Sunday 12 February 2012

How, Indeed, Should Carnatic Music be Performed?

How, Indeed, Should Carnatic Music be Performed?

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 12 February 2012

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 2012.  All Rights Reserved.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author alone, and of no one else, unless specifically mentioned otherwise.


The well-known Carnatic vocalist, TM Krishna, recently wrote an article in the Hindu Arts section on how Carnatic music is presented and what is wrong with it.  

While I agree with Krishna's intent in writing this article, and do think a debate is very healthy, I would have liked it more if he could be a bit more specific and less hazy.  In some cases it appears he is trying hard to speak in generalities lest he offend anyone.  I disagree with some of the points he has raised and, further, believe that some of his points are typical of the Indian complaining mentality where people bemoan the ills that plague India without doing anything to remedy them.

I will now consider the substantial points he has raised (by paraphrasing his arguments) and also give my response to them.

Pandering to the Audience’s Plebeian Tastes

TMK:  You don't necessarily need to pander to the audience.  Today's concerts often seem more like variety entertainment programmes, namasankirtanams, or the performance of a trapeze artist. Art music is “a shared, intense, aesthetic experience,” and “not a service of spiritualism, religion, or entertainment provided by musicians to the audience.”

SK: Yes, at a philosophical level I do agree: you do not need to pander to the audience.  When you go to the level of the lowest common denominator, art suffers. 

But today, music is a commercial venture.  Sabhas make money if people come to concerts, and if you are going to be performing things people do not care about, the sabhas are not going to invite you.  So it is a delicate balance between preserving your own integrity and recognizing that you ARE an entertainer. 

I was in Chennai a few years ago during the season and attended a very nice concert by OS Thyagarajan, one of the singers I like, because he does interesting things with his music.  The concert hall was probably ¼ full.  I heard that the next evening, his brother, OS Arun, performed a concert of light classical numbers to a packed audience.  No prizes for guessing who makes more money!  If your own interests are absolutely divergent with that of your audience, you will probably have to sing for yourself in your home.

Understanding the Changing Context

The fact is that the context of Indian classical music, both northern and southern styles, has changed significantly in the last 100 years, and musicians who care about the excellence of their art have not evolved in tune with the changing context.  This is the reason for the dilemma that TM Krishna is finding himself in.  Let me explain.

In the past, musicians knew their audience.  It was, largely, a musically literate audience.  This was true both in Hindustani and Carnatic music.  In Hindustani music, classical music was reserved for those who had access to the royal courts, for that was where great musicians used to situate themselves.  If you wanted to hear someone of the stature of a Bhimsen Joshi, for instance, you had better have connectivity with the royal court that musician was associated, else your chances of listening to such a great master would be limited indeed.  The audiences that these musicians performed for was much smaller and more expert in the art – often, other musicians or nobility who were themselves well acquainted with the art.

The situation in Carnatic music was not very different, even though the social circumstances were very different.  In the old days, in select communities, such as Brahmins, all the girls used to learn classical music, and for extended periods.  Music was considered a necessary accomplishment to be able to obtain a good husband; indeed, mastery of music is mentioned even in an ancient text such as the Kama sutra as one of the 64 arts necessary for a woman to master.  It is true, some gents were also musically literate, but for a woman it was mandatory.  Professional musicians therefore had a ready audience of highly literate ladies who could critically evaluate their efforts – many of them would know the compositions that the singer was performing, including all the sangathis involved, the crucial part where the niraval was to be done, could probably each reel off a dozen kalpanaswarams in the raga the singer was singing – and so it was essential to raise the level of the music to such an extent that such an educated audience would consider it good.

But things have changed today.  Today’s young women have to worry about getting an education and later a job.  Let alone singing, many of them do not even know enough about a more essential skill: cooking.  They are too busy with their classes and tuitions and homeworks and getting ready for their 10th, 12th, and IIT/Medical entrance exams.  Even if they do manage to learn something about music, their understanding is often sketchy.

In addition to this, the potential audience for a singer has hugely expanded.  Whereas, earlier a singer would sing for a small gathering (what is known as a “mehfil” in the north), today he or she sings in large auditoria.  And musicians today have to earn their income through commercial recordings, such as CDs, which are sold in the millions.  Most of the millions buying these recordings are not, in the least, familiar with classical music.

So, to put it in a nutshell, audiences are fairly illiterate.  An audience can only relate to what it knows.  People today come to a Carnatic music concert for different things.  Most Carnatic compositions are religious, owing to the fact that the majority of compositions have come from saint-composers, and so, to many people, Carnatic music symbolizes religious music.  So yes, such people come to Carnatic concerts expecting a parade of bhajans.  They are not interested in long alapanas, elaborate niravals, or kalpanaswarams.  They only care to hear Rama or Krishna or Devi being praised.

