Monday, 5 April, 2010

The Carnatic conundrum

Yesterday evening, I was at a concert: Prasanna (guitar), Victor Wooten (bass guitar), Karthik (ghatam) and Bangalore Amrit (kanjira). I loved it. So did the rest of the audience, to judge by their reactions to Prasanna and Wooten's frenetic fretwork, and particularly how they cheered and whistled when Karthik and Amrit engaged in a percussion duel much like a Carnatic tani avartanam.
This caused a question to pop into my head. If they liked that so much, why don't I see them (young people, many carrying guitars which they'd carried to a workshop by Wooten in the afternoon) attending Carnatic concerts in big groups?
What Karthik and Amrit did was pretty much what every percussion duo or trio (one of the best tani avartanams I ever saw was a three-way thing pitting mridangam, ghatam and morsing at an Aruna Sairam concert in December 2008) does at the end of the centrepiece of every Carnatic concert. 
Ironically, a significant section of the mostly silver- or salt-and-pepper-haired crowd that attends these concerts walks out for a snack when the tani avartanam begins; in short, they show far less understanding of and appreciation for the percussionists' talents than the younger crowd at the Wooten-Prasanna show did.
So why?
I got a partial answer just after the concert ended, when I was discussing the experience with a friend, who's from another department of the newspaper I work for. She said she'd enjoyed the show, but thought Prasanna hogged the limelight. 
"I had come to watch Victor Wooten," she said. "I don't think I'd ever attend a Prasanna concert."
"Why not? You should check out one of his Carnatic performances sometime," I said.
"No, I don't really like Carnatic music that much."
How much Carnatic music had she heard in her life? 
Her answer? The instrumental music they play at the canteen and the elevators at the office. It's feeble stuff, flute or violin renditions of done-to-death compositions, with little or no percussive backing and as representative of Carnatic music as a monophonic Fur Elise ringtone is to Beethoven's lifetime output.
Based on that sample, she'd decided she didn't like Carnatic music. If that was my only exposure to Carnatic music, there's no way I'd want to listen either. 
A lot of people carry in their heads this notion that Carnatic music is somehow forbidding, serious, sombre, slow. It's completely untrue. It's usually (when handled by accomplished artistes) full of witty repartee between singer/lead musician and accompanists, or between accompanists, and the people on stage spend a lot of time smiling at each other or making appreciative gestures, trading musical inside jokes. A well-delivered concert usually spans the entire emotional spectrum - much like the Wooten/Prasanna/Karthik/Amrit show. 
And I say this as someone whose Carnatic training lasted less than a month, when I was in the first standard. The lady downstairs, who taught me and this other kid the rudiments, frequently yelled at us when we played cricket outside her window and once even confiscated my bat; how could I possibly learn music from someone like that? What I mean to say is, if I can enjoy Carnatic music, so can anyone with an open mind and the barest ear for music.
Here's Benjamin Zander, saying much the same thing, far more coherently: how anyone can enjoy classical music:

Oh, and do read this as well. It asks the question of what role music plays in our lives, and whether our priorities are all wrong, and is an utterly brilliant piece of journalism. Thanks to Sruthi for mailing me the link.