my best-ever works, because it reinforced the basic approach which has governed many of my reflections on music during the past 40 years  --  treating specific facts and events as no more than convenient runways for taking off on far-reaching flights of imagination, fuelled by rich  artistic, psychological (and sometimes even philosophic) insights  --  often exploring and reconciling the conflicting elements and aspects of cultural life.

One of the twin themes of this review  --  the co-existence of enormous pride and self-conscious diffidence in the average Indians' cultural ethos  --  has continued to figure in my writing to this day.  And I am sure I would still be celebrating the triumph of Jon Higgins as one of the seniormost Vidwans in Carnatic music today, if his life hadn't ended tragically in a road accident in 1984.      

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