The kutcheri: a playlist, history, and critique

Painting by E. Ramki, “A Carnatic Music Concert” (2008)

A performance of Carnatic music is referred to as a kutcheri (also spelled kacheri, kacceri). The word “kutcheri”, however, does not simply mean “concert”; rather, it refers to a particular concert format which was developed in the early 20th century and was designed to present Carnatic music in a specific manner.

Carnatic music accords primacy to the voice, and indeed the kutcheri was designed as a vocal concert. The vocalist has full control over the kutcheri; they decide what compositions and ragas to perform, where to improvise, and how the concert generally flows. The vocalist usually receives melodic accompaniment from a violinist, and rhythmic support from a mridangam and sometimes ghatam player, with the drone of the tambura constantly in the background.

The kutcheri, which was pioneered by the vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967), follows a rather rigid format intended to highlight a variety of different ragas and types of Carnatic compositions. In my annotations for each track, I try to give an explanation of each composition, and the role it plays in the kutcheri.

Recently, the kutcheri format has been critiqued extensively by the vocalist T.M. Krishna, and I strongly agree with Krishna’s critique. I do believe that, if we view Carnatic compositions as truly artistic creations, and not merely as just religious songs, then the kutcheri does a disservice to the music. For example, some compositions (like varnams and padams) are simply deemed unfit for extensive improvisation.

In addition, the kutcheri includes items called “fillers” and “tukkadas” which are meant to be “lighter” and less melodically complex, thus giving the audience some “relief” from “heavier”, more complex ragas and compositions. Krishna argues, “Let’s take a Western classical concert. Every item is an intense piece of composition and music. Every item is presented with the same intensity, and the experience is as intense with a Schubert as with a Beethoven. You don’t have Beethoven being given as a filler, and you don’t have pieces towards the end just to tingle you before you head back home.”

However, like it or not, the kutcheri is the format in which Carnatic music is presented today. So, for those listeners who may never have been to a kutcheri before, here’s my attempt to recreate that experience.

One last note: this playlist is much shorter than an actual kutcheri. A real kutcheri would likely contain more compositions, and more extensive improvisation on some of the parts. For example, in this playlist, the ragam-tanam-pallavi is only about 20 minutes long, whereas in a live kutcheri it may be closer to an hour.

Hope you enjoy, and let me know what you think. History of the kutcheri and more of T.M. Krishna’s critique after the break.

The playlist

History of the word “kutcheri”

In his book A Southern Music, T.M. Krishna writes that “A Karnatik music concert is referred to as a kutcheri, a term that has originated from the Hindi word ‘kachehri’. How this word came to be adapted to the Karnatik context is quite fascinating. The word itself means a court, a public office and, by extension, the people assembled in such a place. The association with a court is very clear. It is most likely that this word came to be employed in the Karnatik music world during the Maratha rule in Tanjavur (1676-1800).

We know that the courthouse in those times was not a separate or remote precinct. It was the darbar of the king, the hall where he held audience, appeared before his court and subjects and dealt with matters of state. Inevitably, this was where the king made time and space for his subjects and visitors to present their aspirations and concerns to him. It was in this same space that music was presented to the kings. This overlapping of activity is believed to be why a Karnatik music presentation is called a kutcheri. Today, this term brings with it not just its linguistic meaning, but also the cultural context of Karnatik music as we have known it over the last century or so.”

How the kutcheri came to be

In From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy, Lakshmi Subramanian describes how Carnatic music as we know it today is largely a product of the early 20th century, following significant economic and social changes in south India and the rise of the nationalist movement. The Madras Music Academy played a critical role in identifying just what “classical music” was to mean in south India; a definition that was formulated by the Brahmin elites of Madras, subsequently excluding some traditional performers of music and dance, namely the devadasi community.

However, all that is for a later post. For now, I just want to highlight Subramanian’s analysis of how the kutcheri was developed in response to this new idea of “classical music” that was being formulated. She writes:

“The working out of the new aesthetic involved the organization of both concert format and repertoire. How an actual concert was to be organized in terms of time, selection of compositions, and presentation became important issues for consideration. The context in which these issues were debated was provided by the need, in the late 1930s and 1940s, for a new performing space for the newly articulated musical canon.

The key elements constituting the ‘classical’ in terms of structure was the repertoire, a range of compositions that framed melodic movement or raga singing in definitive terms and were set to identifiable rhythmic cycles. These compositions included:

  • older forms such as the varnams that were recognized as being essential exercises for relaxing the voice and preparing the performer for the concert to follow,
  • kirtanas (particularly of the trinity [Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, and Shyama Shastri]), and
  • love songs such as padams and javalis (traditionally associated with court and temple dancers)

There was also the improvisational aspect of classical music, referred to as manodharma sangitam, that included free and inventive melodic elaboration using either single syllables or small phrases for the purpose.

What the concert format was expected to demonstrate was sound theoretical knowledge within an effective practical performance, the standards for which the [Madras Music Academy] was in the process of establishing. The construction of a new performing aesthetic was framed within a limited or truncated duration of concert time–the general opinion being that the duration of the habitual concert was too long. Within this shortened time frame, it remained for the musical fraternity to devise repertoires that would demonstrate both authenticity of a performer [and his] musical lineage, as well as his expertise in rendering musical compositions with full understanding of their underlying theoretical basis.

