By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Classical Music : Never-ending Nexus Between Tradition And Innovation

A few days ago I had brought to the web-wide world''s attention the mega-marathon Carnatic music festival which dominates the cultural life of Madras in the winter season, when music-lovers from all over India and many parts of the world make an annual pilgrimage to the South Indian city, to bathe and swim in the overflowing currents of classical music. In this dynamic cultural environment I invariably recall some of the deep insights I have gained and written about as an earnest and articulate  observer of ongoing musical trends and traditions during the past 50 years. So let me share with you today some of my reflections in my column Articulations in THE HINDU in 1991, on the intricate and never-ending nexus between artistic tradition and innovation.

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Glossary & annotations
(in same order as in text)

Carnatic/Hindustani music  --- Classical music systems of South/North India.
Mandolin  --  European string instrument, primarily  developed in
Ramani, Balamurali, Jayaraman, Krishnan  --  Carnatic musicians.
Chaurasia, Jasraj, Amjad Ali  --  Hindsstani musicians.
Pratap Pawar  --  Innnovative Kathak dancer.
Kathak  --  Classical dance of North India, aligned to Hindustani music.
Flammenco  --  Classical music and dance of Spain. 

L. Subramaniam  --  Versatile Indian violinist-composer, with a passion for mixing Indian and Western colors.
Ravi Shankar  --  Iconic Indian sitarist-composer, who passed away in 2012.
Sitar & sarod  --  Major string instrumnents in Hindustani music.
Guru-sishya parampara  --  Rigid tradition of intimate master-disciple discipline, which has for many generations governed the twin classical music systems of India.
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THE HINDU  Friday Review
 9 October 2009
Innovative base of tradition
In the context of ongoing attempts to introduce alien colours in traditional systems of music, I had quoted a substantial portion of an essay I had written in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine in 1991, asserting that the elements of Western music cannot normally enrich Carnatic music. (Musicscan, October 2). Apart from mentioning certain exceptions to this natural law, that article had also discussed some significant aspects which are as relevant today as they were in the scenario prevailing then. So let me quote the rest of it too below:

Revolution time!

... But this axiom too, like most others in this world, is not without an exception. What strikes me as being a true paradox is the astonishing talent of the young mandolin artist U. Shrinivas. I have more or less given up my efforts to find a technical explanation for the mysterious amalgam of his music, which sounds so powerfully Western and yet remains so purely South Indian. It is impossible to understand how, when this boy performs, we are bombarded by a tornado of staccato sounds and yet course along a gentle stream of melody. I can only say that when genius attains the status of magic, perhaps there is no point in looking for logic any more.

The introduction of the mandolin in Carnatic music is itself a revolution, but harnessing it so well to serve the spirit of the tradition is nothing short of a miracle. But this is not without a precedent. Although the Western violin is an indispensable part of the Carnatic music tradition as we know it today, its absorption into the system was also the sequel of a revolution which took place long ago.

Contrasting colors
I must say a word here about the attempts to bridge the gap between Hindustani and Carnatic music in joint recitals known as ‘jugalbandhi’. They do sometimes create scintillating and beautiful music — as in the case of flutemasters N. Ramani and Hariprasad Chaurasia or vocalists Jasraj and Balamuralikrishna, or when sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan teams up with an ace violinist like Lalgudi Jayaraman or T.N. Krishnan.

But even their quest for a common idiom has been a long and arduous one, in some cases marked by initial errors of perception which have needed sustained correction. And the disturbing fact remains that the proliferation of such ventures undertaken by musicians of far less sensitivity is producing results of a very damaging kind.

What is true of our classical music in this context is also true of our classical dance. To cite an example, dancer Pratap Pawar’s exploration of the amazing similarity between some elements of the Kathak and Flamenco idioms has true aesthetic merit. Equally intriguing and powerful are Amjad Ali Khan’s efforts to find a concordance between certain features of Hindustani instrumental music and medieval English music. So are Ravi Shankar’s second concerto for sitar and Western orchestra and L. Subramaniam’s double violin concerto.

