By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, January 24, 2014

Alien Connections In Classical Indian Music : Tradition, Innovation And Integrity

In the preceding post and another recent one ( 22 Jan. 2014 and 7 Dec. 2013), I recalled some of my comments dated 2010, 2009 and 1991 (published in THE HINDU) on the subtle bond which exists between artistic tradition and innovation.

It so happens that the scope for fresh commentary on the kaleidoscopic nuances of this complex topic seems to be endless.   Exactly one year ago, in this blog (6 Jan. 2013: Magyar Mixture : For Foreigners Only!), while recalling my review of a  performance in New Delhi by some visiting Hungarian musicians and dancers in 1990, I had added the following postscript:

Over this long period marked by technological hurricanes and socio-cultural tornadoes, I've been endlessly trying to find the elusive answers to many  intricate questions relating to the conflict as well as the concord (which co-exist) between tradition and innovation, between purity and permissiveness, between innovation and integrity. 
I've often been puzzled by the great paradoxes inherent in the universal scenario of cultural progress;  and at the same time, I have also gained some very valuable artistic and psychological insights into the whole phenomenon.

But don't spoil the fun by asking me for a concise executive summary of my ultimate findings!  Let me just roll out, one by one, the reviews and essays
containing my reflections on specific aspects which needed analysis and discussion from time to time in different contexts.

So then, here's another slice of the same bread!

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Glossary & annotations (In same order as in text)

Carnatic/Hindustani music  --  Classical music of South/North India.
Ragas  --  Melodic patterns which are basically defined by tradition, but have great scope for original visions and interpretations. 

Swaraprasthara  --  In Carnatic music,  an imaginative sequence of improvised clusters of notes within the limits of the standard melodic patterns.  A similar impromptu sequence in Hindustani music is called Sargam.

Sangeet Natak Akademi  --  Prestigious Government-sponsored national institution in New Delhi, concerned with preserving and promoting music, dance and drama on a national scale.  In 1989-90, I was the Member-Secretary of a national Committee chaired by Mr. P.N. Haksar (a distinguished diplomat-turned-cultural-philosopher), which reviewed the performance of SNA and certain other similar national organizations concerned with the visual and performing arts as well as literature.
Music Academy in Chennai (formerly Madras)   --  One of the most prestigious and influential cultural institutions in India.

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THE HINDU3 Aug.  3, 2007
Alien connections: why, who and how?


It seems to be our natural responsibility
to provide the outside world with our own
authoritative guidance and leadership in
disseminating our classical music abroad.

Looking back at the steady progress and consolidation of the classical traditions of Carnatic and Hindustani music during the second half of  the 20th century, we can observe that certain occasional and isolated events of a similar kind have a way of getting entrenched into irreversible trends in due course.  To this category belong the marginal efforts to associate the twin classical music systems of India with Western music, particularly instrumental jazz.

Recent articles in this column had focused attention on both the positive and negative aspects of this trend, with particular reference to Carnatic music.  Before we conclude the discussion, it is necessary to answer a crucial question which arises.  Apart from their inclination to widen their horizons and diversify their own experience of music, do Indian classical musicians have any other moral justification for developing such alien connections which carry the risk of diluting our traditional values?  To find the elusive answer to this question, let us consider the following significant facts.

Initiative and influence

The colourful Indian ragas and our sophisticated percussion techniques are far too formidable to be ignored by enterprising foreign musicians for ever — and sooner or later they were bound to be discovered and used in Western music circles, if only marginally.  By the judicious infusion of Indian melodies and rhythms, both symphonic music and jazz can be enriched with novel and entirely permissible colors.

The reverse process can also be envisaged in the case of jazz, though perhaps not in the case of symphonic music.  The melodic improvisations in Indian classical music have a very close affinity with the imaginative sorties which are the essence of jazz.  Authentic jazz could therefore materialize in the most natural manner in the thick of an extensive exercise in variations in a proper Carnatic or Hindustani music recital — adding an unusual but permissible flavour to the swaraprasthara or its Northern equivalent without transgressing the norms of our classical traditions.

But obviously such ventures, to be successful, must be undertaken by visionary musicians of the highest calibre belonging to both sides.  The really important thing is, who does it and how. 

If some of our own accomplished and versatile musicians took the initiative in doing this, the result could be far more constructive than if the lead were taken by foreigners in whose veins the blood of Indian music does not flow.  It seems to be our natural responsibility to provide the outside world with our own authoritative guidance and leadership in disseminating our classical music abroad, in whatever form it is done.  Otherwise, the basic elements of our music may eventually begin to be exploited in alien music circles in all sorts of indiscriminate and distorted ways, leading to the widespread dilution of our values and the eventual decline of our musical tradition.

Role of Academies

For quite some time from the 1960s, such contacts were mainly between a few outstanding Indian and foreign musicians who had extraordinary musical visions and an irresistible inclination to widen their horizons;  and some of their bold experiments in cross-fertilising their musical ideas had resulted in some really original and colourful music.

Those were days when very few Indian musicians had any opportunities to go abroad.  But during the past 20 years or so, even the average Indian classical musicians have been getting regular invitations to visit America and some European countries, mainly to perform Carnatic or Hindustani music for the benefit of the constantly expanding Indian communities there.  This greatly increases the scope for indiscriminate proliferation of such experiments in East-West integration, because even moderately accomplished musicians from both sides now find it easier to get together and have a fling.  Which means, of course, that the risk and chances of achieving mediocrity rather than excellence are multiplied many times.

We would certainly like our adventurous musical ambassadors to perform in their own country now and then with their foreign collaborators, and subject their credentials to our critical scrutiny. That will not be easy to arrange normally, but even compact discs or cassettes featuring of such ventures are not readily available in India.

It may be a good idea for the Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi and the Music Academy in Chennai — and perhaps other leading academic institutions of music elsewhere — to acquire relevant recordings either from foreign music markets or from the musicians themselves and build up comprehensive reference libraries where interested music-lovers can listen to such music and form their own impressions.  And the academies can pass their own judgment, of course, and filter such performances for recognition and appreciation if justified.

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