The definition of music includes terms like melody, aesthetics, enjoyment and similar emotions. We say, ‘it’s music to the ears’ when something is pleasant. Carnatic music, however, is seeing the creeping influence of a muscular and robust brand of singing that may challenge these definitions. It is now par for the course to be loud, over-enthusiastic, imperious and vigorous, which all seem to be advocated as surrogates for liveliness and energy. For example, a thunderous high-speed, protracted niraval for a few ‘avartanams’ with largely repetitive phrases but rendered with punch and aggression is common now — but quite antithetic to the beauty of many ragas. Yet, it’s a style perpetrated from seniors to rising stars. The following words are now in danger of being edged out — softness, finesse, grace, refinement and polish, poise and restraint. If you put these terms together, you will understand the contrast that I am referring to. In fact, the gentler and quieter the music, the more its power to elevate the soul.
What are some of the unfortunate consequences of this? Concert goals shift from audience enjoyment to gung-ho demonstration, from a soothing experience to bombardment, and from pleasing vocal music to vocal exercises for showmanship. Some vocalists are keen to show their scale range by ‘trying’ upper-octave panchamam or higher, no matter how it sounds. Some use harsh tones in raga alapanas, the ‘tu tu tu’ and so on borrowed from an alien vocabulary. Depending on the rank of the vocalist, the transgressions into melody-less spaces are self-guided and even self-adjudicated. The meandering swaras, the unaesthetic sangathis (often a result of poor production rather than the swara structure), and the breathless exercises often bring the mood to one of cacophony. If not these, then one witnesses unwelcome forms of body language and even irreverence. Audio systems and percussionists have become co-conspirators as well. Thank god, most violinists still pursue sweet melody.
So, who do we blame if this trend gets out of hand? Senior vocalists own the responsibility to bequeath balanced presentation techniques as has been done in previous eras. As they become role models, they need to introspect if their quest for muscular dominance is eroding the music’s fundamental beauty. Percussion support is not merely about noise production — either through audio amplification or style — but subtly blending with and supporting the main music. You only need to listen to half-a-dozen stalwarts of the 60s and 70s to appreciate that effect. Pauses are as important as strokes. But has that been forgotten?
The use of kalapramanam is another fine art. Most timeless kritis come with a narrow band of allowance for kalapramana variations. The frenzy and rush to give audiences some kind of ‘jolt’ is neither aesthetic nor respectful to the kriti’s creators. I once heard the Arabhi Andal Pasuram, ‘Ongi ulakalanda’, sung with enormous power and force that dwarfed the fact that Andal was a 12-year-old girl whose prattling sought Krishna’s love. The mood was completely incongruent. Is that why the performance of new, unheard-of kritis is on the rise? Perhaps they give more leeway? Lastly, large crowds and followings may be misunderstood as complete endorsement of the musician’s craft. But it’s often only a recognition for the singer’s better aspects; the audience never speaks but switches abruptly at some point.
One of the most complete musicians of a previous era, Palghat K. V. Narayanaswamy, once responded to a question on what lifts music with the word sowkhyam. Vocalists need to reflect on their melody quotient and recalibrate. Gusto and machismo are not suited to Carnatic music. Incidentally, this affliction has not entered Hindustani music. With good reason.
The writer specialises
in Carnatic music.