Artistic evolution
One cannot overlook the fact that today’s traditions are all based on innovations of the past, and that some of today’s innovations might be the foundation for future traditions.
It is necessary for us to reconcile in our minds the apparent contradiction between artistic tradition and innovation and the evolutionary relationship which exists between them. This is a universal phenomenon which is as complex as the evolution of life itself. Art is also a living organism, which needs to renew itself in order to survive. Innovation therefore can never be forbidden. Obviously it would be impossible for anyone to draw an arbitrary line somewhere and say: “Thus far, and no more!”

In the last analysis, it all depends only on who innovates, and how. What should really cause great concern among us all is the snowballing of fruitless and even frivolous activities in the current Indian music scene, undertaken in the name of experiment and progress. The credentials of the concerned artists are often quite unimpressive; but even highly accomplished musicians fall into a trap sometimes. Who is to stop them all, and how?

Custodians of values

The inevitable question which arises in this context is this: who are the true custodians of values in matters relating to classical music? Teachers and critics have traditionally played a primary role in this regard, but professional and social conditions are no longer what they used to be. There are many factors which have undermined and are steadily eliminating the ‘guru-sishya parampara’, thereby diminishing the importance of discipline and the influence of teachers. Some effective alternate systems of handing down the tradition are bound to emerge eventually, but they have not yet crystallized. And although more and more people are writing profusely on music these days, we do not have many mature critics who can offer constructive advice on such fundamental aspects, either to the musicians or to the public...

But the sky is not all cloudy, and it has its bright side. There are still some seasoned musicians who have not allowed this trend to influence them. Some young people who perform our classical music today seem to have an amazing degree of concern for the orthodox norms, though they have not studied the art wholly in the conventional way. It is difficult to trace the source of the divine spark which exists in them. 

 Moreover, the music-loving public has two conflicting faces. At a certain level its taste is diluted by the influence of television, video, cinema and even pop music. But on a higher plane, it is also becoming increasingly respectful towards some of the unassuming elder musicians who never came into the limelight in a big way. On such heartening factors rest our hopes for the future.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Massive Winter Music Season In Mecca Of Carnatic Music

Come December, a  fabulously massive classical music festival spanning several weeks in December/January takes place in Madras, which is the Mecca of Carnatic music.  During the winter season of 2007-08, I had written a set of four seminal essays on this intriguing phenomenon, in my column Musicscan in THE HINDU.   All intricate aspects and subtle nuances of this cultural supershow discussed on that occasion remain  exactly the same today.

I have great pleasure in recalling those thoughts and sharing them with you now, and I hope you will take the trouble of finding the texts with the following links. I am  glad to note that not a single sentence or word I had written then needs a change now.

     Maargazhi --  the spirit is intact  (7 Dec. 2007)

     Source of cultural and spiritual inspiration  (21 Dec. 2007)

     Of volume and value  (4 Jan. 2008)

     Expansion on the cards  (18 Jan. 2008)

If  you hadn't read these essays when they were published, I guarantee that they will give you some deep insights into this recurring annual extravaganza.  And if you had read them, I hope you will find it interesting and useful to refresh your memory!

Glossary and annotations

(in same order as in texts)


Maargazhi --  In South Indian calendar, coldest winter month (Dec./Jan.).
Tamil  --  Ancient/modern language, one of four major languages of South India.
Carnatic music  --  Classical music of South India.
Non-resident Indian (NRI)  --  Legal term  defined in income tax rules to identify Indian citizens living abroad;  short form  NRI is freely used in social circles also, usually in conversations.
Krishna Gana Sabha  --  Cultural institution organizing performing arts, predominantly classical Indian music and dance, as well as contemporary Indian drama.
Hamsadhwani  --  Young, trend-setting Sabha in South Madras.
S. Rangarajan (RJ)  --  Retired diplomat-journalist, now living in America and writing insightfully on art and culture and Russian scenarios --  also figures in the shortest list of my oldest and closest friends.
Rasikas  --  In several Indian languages, lover of art and culture, especially classical Indian music and dance.