It was found necessary to accommodate a variety of other genres that the Academy identified as “applied music”, namely compositions associated with religious dance and operatic music. Padams and javalis belonged to a category which, until the 1930s, was virtually the community property of a hereditary social class of female dancers known as devadasis and their male kin. There was also a growing corpus of nationalist songs and modern devotional poetry associated with theatre, which deployed classical melodies and enjoyed immense popularity.

The chief architect of the concert format or kacheri paddhati was Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, who was early in noting that expansive recitals and relaxed listening for long hours belonged to a past era, and what was needed was to quicken the concert tempo with shorter performances and a balanced selection of compositions. The decision to sing ‘miscellaneous’ pieces in a variety of languages, he said, was not a traditional practice but a modern innovation that was in keeping with the nationalist temper of his times.

On the other hand, the decision to stay with the medium and fast tempo, in marked contrast to the slower movement adopted by musicians in the north, became an important marker of the Karnatik style, the preservation of which was tied up with notions of a distinct cultural expression, if not a separate identity.

In 1947, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, speaking in favour of a shorter duration, mentioned that discriminating people were beginning to feel that the average concert was too lengthy for proper assimilation and absorption. Ariyakudi, however, insisted that the kacheri had to incorporate a specific selection of musical compositions like the varnam, which helped in voice relaxation, and include a variety of both melodies and rhythms, and that alone would keep the torch of Karnatik music alive.”

T.M. Krishna’s critique of the kutcheri

The kutcheri has indeed kept Carnatic music alive over the past century. However, it also has serious drawbacks, which have been examined in detail by the enfant terrible of Carnatic music: T.M. Krishna.

One of Krishna’s strongest critiques of the kutcheri is the distinction it makes between “lighter” and “heavier” ragas and compositions. It is believed that “heavy”, complex ragas must be balanced by “lighter” compositions, which aren’t as complex. Thus, “lighter” pieces are sprinkled throughout the kutcheri to allow the audience to “relax”. The entire concert after the ragam-tanam-pallavi is made up only of these lighter pieces: tukkadas. Take a look at Krishna’s critique of this phenomenon. In this interview, he is asked about his (wonderful) book, A Southern Music:

Let’s talk about the prescriptive parts [of the book], where you put forth your thoughts on what you think a concert should be like. You say, for instance, that “an art music presentation” has no room for light miscellanies like tukkadas, and that “a kutcheri is not a variety entertainment show or a circus presentation where you need to experience the frown of the lion and the snigger of a clown.”

The prescription is conceptual, and it comes back to the idea of art music and Karnatik music. Let’s take a Western classical concert. Every item is an intense piece of composition and music. Every item is presented with the same intensity, and the experience is as intense with a Schubert as with a Beethoven. You don’t have Beethoven being given as a filler, and you don’t have pieces towards the end just to tingle you before you head back home. Can you tell me why, in Carnatic music, these are necessary?

If you want to call Carnatic music ‘devotional music’, then I can’t have this discussion with you. We’re looking at it from different angles. But if you want to treat Carnatic music as a conceptual and aesthetic art music form, then there’s no room for these fillers. I do not go to a concert for titillation. I go with the expectation that every piece is going to be an intense experience that’s respected as much by the artiste as the audience. Instead, we talk of fillers, as if they’re some fly-by-night operators. “All you guys can relax for a few minutes and then I’ll get back to serious business.” This is ridiculous.

I still perform tukkadas. I’m fine with it, though one day I hope I can throw them away — but I don’t get it when people say “After all the heavy stuff, people need to go home with lighter ragas”. I don’t get this idea of one raga being heavy and serious and another being light and frivolous.”

In another interview, he remarks: “Some musicians argue that after the ‘heaviness’ of the concert’s main section, it is important to let audiences go home with lighter pieces that do not tax them. Therefore, the treatment of ragas in these lighter pieces is generally superficial. Musicians also use the term ‘light’ ragas. I don’t think there are light and heavy ragas. There are ragas, and all of them are serious melodic creations.

Light compositions are usually those that evoke obvious and literal religious fervour; sometimes, even romantic and patriotic fervour. But you may ask how is this lighter? It is so because it breaks down the basic quality of art music, which is to go beyond the literal to the abstract. When this is not considered a necessity in a rendition, then it ceases to be art music. This is unacceptable to me. Every piece in a Carnatic concert must be treated as being an abstracted art creation. If this is ignored, then these light pieces are unnecessary.”

The wonderful thing about Krishna is that, in his concerts, he himself has largely broken out of the kutcheri mold: “Krishna sings varnams in the middle of a concert, for instance. These fast-paced compositions are typically sung at the beginning of the concert to warm up the voice and energize the audience. Krishna has, on occasion, trailed off after an alapana or flight of musical imagination of a raga. Instead of singing the composition that comes after the improvisation, he has asked his violinist to do the job instead.”

The list could go on, and one just needs to Google his name to find the overwhelming praise and criticism Krishna has received for his exploration of possibilities beyond the kutcheri. It is my fervent hope that Krishna’s example will soon be followed by other musicians. Carnatic music is simply too vast to be contained by the kutcheri.

In the meantime, however, please do take a look at my playlist and let me know what you think!


Image sourceKutcheri painting


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