Monday, 25 March 2013

Voice Over

Is voice an instrument to encourage solidarity? Is it an instrument of self-expression? Is it an instrument to break conventions? Or, is it the ultimate vehicle of liberation?

Sushma Somasekharan

Voice as an instrument

Damal Krishnaswamy Pattamal’s (DKP) career was a landmark event in the history of Carnatic music. It marked the emergence of Brahmin women as public singers and was instrumental in paving the way for female singers of the same community. As the first vocalist of her community to give public concerts, she challenged the prevailing orthodoxy not by argument, but by her Voice. Hailing from a family where her own mother was not permitted to perform even privately, D K Pattamal broke tradition and made history by giving her first radio performance for Madras Corporation Radio (now All India Radio) at the age of ten in 1929. In any discussion regarding the power of Voice to lift a culture, D K Pattamal presents an excellent starting point. Hers is an example of what a culture has to gain by unlocking its unheard Voices, not least because of the power of Voice itself. Despite difficult circumstances, she became the first woman to sing Ragam Tanam Pallavis (RTPs) in her concerts. No one would have thought that this was possible without formal training in the gurukula. She dispelled that belief by showing that she was capable of singing publicly on stage, and handling complex RTPs without learning under the conventional structure. This paved the way for more liberal learning methodologies. It showed that women too were capable of handling complex RTPs and were not musically simplistic. By being a doting wife and mother, she defied the stereotype that performing women were immoral or neglecting family responsibilities. 

The desire to challenge societal normsthrough Voice did not start with D K Pattamal, nor did it end there, for example, T M Krishna’s experimentation with initiatives unfamiliar to the modern music fraternity. During the 2012 December music season in Chennai, he renounced all ticketed slots, coveted by every musician. By performing at non-ticketed slots, he demonstrated that music and Voice should be made accessible to music lovers who cannot afford expensive tickets, and senior citizens who cannot queue for them at wee hours of the morning. 

T M Krishna
Margaret Atwood reminds us that, ‘A Voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.’ Undeniably some power is added when the Voice in question is raised in song. When the elegance of music is combined with lyrical power, the product is a melodic splendour capable of birthing wonders. From breaking convention, to encouraging solidarity and inspiring creativity, Voice has been, in a way, a useful implement to achieve a variety of purposes. And not just those stated. After all, M S Subbulakshmi was not doing any of those things when she put Carnatic music on the world map when she sang at the United Nations on 23 October, 1966. Yet, it is her magnificent Voice that takes credit for that accomplishment.

The power of free Voice has long been recognised. As late as 1909, the great Tamil poet, Indian independence activist and social reformer Mahakavi Bharathiyar felt compelled to remark in his essay, Sangita Vishayam, that if married women were taught to sing and appreciate music, society in general would improve. For him, music inculcated culture and ethics. And by prohibiting women from singing, he observed, that it was not only music but some fundamental goodness of life that was abandoned. 

More than advocating singing as an abstract means to better the public’s cultural lives, Bharathiyar used his nationalistic poems to foster national unity, freedom from foreign rule, the removal of discrimination based on caste and religion, and the liberation of women. Renditions of those songs nurtured national integration of people from all classes and creeds for one purpose –independence.

D K Pattamal’s delivery of his patriotic song Aaduvome Pallu Paduvome in the film, Naam Iruvar, was released a few months before India gained independence. It captured his confidence that his burgeoning nation would gain independence. He knew his lyrics only truly take flight with the power of a Voice and its ability to portray with close precision a worthy interpretation of the composer’s work. 

One observes in these examples the direct utility in a Voice, brought artfully together with lyrics and music. The beauty in a Voice and its ability to move, seemingly serves a different sort of ‘utility’. Say, an audience given to witness Lord Siva’s cosmic dance when the singer sings Bho, Shambo! Shivashambho! Svayambo! (Oh, Granter of Prosperity! Shiva! The Self-formed one!). Or observe an audience immediately feeling a mother’s agony when the singer sings Un Kannil Neer Vazhinthaal, En Uthiram Kottuthadi (When you shed a tear, my heart bleeds a river of blood). The capacity of one’s Voice to extract the essence of the composition remains unrivalled in its ability to fuse lyrics and melody. This enables a singer to use Voice as the instrument to allow the audience to indulge in the character of the song. Moreover, when the meaning of the song is elegantly communicated, Voice removes the listener from reality to a transcendent world. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s rendering of Dwaithamu Sukhama Advaithamu Sukhama (which conduces to beatitude, Dwaita or Advaitha?) undeniably invokes devoutness in the listener and brings him closer to feeling the presence of the Divine.

In observing how Voice moves an audience, elevates a culture, and even an entire nation, one risks traversing well-worn observations of the usefulness of Voice. Yet, to return to D K Pattamal and Atwood, what draws Voice its power to be an instrument remains intangible; one wonders whether it is melody, lyrics or the combination of both. Ultimately, it is the numinous quality of a Voice lifted in song, which penetrates consciousness. It can liberate as well as compel the listener to oblige the Voice and its intention. It is this transcendent quality that reinforces an ancient conclusion: that the ultimate desire to liberate the Voice is to appreciate Voice not as a mere instrument to achieve some temporal end, but for the most valuable purpose of all - itself. 

The writer has had a formal training in classical music in Singapore and currently lives, learns and performs in Chennai

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