Music, Culture, History: A Conversation with David Shulman

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Source: A great article in Tablet Magazine about Prof. Shulman’s new book, Tamil: A Biography

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to interview David Shulman, a scholar whose work and impact is hard to describe in just a paragraph. He is arguably the world expert on south Indian languages, literature, and history, in addition to being a poet, literary critic, and activist. Fluent in Hebrew, Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi, his scholarship and knowledge is exhaustive.

I’ve written about Shulman’s work on this blog in the past; namely, his translations of songs that used to be performed by courtesans (devadasis) in South India. His latest book, Tamil: A Biography, published in 2016, focuses on the cultural history and development of the Tamil language. He is also a founding member of Ta’ayush, “a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership” in Palestine and Israel.

An Iowa native, Shulman is currently the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but each spring he comes to the University of Chicago as a visiting professor, which is where I had a chance to talk with him. Although I was a complete stranger, he graciously agreed to my request for a short interview, and invited me over to his apartment by Lake Michigan. We had a fascinating conversation on Carnatic music, culture, history, and language in South India and beyond. Enjoy!


You began your studies in Hebrew and Arabic, and then shifted your focus to South India. Could you talk a little bit about that?

The thing I most liked in my B.A. years was Persian. I was doing Arabic, and Islamic history, and Islamic studies, and African studies, and things like that. But in my second year, after a year of Arabic, I started Persian, and that was what I truly loved. I wasn’t that serious a student in general, but [laughs] the one thing I cared about, really, was Persian.

I went to Iran and wandered around there for a summer with my brother, and that time I could also speak a little Persian. But I was drunk on Persian poetry—that was the main thing. I went on a pilgrimage to the graves of Hafez and Saadi in Shiraz, and we were in Isfahan, the great Caspian Sea… Actually, from Persian, I drifted eastward into India, through a series of accidents. But it had a lot to do with Persian.

I also loved Persian music right away. They have a raga-like system, what they call the dastgah. There’s associated scales, there are melodic phrases, like in any Indian raga. They don’t have so many—you know there are hundreds and hundreds of ragas. In any case, I loved the music. They often sing delightful verses from Hafez, Saadi, Rumi…

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Kanaka Dasa’s musical critique of “Caste, caste, caste”

The poet-saint Kanaka Dasa lived in what is now the Indian state of Karnataka, in the 16th century, when the Vijayanagara Empire was flourishing. A devotee of Krishna, he was a member of the haridasa devotional movement, which began in the 14th century and continued on through the 19th century. Some well-known haridasas include Purandara Dasa and Vyasatirtha. The haridasa movement significantly influenced what we now know as Carnatic music; Purandara Dasa is known as the “Great Father of Music” (sangeeta pitamaha), and many of his songs and the compositions of other haridasas are sung today. Because we have lost the original melodies of these songs, modern musicians and scholars have set these Kannada compositions to music, and that’s what we hear today. Many of Kanaka Dasa’s songs are sung as part of the Carnatic classical canon, including the charming ragamalikaBaro krishnayya“.

The song I want to share in this post, “Kula kula kula vennutiharu,” is rarely heard on the Carnatic concert stage, but its message is as urgent now as it was hundreds of years ago. In this song, Kanaka Dasa questions the notions of purity and pollution that form the basis of caste. He cleverly points out that lotus flowers, cow’s milk, and fragrant musk all originate in locations that orthodox Hindus may see as “impure”; yet, their products are seen as symbols of divinity and goodness! He asks the listener: which caste do Vishnu and Shiva belong to? Which caste does the soul or the five senses belong to? These questions may seem frivolous and rhetorical, but the fact that caste hasn’t been eradicated yet shows us that we need to take Kanaka Dasa seriously.

This song has been set to a joyful raga, Hamir Kalyani, and is sung here by the Bangalore Brothers, M.B. Hariharan and S. Ashok. Kannada lyrics follow, with an English translation taken largely from William Jackson’s Vijayanagara Voices:

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Carnatic music as a tool for social change: “Chennai Poromboke Paadal”

Happy New Year all! I’ve been quite busy with college in the last few months, which is why I haven’t been posting as much lately. However, I did want to share this incredible video with you all.

“Chennai Poromboke Paadal” is another boundary-pushing project featuring Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna, who has been working tirelessly in the past few years to break down the elitist culture of Indian classical music (I’ve written about him in many previous posts). It was directed by Rathindran Prasad, who rose to fame with his “Kodaikanal Won’t” rap video starring Sofia Ashraf, and also involved journalist and activist Nityanand Jayaram and songwriter Kaber Vasuki. This video highlights the environmental impact of unrestricted urban development in Chennai, through a Carnatic composition in the colloquial dialect of Chennai Tamil.

