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:

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The kutcheri: a playlist, history, and critique

a_carnatic_music_concert
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!

“Enta Matramuna” and the religious aspect of Carnatic music

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 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.

Continue reading ““Enta Matramuna” and the religious aspect of Carnatic music”