Tamil Nadu  --  Southernmost State in India, whose capital city is Madras and where Tamil is the ancient and also modern language.
Music Academy  --  Prestigious culturaal institution in Madras, mainly dedicated to  South Indian classical music and dance, which had played a pioneering role in the evolution of the massive winter music festival, and continues to have a unique status in the winter gala.
Bombay, Calcutta  --  Metro cities in West and East India, now officially called Mumbai and Kolkata;  but just like Madras in the South, the British-given names are still informally in vogue.
Delhi  --  Generic name of twin cities of (old) Delhi and New Delhi in North India.  For some mysterious reason, the original name Dilli hasn't been officially restored so far, and the British version still holds good.


Omar Khayyam  --  Ancient Persian philosopher-mathematician-astronomer-poet, best known for his monumental romantic and philosophic verses called Rubaiyat.
Tsunami  --  Japanese expression for powerful tidal wave.
Krishna Gana Sabha  --  Prestigious Sabha in Madras, more than 50 years old and still playing a dynamic role in the city's cultural life.


Greater Madras  --  Not yet a fait accompli, but rapidly evolving in recent years.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Destination Mars : Bravo, ISRO! Bravo, India!

Around this time three years ago, India, on its very first and highly successful lunar mission, had helped America to find conclusive evidence of the existence of water on the Moon.  And now India has just taken off on its maiden mission to Mars!

I am copying below, for instant reference, a couple of relevant reports from today's exciting news, and also some significant comments I had made in Articulations Online in October 2010.  This steady and spectacular scientific progress takes my mind back 30 years to the time when I was having a very close association with India's elite scientific community, and in particular to the following context:

The Prime Minister of India, as the ex-officio Chairman/Chairperson of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, presides over the annual meeting of the CSIR Society, which has many distinguished Indian scientists as members.  This recurring intellectual get-together serves as a useful forum not only for obtaining a wide-angled perception of important specific issues concerning CSIR's affairs, but also for exchanging views on the direction and overall progress of science and technology in a national perspective.

In the Society meeting held in 1983, where I was present as CSIR's Financial Adviser, Prime Minister  Indira Gandhi said she had received a query from a very young child from a foreign country asking her what was India's most remarkable scientific achievement during the preceding year, and she was having some difficulty in giving an immediate and impressive answer.  And she asked:  would the scientific community please do some soul-searching?

I suppose Ms. Gandhi could have taken a far brighter view of things and shot off a confident reply:  "Look, my child, you can't judge the  scientific progress made by a country in one week or one month or even one year!  India has made a lot of progress in many scientific fields in the last 25 years, including space science.  Who knows, 25 years from now we may even be reaching the Moon!"  

Which is precisely what we did in 2008!  I wish I had been curious enough to have found out the identity of that adorably curious child;  for I would love to trace and tell him or her that India is now a member of  the still-exclusive Moon Club  --  and, if all goes well with the ongoing space slingshot, is very likely to be admitted to the still-more-exclusive Mars Club by this time next year.

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THE HINDU, 1 Dec. 2013    
14-20 Indian Standard Time

India’s spacecraft to Mars has bid adieu to its Earth-bound orbit and is cruising in its sun-centric orbit.  In a remarkably successful execution of a complex manoeuvre, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) fired the propulsion system on board the spacecraft for a prolonged duration of 23 minutes from 0049 hours on Sunday.


THE HINDU, 1 Dec. 2013
17-30 Indian Standard Time

India’s maiden mission to Mars left Earth’s orbit early on Sunday and successfully entered the second phase of its 10-month-long voyage to the Red Planet after performing a crucial manoeuvre described as “mother of all slingshots”.

