Of Carnatic music and cockeyed misconceptions

This is an article I wrote back in school, when I was about 14. It was originally published here.


It was a seemingly innocuous question (but on hindsight, a pitiable blunder) that made my final couple of months in school last year almost a living hell. It was a scorching afternoon in Chennai, as all afternoons are, and I was in school. It appeared to me as I tackled my chemistry assignment, that a group of my friends were having a lively conversation. The ear detected a good deal of ‘Radio Mirchi this’ and ‘Radio Mirchi that’ and so, it seemed to me that the gist of their very animated conversation was about a particular ‘Radio Mirchi’. Curiosity aroused and not wanting to be left out of all the fun they apparently were having, I asked ‘so, what’s this Radio Mirchi thing, anyway?’. My question was followed by a deafening silence – one that I can only describe as a lull after a storm. Six pairs of very bulging and disbelieving eyes goggled at me, hoping they hadn’t heard what they thought they’d heard.

‘Did ya ask what Radio Mirchi is?’

‘Radio Mirchi. I said Radio Mirchi and I meant Radio Mirchi’ the unsuspecting me answered.

And what a tumult it was that followed! I managed to gather later that it was the ‘hottttttttttest radio channel on earth’.

But word soon spread like wildfire that there existed a moron that didn’t know about Radio Mirchi and soon, I was a crowd puller, much to the envy of the king cobra specimen in our biology lab, what with people jostling and shoving and pushing to get if only a sideways glance at me.

Well, that evening I tuned in to the ubiquitous radio channel that had so captured my friends’ hearts and after ten minutes of listening to the ‘hottest’, but frankly, the most outlandish songs I’ve ever heard, possibly the longest ten minutes of my life, my ears were begging to be relieved of the pain. When they were eased at last of the tingling sensation, I wondered, not without a tinge of jealousy towards those boorish inanities, if Tyagaraja’s ‘chakkani raja‘ or Dikshitar’s ‘akhilandeshwari‘ could stir the kind of insane passion that ‘manmada rasa‘ or ‘appadi podu‘ did in my friends.

So, what is it that makes today’s young people turn a deaf ear to carnatic music?

1. “It’s what everybody does, so I’ve gotta do it, too!”

That makes film music the in-thing. Much like my first day in school, when a bleary-eyed, three year old version of me told my stunned father, “but everyone cried in my class, pa, so I thought I must cry too”.

And, a friend of mine keeps herself up-to-date with happenings in Hollywood, Bollywood, Kollywood and what have you.. simply because she hates to miss the bandwagon. Believe me, movies interest her no more than chemistry interests me.

And so, since film music is what everyone listens to, it’s but natural for everyone else to follow in their footsteps. Just like it’s but natural for a kid in a family of carnatic musicians to grow up to become a carnatic musician. You may, at this point, cry foul. ‘It’s merely the genes at work’, you might counter. Ahh, well, there’s that of course, but there again, if you never did listen to carnatic music, I don’t see how you will end up becoming a carnatic musician.

2. The most widely prevalent view, yet a gross misconception: carnatic music is for the madisar mamis and the sotta thalai mamas.

Carnatic musicians are all thought to be mamas with veshti, vibhuthi and vetthala pakku. And as a consequence, carnatic music is not ‘cool’, it isn’t ‘hep’.  It’s no wonder then that at kutcheris, the average age of the audience is nothing less than ripe old sixty.

Moral: Psst, if you’re a teenager, nothing could be more ignominious than to let people find out that you have even the slightest association with carnatic music.

3. “It’s sAmi pATTu

That’s another quip I hear ever so often. And so again, that makes carnatic music so ‘un-cool’ or ‘un-hot’, whichever way you’d  have it. But I can’t help but chuckle when I hear that – they’ve apparently never heard of padams or javalis.

4. “You need to have brains, you know, to appreciate that kind of music”

Yes, that’s another common explanation. And, I admit, it’s still got me fogged.

5. “I’ve tried listening to carnatic music” or “I learnt carnatic music for a while” followed by a “but it’s just wayyyy tooo boring.”

That’s probably because, instead of letting it grow on them, they just rushed head-long into it.

Or the first carnatic piece they heard was a long Kambhoji alapana or a really slow Yadukulakambhoji kriti.

Or the first teacher they had was the mami across the street.

One of my friends learnt carnatic music for a few years – she did all the varisaissarali, jantai, dhatu, then the alankarams, a handful of geethams, and by the time she got around to learning some small kritisalaipayudhey, gajananayutham and the like (which was about two years after she started learning), she lost hope that she would ever progress beyond ‘sa ri ga ma pa da ni sa’ and with it all of the little interest she had in carnatic music. And what made the entire affair outrageous was that her teacher never used a shruti box (“We can make do without it” she claimed and it wasn’t as though her shruti was like Madurai Mani Iyer’s) and so, my friend took lessons in carnatic music, sans its very jIvan, it’s AtmA – the shruti! And I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t already have a great love for the art, singing just ‘sa ri ga ma pa da ni sa’ patiently in all its permutations and combinations for two whole years until they graduate to learning kritis, not when film music seems so much more inviting and so much more easier to sing.