Others are only familiar with catchy film melodies, and so when they come to a classical performance, they expect something similar.  Such people will only applaud if you keep belting out songs like “Raghuvamsa sudha,” “Vatapi ganapathim,” and other catchy numbers.  If you serve up stuff like what Ganesh and Kumaresh or Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan do, they will be delighted.  If you perform Madurai Mani Iyer’s “English Note,” they will love it.  Yes, they are looking for a variety entertainment experience.  Can you blame them?  That is the closest they can get to what they actually know: “Why this kolaveri, kolaveri, kolaveri di?”

And yes, others who don’t know much about Carnatic music will enjoy it more if the tempo goes up, simply because it is fast and exciting.  Hindustani musicians have discovered this long ago.  Go to any Hindustani sitar player’s concert and you will find the audience goes ecstatic, not when a soulful alap is played (for which a polite applause is granted), but when the sitariya and tabliya do a back-and-forth “sawal-jawab” (question-answer) session.  Oh, and the fast-paced “jhala” that is integral to every sitar performance is always a favourite.  Such displays are common in Carnatic music as well.  If that seems like a “trapeze performance,” recognize, again, that really this is all your audience can appreciate, so if you want an audience, you better make them happy.

Do the Right Thing

Now, it doesn’t have to be this way.  If you notice, the root cause why audiences demand all these gimmicks is because they are not educated.  If you want audiences to swing to a different rhythm, why don’t YOU teach them that rhythm?  Why don’t YOU, TM Krishna, and others like you, educate them?

Why do I rarely, if ever, find Carnatic musicians conducting lecture-demonstrations in schools and colleges to explain what they are doing and why?  If YOU want a market for the kind of music YOU wish to perform, it is YOUR responsibility to educate the public as to why they should listen to your musical style rather than another trapeze performance.

That this is possible and not a pipe dream has already been demonstrated, most impressively, by Pandit Ravi Shankar, the famous Hindustani music sitar player.  When he first went to the west in the early 1960s, very few had ever heard of Indian classical music – “raga” would well have been considered a misspelling of “rage.”  But, with his untiring efforts, he made “raga” part of the western lexicon.  Even 20 years ago, when I told a white American friend in the US that I listen to Indian classical music, his immediate response was, “Ah, like raah-gaah music?  What Raavi Shaank-aar plays?”  So Ravi Shankar, with his lecture-demonstrations and concerts, created a market for his art, and the result is that he is now so popular in the west that he has even made it his home.  To most westerners, Pandit Ravi Shankar is the face of Indian classical music.

Why don’t Carnatic musicians try doing this? I know L. Subramaniam has done some of this, but I have never attended a lecture-demonstration by him, only concerts.   I have never seen a lecture-demonstration by a Carnatic vocalist in my life.  Given all this, how do you expect to land at an auditorium in some city all of a sudden, and hope to find musically-literate fans to whom you can showcase your talents?
Now, I know that TM Krishna, like other young Carnatic musicians, belongs to an organization called Youth Association for Carnatic Music (YACM), which supposedly organizes such events.  I went to their webpage and found these events, which look promising:
But I have never had a YACM event near where I ever have lived, so I cannot comment.   What I can say is that a lot more needs to be done.

Other Kutcheri Formats such as Alapana-centered Performance

TMK: The modern kutcheri format isn't necessarily the best - you can have a concert of alapana alone. He also suggests that there are Hindustani khyal traditions that have alap as an independent presentation.

SK: I am unaware of any tradition in Hindustani classical music that treats alap as an independent unit, and I have heard a fair amount, not only of khyal, but also dhrupad and instrumental music. The only khyal gharana that presents extended alap is the Agra gharana, but they, too, present it as a prelude to a composition.  The dhrupadiyas present long alaps too, but they always follow it with a composition.  The only person who sometimes presented pure alap was Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, on Rudra Veena (witness his Yaman or Shuddha Todi recordings). 

In instrumental music, however, there is a concept of an alap-jod-jhala which does not necessarily have to be followed by a composition in the raga, though this is often done.  Sometimes the composition is in a different, though related raga.  As an example, I once heard a concert of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan where he started the concert with an alap and jod in Shreeraga, and then followed it up with a gat in raga Puriya Dhanashree.

Having said all that, however, I don’t see anything wrong in a concert that is entirely alapana-focused – provided you can find enough people to hear the concert.  I would come, but I don’t know how many more people will.

How Alapana is Sung Today

TMK: In the old days, they had concerts of alapana which were fixed; nowadays our alapanas are improvised.

SK: Krishna talks of ancient concert traditions that present pure alapana, and this would be interesting to hear, but his subsequent sentences are confusing.  He says in those days the alapanas were very structured, whereas today alapanas are much more improvised.  Is he making a case for alapanas to be more structured and less improvised?  Why?  As it is, so much of Carnatic music is rigidly codified; why would you want to get rid of the few improvisational elements that are left?

