Should Carnatic music be classified as art music or devotional music? Both? Neither?
I tried to answer this question in one of my first posts, and I still don’t have a clear answer.
T. M. Krishna is one of the most skilled vocalists in the next generation of Carnatic musicians, but the reason I admire him so much is because he is attempting to re-imagine nearly every aspect of Carnatic music. He’s stoked controversy through his various articles on social and political issues in India, and by declaring that “Carnatic music is a Brahmin-dominated, male chauvinistic world.” Krishna has worked to raise awareness about the forces of casteism and sexism historically present in Carnatic music, while also democratizing Carnatic music today. For example, he has pledged to boycott the most prestigious (and rather elitist) Carnatic music festival in Chennai, instead holding a music festival in a fishing village. In addition, he is also aesthetically reinventing the format of Carnatic concerts, which tend to follow a rigid structure.
Krishna performing at his music festival, the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Vizha
Krishna has written an excellent book on Carnatic music called A Southern Music, in which he makes an argument for focusing on the aesthetic, artistic aspects of Carnatic music and improvisation over the devotional aspect of most Carnatic compositions:
“Is Karnatik music inherently religious?
To answer that, I must ask whether Karnatik music was intended to be religious. It is not possible to respond in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ terms to this…
But clearly its journey included a relationship with temples and their associated rituals. This is where we need to look beyond the function and the practice of the music. We need to recognise the brilliance of musicians whose genius was logistically linked to religious sites, but was aesthetically free to and did indeed travel beyond the precincts of the temple where they practised their art. In this complex formation lies the answer to the question about the intent of Karnatik music. My point of view on this subject is not atheistic but aesthetic.
Now to pose another related question: what happens when the thought in the musician’s mind is the music’s religious content? This is not an academic question, but is about a very real situation. Most Karnatik musicians in the past and many in the present hail from conservative families, more often than not of brahmin descent. They believe strongly in religion and ritual. This automatically makes their relationship with Karnatik music religious. In this situation, the lyrics rendered further entrench their already conditioned minds in religious belief, leading many musicians to feel, believe and then propound the belief that they are conveying the philosophical and religious meaning of the vaggeyakara (composer) to the audience. Many kirtanas are rendered with deep feeling and focus on the names of the deities and the vaggeyakara’s yearning for these gods.
In doing so, is the kirtana’s aesthetic make-up influenced? As much as the musicians are engrossed in the music, the focus is driven by textual meaning as they understand it and their own associations with the words being sung. Lines in the compositions are rendered with a clear emphasis on those words that create a religious – if not devotional – emotion both for the musician and the listener. These lines are even repeated to constantly emphasise the same emotion. In the process, the musician’s thoughts veer away from the musical structuring.
Within the modern world, the Hindu religious content raises an important question. Can an atheist or a non-Hindu be a Karnatik musician?
The environment that pervades Karnatik music makes it very difficult for an atheist to function within its world. There may be a few, but they will find it very difficult to come out in the open and articulate an atheistic narrative for Karnatik music. They will silently pamper the religious responses to their music and encourage devotional and philosophical expressions. I am not finding fault, but highlighting the difficulty for them to be who they are within this world. The musical fraternity at large does not feel it necessary to give Karnatik music, especially its compositional forms, a purely aesthetic thought.
What about practitioners of other religions? Among the nagasvara community there were not a few Muslim families that mastered this art form. Most of them flourished in what is now Andhra Pradesh and a few still live alongside the most conservative Hindu communities of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu. My admiration for these people is immense, as they have been able to negotiate two very opposing ideas, but there is a nuance. They have had to, perhaps willingly, accept the Hindu pantheon within their world. You will find their homes adorned with pictures of Hindu deities and their immense respect for Hindu gods and goddesses even when their religious practices are Islamic. This is a credit to their ability to straddle two worlds. But they cannot display apathy for Hinduism and be accepted as musicians by the Karnatik world.” (source)
Krishna makes a related argument even more forcefully at another point in the book:
“When listeners come with the mindset of understanding sahitya (lyrics) in order to connect with Karnatik music, they make the same mistake as the musician in not allowing the art object to create the magic. The listener is only listening to poetry in the garb of music. Although this can be a deeply moving experience, it prevents the listener from connecting emotionally to the abstraction. The music they are listening to becomes religious, social or political music.” (pages 278-279)
Looking back at my previous posts on Carnatic music, I think I’m guilty of prioritizing the religious meaning of Carnatic compositions over their musical aspects, and I definitely want to try and look at Carnatic music from a more aesthetic perspective now.
However, in the case of the song “Enta matramuna”, I think we’re allowed to take a good look at its lyrics, for a couple reasons. Firstly, this kriti was composed by the Telugu poet-composer Annamacharya, who lived from 1408-1503 and whose poetry I’ve written about before. Although we still have the lyrics to hundreds of Annamacharya compositions, we no longer know the original ragas or melodies in which they were set. In fact, many compositions were recently found on copper plates in a hidden chamber of the Tirupati Venkateshwara temple. Because of this, I don’t feel that by closely examining the lyrics of this song, I’m somehow disrespecting Annamacharya’s creative intent. Although he was a vaggeyakara — vach (word) + geya (singer) + kara (person) = composer — in his time, today we have to approach him primarily as a poet whose compositions have been set to music by others.
In addition, I think this song gives a insight into the spirit of religious pluralism that defines Hinduism and, at the same time, makes Hinduism so hard to define.
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