Monday, 13 May 2013


The well-embedded story of Carnatic music, Sangeetha Shivakumar hums, is layered with narratives that are beyond the literal 

We, as Indians, love to tell stories. We also love to listen to them.  As a child, I have beautiful memories of my grandmother narrating stories of Hindu gods and Goddesses while putting us to sleep. It was fascinating to hear them, also somehow comforting. I felt a deep sense of security, and this feeling continues for most of us even as we grow older, and wiser. Many anthropologists believe that stories rooted in tradition are an enacting of the human desire to experience, that is ‘to tell a story, and to tell it as others have told, is simply that the reality is one, then and now’. 

This is the cover of a book,
Tyagaraja, Life and Lyrics by William J Jackson
Carnatic music, the form as it exists today, is not more than 500 years old. This is an art form, which has been well-embedded, in our traditional society, and it has numerous stories to tell. We have the life-stories of composers who lived around the 17th and 18th centuries, and the stories of the compositions they composed. William Jackson, in his brilliantly written book Tyagaraja – Life and Lyrics talks about the memory narrative, which is historical-minded and the meaning narrative which is mythological.

To take the classic example of the great composer Tyagaraja, the earlier records of his life correspond to the memory narrative, whereas the later stories as told by Harikatha artistes are more in the form of a meaning narrative. So we have many stories from his life – a story of him being attacked in the forest by thieves and Rama saving him when he sang out to Him, or his dejection when he lost his favourite idol of Rama and his ecstasy on finding it in the river bed… These stories have been reiterated time and again, enacted through oral traditions like Harikatha and they have come to be impressed on our minds.  

Usually these stories are also linked to the compositions themselves. For instance, if you take the famous story of his composition, Tera Deeyaga Rada, the literal meaning is, “Won’t you draw back the curtain of arrogance within me?” whereas the story which has been enacted by Harikatha performers is that when Tyagaraja sang this kriti, in Tirupati, the curtain in front of the Lord was drawn back and he could get darshan. Thus, the latter story is stuck in our minds. Similarly, the narrative that the Tamil composer, Muthuthandavar had a skin disease which was cured when he saw the Lord, is more established than the actual historical facts like the date he was born or how long he lived (though there are dates mentioned, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the authenticity).  We, as a traditional society seem to find more comfort in the narratives told to us over centuries which keeps the tradition along with its values and morals strong. These are usually with the motif of a hero or a saint guiding us and inspiring us.  Hence, we have stories of most of the composers of Carnatic music as vehicles of devotion or bhakti, with a strong mythological narrative. But sadly, these seem to take away or diminish the importance of the high level of music that these composers had to offer. So today, when we discuss a Tyagaraja or a Muthuthandavar, how much are we studying their art purely for art’s sake, without glorifying their personal life?   

The Carnatic musician has been performing on the concert stage for the last 100 years and we have stories of so many brilliant musicians, who have adorned the music world for many years. Whether it is the story of the great musician Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar who actually gave shape to the concert format as it exists today, or the stories of the Devadasi tradition giving us outstanding musicians like Brinda, or the eccentric genius on the flute, Mali, all of them are stories of legends, which continue to inspire us.  Each of them had their own personal stories of struggle, rejection, acceptance, achievement, tragedy, triumph…. All this was part of what and who they were, it was also part of the music they sang. That is their story.

But, when we listen to the recordings of these giants, it is the music that goes straight into our hearts and minds and stays there forever.  And this is the listener’s or the rasika’s story…

Many times, I come across these expressions from people – “You brought tears to my eyes when you sang Mayamma”, “I saw Lord Krishna in front of me when I heard Krishna Nee Begane Baaro and so on. It is a fact that music evokes such reactions from the listener. The human mind revels in memories and the various emotions attached with them and music provides a very natural trigger to experience these. What we experience, we experience spontaneously, and that music which gives us a lot of comfort and security, we go back to it again and again. That which does not, we put in the backburner.

So, then I wonder, is that all a rasika gets from this art form? When a musician sings on stage, is he telling the stories of the composers?  Are we literally conveying the meaning of the compositions we sing? Are we just expressing our skills in the form of manodharma (creativity)? Is the listener just experiencing a myriad of emotions triggered by memories?

I feel that the story of Carnatic music goes beyond the literal. The story is not just about gods or devotion, not just the mythological tales woven in the texts; it’s also not just about the memories. If we look at the magnificent works of the great composers which we render today, we see how much of musical insights they must have had to bring out a Thodi, a Bhairavi, a Kambhoji, a Begada, a Varali and hundreds of more ragas and present them in the form of kritis. These have been handed over from generation to generation with an underlying continuity in the thread which links us with the past. So the Yadukula Kambhoji which I sing today may not sound exactly as it did 100 years ago, but the raga has evolved from its origin, undergone whatever changes and modifications on the way which was relevant to each time and finally has its present shape, yet it can be connected to the original one. This is the story of Yadukula Kambhoji, or any other raga for that matter.

Every story has its own narrative and each is true to itself. Mythology, history, society, religion and each individual, is part of every story and one is not seeking departure from any of this. But to view every story in a dispassionate sense is the real discovery. Every musician goes beyond all these narratives as soon as the music begins but to stay within that music is the difficult task. Each of these threads touches different chords, jostling for space within the music. Therefore, finding the right story is not the journey of any musician; it’s really about finding his or her own that truly reflects the depths of music that goes beyond narratives.

The writer is a Chennai-based classical musician

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