Presenting Padams, Varnams, Swarajathis as Main Pieces

TMK: One can try to present padam, varnam, and swarajathi as central pieces in a concert - because in the hoary past this has been done.  However, doing this for kalpanaswarams or niraval would be wrong, because such a tradition never existed.

SK: Like a concert that gives special emphasis to alapana, I would welcome a concert where a padam or a swarajathi is treated in an elaborate manner.  But I find Krishna’s reasoning on this very amusing.  His reasoning is not necessarily on artistic grounds, viz., that padams/swarajathis are interesting compositions that would benefit a lot from being elaborated on, but rather that they have been elaborated on in the past.  Niraval and kalpanaswarams should not be sung in isolation – only because people did not do this in the hoary past.  

Why should the past be the dictator of all our actions?  Old is not necessarily gold.  If you are going to argue that there existed a wonderful tradition of singing in the past that has, for some reason, vanished, and needs to be resurrected for artistic reasons, I am all for it.  But does it, simply because people of that age did not think it appropriate to do certain things (or, maybe, it never occurred to them), mean we should not try them today?  

In fact, Krishna’s arguments do not show him as a proponent of innovation, but rather as a person who constantly is throwing back to the past.  He strongly feels the need to justify everything he says by saying that there was an ancient tradition to support what he is proposing, and does not support anything that is really new.

In some ways this is understandable; there is a “purity mafia” in Carnatic circles that frowns on anything new, and on anything that Ariyakkudi wouldn’t approve of.  You don’t want to incur their wrath.  So if it’s older than Ariyakkudi, that’s justifiable; if it’s newer, watch out.

Singing Ragas Faithfully or Interpreting Them

TMK: People are often massacring ragas by not singing them properly - by singing them without emphasis on the correct notes, without the right gamakas that characterize the ragas, etc.  This is wrong as ragas have evolved over centuries to reach a certain form.  Massacring a raga's personality in the name of creativity is wrong.

SK: It would be valuable if Krishna would give some examples to illustrate this point.  It seems he is speaking with some specific instances in mind.  I agree that ragas have a structure and that should be respected – obviously if a rendition of Kalyani starts sounding like Shankarabharanam, you are doing something wrong -  but the boundary between transgression and creativity is a thin one.  Unless one has a concrete example, one cannot comment.

Singing Niraval and Kalpanaswarams

TMK:  Niraval is hardly being sung these days and, when sung, is not creative at all.  People do not pay attention to where words/phrases should be split in order to maintain the meaning of the lyrics.  Kalpanaswarams are used only for "mathematics and a climax." 

SK: I have no issue with his comment on niraval.  Yes, good niraval singers are few and far between.  On his point on kalpanaswarams, some elaboration would be helpful.  I think Krishna is trying to say that there isn’t much aesthetic value in most kalpanaswarams, and perhaps he is right about this.  But perhaps without a live lecture-demonstration, this is hard to explain.

Choice of Compositions Sung in Concerts

TMK: People do not sing compositions that are multi-layered in sahitya (lyrics) and sangita (music) - most compositions sung are like nursery rhymes.

SK: Which compositions is he saying are like nursery rhymes?  What is the example of a multi-layered composition in sahitya and sangita?  Is he suggesting, for example, that people sing more Shyama Sastri and Dikshitar krithis?  Such concrete examples on compositions would help a lot more than making a general comment like this.  Also, what does he mean by “sung like nursery rhymes”?  Does he mean, sung without elaboration?  I would probably agree with this assessment then.  Shyama Sastri being a personal favourite, I would also probably agree if he is suggesting that people sing more Shyama Sastri and Dikshitar krithis.  But I am only guessing his intent.

Poor Quality of Taniavarthanams

TMK:  Taniavarthanams are mere displays of virtuosity with no aesthetic or intellectual value.

SK: How many people can appreciate a taniavarthanam?  Even when I was a kid, coming with my parents to the Shanmukhananda Sabha in Matunga to attend concerts, I always remember that people started heading for the aisles the minute the tani started, maybe for a bathroom break or a cup of coffee or to chat with friends, and then return when the tukkadas started.  The fact is that people zone out during a tani because most don’t have a clue what the mridangam player is doing. 

My question to Krishna is: who is responsible for this?  Have you ever attended a single lecture-demonstration informing listeners what mridangam/ghatam players do during a tani?  How many of us can keep tala (correctly) during a tani?  If you are an artist, then it is your responsibility to do the things that raise people’s awareness of your art.  If you do nothing, there is no sense complaining that no one appreciates what you do.   Given all this, is it surprising that percussionists will play to the lowest common denominator?
This phenomenon is also common in Hindustani tabla-playing.  Tabla players are well-aware that most of the audience has no clue about tabla compositions, etc., and so indulge in what are called “machine-gun relas” – endless “tirakita” sequences that will earn applause from astonished, ignorant audiences. 