A leading musician of today says in one of his books that the wise thing to do to start learning carnatic music would be to approach a seasoned musician. And if the musician himself/herself is unable to teach, he/she will at least direct the student to a good teacher.

6. “Bah! It’s just ‘sa ri ga ma pa da ni sa’! What’s the big deal?”

Unbelievable but true! There are some who are hopelessly unaware that carnatic music is a lot more than just the seven syllables!

Sample this – again, one of those ‘unbelievable but true’ things:

It was one of those navaratri evenings, when there’s festivity in the air and when everyone’s busy making flying visits to everyone else’s homes for vetthala pakku. As I went along with my mother, one of our stops was at the house of a self-proclaimed carnatic music rasika. As expected, the lady asked me to sing, and having done so, proceeded to fervently discuss for the next five minutes, with her daughter, my mother’s pattu podavai. At the end of which, I’d dutifully completed the Arabhi kriti ‘pAhi parvata nandini mAmayi‘.

Looking me up and down with an approving look when I’d finished, “Brilliant!” she claimed, and the daughter nodded in agreement.

It was the daughter’s turn now. Not wanting to be outdone, “Who’s your guru?”, she enquired brightly.

“Shri Shashikiran”, I replied, with pride.

“Shashi, who?”

Okay, she hadn’t heard of the younger sibling, but she’d know Chitravina Ravikiran, I reasoned. “He’s Chitravina Ravikiran’s brother”

The daughter raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“You know the gOTTuvAdyam?”, I asked, speaking austerely. Now, she was beginning to get on my nerves.

“Boat, what?” she asked in reply.

I reeled, and might have fallen, had I not been sitting at the time.

The daughter, I learnt later, had been learning music for eleven years then.

7. “Most songs are in Telugu and Sanskrit and I can’t understand them”

Most people don’t. Even the musicians. It’s the melody and not the lyrical beauty that appeals to many people. Which is why, ‘pantureeti kolu‘ and ‘entaro mahanubhavulu‘ are just as common in concerts as ‘bantureeti kolu‘ and ‘endaro mahanubhavulu‘! Instrumental music has takers, not because of the lyrical content of the songs, but because of their melodic beauty. But then, if you are a Tamilian and don’t understand Telugu or Sanskrit, whoever said carnatic music doesn’t have compositions in vernacular Tamil? ‘Tamizh Tyagaraja’ Papanasam Sivan, Koteeswara Iyer, Periasami Tooran, Subramanya Bharathi, Tanjavur Shankara Iyer and a plethora of other contemporary composers have all made substantial contributions to carnatic music.

8. Film music, these days, is for the eyes, not the ears. And since carnatic music is meant primarily for the ears, it isn’t as popular as it’s non-classical counterpart.

So, what needs to be done to tilt the scales in favour of carnatic?

One solution that jumps to the mind immediately is setting up music schools to train young people and organising concerts on a regular basis. But that, in my opinion, is the second step in the process, the first being initiating the uninitiated. This should be done by including music in the school curriculum. Most schools, including mine, do have one music class a week, but that invariably stops with the 8th grade. Since a music teacher is gauged by the number of competitions her students win for the school, the teacher we had was always busy training us kids that already sang pretty well, never bothering to go to her allocated classes to teach the not-so-enlightened. I dare say the same holds good for many other schools. Music teachers at school should begin with teaching students peppy carnatic pieces like ‘shakti sahita ganapathim‘ and ‘santhatham pahimam‘, and then move on to explaining fundamental concepts of music and demonstrating its different dimensions – lyrical, melodical, therapeutic, mathematical – all in a manner that will appeal even to the dullest of minds.

The next step would be to encourage students who develop an interest in carnatic music to train themselves, outside of school. Not everyone may go through to this level, but I am sure initiating students to carnatic music in school will make them enjoy it, if not pursue it, since the classes would help dispel the associated myths, some of which I have just discussed.

I gathered the reasons mentioned above from my friends in school, and needless to say, was overwhelmed by their lacerated opinion. And the kerfuffle that followed the revelation of my ignorance about Radio Mirchi was the last straw. I resolved to contribute what I could, at least in school, to elevate carnatic music to the exalted status that it’s non-classical counterpart currently enjoys, be it as it may, a mere drop in the ocean.

The computer science project that I submitted for the std XII board exams was on carnatic music and so, most students ended up reading, along with the code in my programs, a lot about carnatic music, which, of course, had been my primary intention. I proceeded to dispel the myth that carnatic musicians are all mamas and mamis, by showing them photographs of some of our young vidvans and vidushis. During lunch hours, I got groups of students together and explained to them basic concepts like raga, tala, neraval, krithi,kalpana swaram, et al. During class hours, I hummed away with unrestrained gusto, making my friends listen to me, since nobody cared to listen to the teachers, anyway (remember what Mark Twain said – “I never let my schooling interfere with my education!”).

Then, one day, in math class, I heard a soft yet audible tune. One of my classmates was humming ‘shakti sahita ganapathim‘, one of those very girls who’d a little more than two months back, looked at carnatic music with nothing more than a jaudiced eye. I cast a sideways glance at her. She caught my eyes and returned my smile.

“Raga Shankarabharanam” she said.

The words were music to my ears.

A small battle had been won, bigger ones beckon…


*Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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