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.


J B Jux said...

Nice post KK and one that can induce healthy debate. A few days back me and my brother had a similar conversation.

My observations...

Music has become much like anything else in the World. People tend to listen to what they think is "cool" And for some strange reason India has not been successful in bringing in the "cool" factor into classical music.

Perhaps it's time for us, the younger generation to take Indian classical music to a level where there is enough exposure of classical music to laymen and laywomen. When i say exposure, I don't mean forceful intake.

Guitar Prasanna is doing this in his own way. All we need is more guitar
Prasannas, Raghu Dixits, Euphoria and others who can present Indian music in a way that appeals to the younger.

Lulu LaBonne said...

I saw BZ talk years ago and never forgot it - just been watching this TED - great stuff!

Sruthi K said...

About the Tani avartanam: I think it is because most of the audience lacks knowledge of percussion. It is not easy to understand the nuances of how an intricate dance of rhythm is being played out,unless you know something about how the spaces between beats are being played around with. Maybe some workshops where people are introduced to percussion will help.

About appreciating classical carnatic: I agree with what you said and I've seen it happen to my friends in Bbay. We went for the IMG concert at St Xaviers the guitarist pal and drummer pal loved instrumental classical concerts. There is a prejudice against classical music that you need to be initiated to understand and cannot stop by for easy listening.

Nice post. :) Especially the description of the canteen music :D

Ghanshyam Nair said...

Well, right from the time I was a kid at my first concert, I found the tani quite fascinating - I've always thought it the part of the concert where showmanship and the artistes' engagement with the audience are at their highest. So I've always been puzzled by the sight of people walking out when it begins.
But yeah, your theory might partly explain this.
The canteen music is atrocious. To even call it Carnatic is blasphemy.

Ramnarayan said...

nair, very well written. nice style, understanding of the nuances of carnatic music. please subscribe to sruti!

oof ya! said...

Hmmmm at the risk of embarrassing myself amongst the music knowledgebles - i fall into the canteen music category. your post blew me away. i didn't realise there was more to it than canteen music. seriously. am of the opinion that you are one of the few of my generation who knows the world of carnatic music beyond canteen music. a species to be preserved. blogger is asking me to type FARSTLIZ . It is the only word standing between me and my opinion on your blog :)

sanjuayyar said...

Carnatic can be headier than trance dude. The stuff they play in the elevators and hotel lobbies in Mumbai, or rather, this part of the country isn't music. It is unintended humour.