The ignorance about percussion is a much bigger problem than the ignorance about classical music in general.  Let me take my own example.  My parents were musical connoisseurs, and my mother is a trained Carnatic vocalist, so if I did not understand something about melody, I could always ask my parents questions about ragas, compositions, and the like.  But neither of them could really appreciate a taniavarthanam.  If this is the state of experienced connoisseurs of music, what dare we say about lay listeners?

Earlier, I said that there are very few lecture-demonstrations in Carnatic music.  While I have at least heard of a few lecture-demonstrations by singers and the like, I have NEVER heard of a lecture-demonstration by a mridangam vidwan.  The general public is absolutely clueless.  I have been seriously listening to Carnatic music for more than 20 years and still cannot understand what goes on in a taniavarthanam.

So why are you surprised at the quality of taniavarthanams, TM Krishna?  I would say they can play anything they jolly well want and still get an applause from me and most others in the audience, because we sure as hell don’t have a clue what they are doing in the first place.  Mridangam and ghatam vidwans realize this, and so they know that unless they do something exciting that our limited literacy allows us to appreciate, we might well ask, “why should we pay for that extra guy in the concert?” and they’d be out of a job.  So they play something fast and catchy to impress us.  Throw the pot in the air and catch it, $5 more per ticket for that.

The Bottom Line

Yes, it is true that some of the ways in which Carnatic music is being presented are not ideal.  They do not showcase the full aesthetic complement of the art, nor do they allow for full expression of what truly creative musicians can do.  The way Carnatic music is often presented today often reduces a great art to a spectacle, a “tamasha.”  TM Krishna has every right to be perturbed by this changing reality.

However, he needs to recognize that he, and musicians like himself, need to be change agents.  Musicians need to improve the musical literacy of their audiences by taking significant efforts (yes, often for free) through lecture-demonstrations, music appreciation CDs, etc., that start at a basic level.  Unless this is done, and done in a concerted manner, nothing can rid Carnatic music performance of its evils and prevent it from going down even further.  Else, do not be surprised if, 10 years hence, someone in the audience asks you if you would only sing “Kalyanam daan pannikittu odipolama” (a popular Tamil song from a few years ago) in the middle of your concert as a “tukkada.”

Stop complaining and do something about it.  To borrow from John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your music can do for you; ask what you can do for your music.”


  1. you keep talking about lec-dems, and how artists don't conduct any. one look at the brochures of any of the sabhas for the margazhi music festival will tell you otherwise. most sabhas conduct a series of lecdems during the season, held in the mornings, almost everyday. many of them are extremely informative, catering to both to beginners and advanced learners.

    these arent limited to just the margazhi music season either, as lecdems/workshops are periodically conducted by organizations through the year.

    the problem is not the lack of opportunities to learn, it's simply the lack of interest among people. interest in the classical arts has always been marginal, more so now than before. there's so much happening everywhere, movies, music, technology, sports; the classical arts dont seem very appealing in comparison.

    i agree though, that krishna has been a little ambiguous in his article.

  2. Great post, Seshadri. I agreed with the sentiment expressed by TM Krishna, then I also found myself agreeing with your points. I have attended Hindustani and Carnatic concerts both in India and abroad, and if the audiences in India are ignorant about the finer points of music, I don't know what can be said about the diaspora. I find that artistes tend to play to the gallery to get cheap applause (what I call 'circus' and Krishna called 'trapeze').

    An example of a 'nursery rhyme' that I have heard twice from Sudha Raghunathan in Sydney is 'Kalavathi, Parvathi, neeye gathi!' If I hear that wretched song one more time, I will scream.

    BTW, whatever happened to SPIC-MACAY?

  3. Great post, Seshadri. I agreed with the sentiment expressed by TM Krishna, then I also found myself agreeing with your points. I have attended Hindustani and Carnatic concerts both in India and abroad, and if the audiences in India are ignorant about the finer points of music, I don't know what can be said about the diaspora. I find that artistes tend to play to the gallery to get cheap applause (what I call 'circus' and Krishna called 'trapeze').

    An example of a 'nursery rhyme' that I have heard twice from Sudha Raghunathan in Sydney is 'Kalavathi, Parvathi, neeye gathi!' If I hear that wretched song one more time, I will scream.

    BTW, whatever happened to SPIC-MACAY?

    1. Ganesh, I dare say that these days audiences outside India CAN SOMETIMES be more serious about Indian classical music than audiences in India. That's because they miss the connection to their roots and take their music and culture more seriously than the people in India, who take all this richness in their culture for granted.


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