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.

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