Clearing a critical hurdle to achieve a major milestone in the country’s space history, ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Spacecraft or ‘Mangalyaan’ was placed in the designated Mars Transfer Trajectory in a 22-minute manoeuvre almost an hour past midnight without any hitch to tear itself away from Earth’s gravitational pull.

It marked the first step of the Mars mission’s 680 million-km-long voyage to its destination to put on course the India’s first ever inter-planetary space odyssey.

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Articulations Online
20 October 2010

Bravo, ISRO! Bravo, NASA!

When I started writing this online column last month with an awesome vision of the Internet's apparently infinite dimensions, I knew I would find it necessary to follow it up with some reflections on the impact of modern science and technology on individuals and society.  And I now realize it will have to be a very long series of essays, because the theme is extremely complex and bristles with so many intricate aspects.   But rather than risking mental fatigue by considering the same issue week after week, let us spread out the core series a little, and take up some other lighter topics in the intervals!  

In the context of the steady scientific progress made by India during the 20th century, I had made the following comment in the preceding essay (Psychology Of Turbulence, October 13):  "....  And in the frenzied field of the ongoing information revolution today, India seems to be running a neck-to-neck race with the most advanced countries of  the world".
Well, India today seems to be among the front-runners in other scientific fields also, like space exploration, for instance!   Its very first moon mission, which seemed to have been on the brink of failure last year, actually turned out to be a great success.

Troubles and....

I am, of course, referring to the unmanned lunar vehicle Chandrayaan-1, launched by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). which carried some instruments developed in India,  and also some others sponsored by NASA in America, ESA (European Space Agency), and BAA (Bulgarian Aerospace Agency).

Chandrayaan was launched into lunar orbit in October 2008, and was expected to remain there for a couple of years.  But within a few months,  there was serious malfunction of some vital systems (including solar panels and star sensors which were essential for power supply and direction-finding);  and there were no radio signals from August 29, 2009 due to failure of electronic components.   Meanwhile, the vessel had gone round the moon more than 3,000 times, undertaken various useful experiments, and transmitted more than 70,000 images to the earth, some of them with very fine resolution upto five metres.

Back home, in India, there was great disappointment as the mission was declared closed prematurely.  But although there was some resentment that ISRO hadn't fully disclosed the troubles as they arose, by and large there was no hostile criticism of ISRO's efforts, as there was a general awareness of the immensity of the venture and the equal chances of success and failure.
In an editorial rather emotionally titled  Adieu, Chandrayaan-1, India's most responsible newspaper THE HINDU  made a rational assessment on August 31: ".... Yet these problems make what has been achieved all the more remarkble.  It is a tribute to ISRO’s mission management team that they could find ways to keep the spacecraft and its instruments operational for so long....  In the months and years ahead, data from the Indian probe will help scientists better understand the Moon’s origin and evolution, its mineral composition, and whether water might lie trapped in its permanently shadowed polar craters".

.... Triumph!

And sure enough, the prediction came true very soon,  perhaps much sooner than even The Hindu had expected!  For within a few weeks, towards the end of September 2009,  the prestigious international  magazine Science reported that NASA's instrument M3 (moon mineralogy mapper) had discovered the presence of water molecules on the moon.

Moreover, following extensive analysis of the data collected,  it was reported in an international science congress in March 2010 that NASA's Mini-Sar (miniature synthetic aperture radar) had found extensive masses of ice in several huge polar craters with diameters ranging from two to fifteen kilometres.

What this meant, of course, was that there's a precious natural resource on the moon for the benefit of  manned space missions, in the vital forms of drinking water (H2O), breathing air (oxygen), and rocket fuel (hydrogen).  As a delighted Dr. Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, declared:  "Now we can say with a fair degree of confidence that a sustainable human presence on the Moon is possible.... The result.... seen in the last few months are totally revolutionizing our view of the Moon."