Krishna has often asked “why is Carnatic music only in Sanskrit or chaste Tamil or chaste Telugu, and why is it talking about only [Hindu gods], when it could be talking about anything?”

“It’s very easy to say that Carnatic music should have different subjects and be in different dialects. It’s only when you do it that you realise if it works or not. The greatest thing the project has gifted me is that it has shown me such an experiment is possible and has opened incredible doors for me and for so many others.”

I’ll be honest: it’s a little unsettling to hear phrases like “concrete kattadam” (concrete buildings) sung in Anandabhairavi raga, but it’s also a really exciting feeling. I truly hope to see more projects like this; utilizing the rich aesthetic framework of this elite art form, but redirecting its lyrical focus to promote social change and introspection. This is the beginning of a new janma for Carnatic music.

Read more here, and watch the video below:

The kutcheri: a playlist, history, and critique

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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

Continue reading “The kutcheri: a playlist, history, and critique”

Getting lost in Bahudari

I have a summer research job where I mostly work on my laptop at home, so I’m free to listen to music, podcasts, lectures, whatever. Lately, I’ve been listening to Carnatic concerts, since it’s otherwise kind of inconvenient to listen to two-and-half hour-long YouTube videos during my everyday routine. So, while listening to a 2015 performance by TM Krishna, one of my favorite Carnatic musicians (for a variety of reasons), I was pleasantly surprised to hear him render a composition in one of my favorite ragas, Bahudari.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of Bahudari, because why write about it when you can listen instead? But I will say this: Bahudari is a unique Carnatic raga, in that it doesn’t contain rishabham (the equivalent in Western solfege is the second note, re). Partially because of this and a few other details in the raga, Bahudari lends itself to bright, expansive melodic phrases. It’s a feel-good raga, in my opinion. (Also, a detail that has no relevance to the raga itself: the word “bahudari” means “many paths” in Telugu.)

In Carnatic music, Bahudari is generally seen as a minor raga, rarely selected for extensive improvisation. There aren’t too many compositions set in Bahudari either, but one of the few is “Brova Bharama,” which happens to be one of my favorite kritis composed by Tyagaraja. In the TM Krishna concert I was listening to, “Brova Bharama” was the composition through which he explored Bahudari.

There’s something playful and (dare I apply this word to Carnatic music) fun about TMK’s exploration of Bahudari and “Brova Bharama”. At 37:07, Krishna begins with a tanam (improvisation with more of a rhythmic focus) that starts out delicately, becoming increasingly forceful. He is mirrored almost perfectly by the violinist RK Shriramkumar, whom we’ll be paying more attention to soon. Today, it’s unusual for vocalists to sing a tanam before a composition, but I remember reading somewhere that it is/was common for veena players to do so. Anyway, Krishna’s tanam explores the lower octave of Bahudari, increasing in complexity over time.

Now, it’s the violinist’s turn to shine. At 40:55, Shriramkumar begins a short alapana in Bahudari, and the very first phrase he plays is so well-crafted that it elicits an appreciative “Oh!” from Krishna. At 41:33, he then switches to a tanam (I think…), just like Krishna did before. That goes on for a minute or so–and then at 44:13, without any warning, the violinist decides to begin “Brova Bharama”!

This is a break from traditional protocol: usually, the violinist would end his improvisation and then allow the vocalist to begin the composition, but here the violinist headed straight into the composition from the tanam itself, with a smile on his face. Krishna is visibly surprised, but he goes with the flow, joining in soon after the violinist begins. This cheeky move by the Shriramkumar sets the tone for the entire composition, and it makes the whole thing fun and a real treat to watch. So, finally, here’s the video:

Finally, the part that really caught my attention was a short phrase at 46:05, when the Shriramkumar begins the charanam (third and final verse of the song). This sequence is just played so sweetly that I had to take my violin out and play along with the recording. Which I then did, on repeat, for like an hour… as cliche as it sounds, I think that was the first time I really experienced “getting lost in a raga.” That one phrase played by the violinist actually inspired me to write this whole post.

I remember when I used to fall asleep during the improvisational parts of Carnatic concerts. How I’ve changed! (Ok, that still happens sometimes. I’m working on it.)

Do any of you have similar experiences “getting lost” in music or art in general? I’d love to hear about them!