The Changing Standards of South Indian Classical Music: A Critical Analysis of Causes and Effects
The standards of art and art appreciation are rarely uniform. Among scholars, there is a growing belief that South Indian Music has fallen from the high standards of classical art in the past. The unsatisfactory nature of average training in the art, the need for modern musicians to earn a livelihood, uninformed audience tastes, lack of helpful criticism of art and artists, absence of high ideals, and a lack of effective coordination of efforts are among the many causes of the decline in standards.
On the other hand, there is a new enthusiasm for music in the land, with a larger number of people now enjoying and taking up the art. New styles, polish, and presentation are evident in some exponents of the art. Music is no longer just the sole domain of professionals, with many amateurs practicing the art. In today’s music halls, there is always an appreciable number of music lovers with some knowledge of the songs sung in a performance.
Despite the differences between past and present music, the effect of the change in patronage from discerning princes and patricians to the motley crowd of the streets is indelibly marked in the present-day growth and development of the art. The demand of the populace of varying tastes and degrees of understanding has led to a corresponding supply. While a wholly ignorant audience might enjoy the pleasing aspect of sweet sounds, those with some knowledge crave more of what they are familiar with. In the music hall audiences of today, the singer who can perform a large number of short pieces has a better and surer chance of wide popularity than others who may be able to expound on the technical features of the art in a profound or elaborate manner.
There is more haste than necessary leisure in present-day music in general, with fewer performers going for impressive, elaborate, and leisurely renditions of ragas or compositions in slow time measures. This combined with the excessive development of tala accompaniments has shifted the centre of interest from some of the essentials of good Karnatic music.
While Kritis and other pieces should form the mainstay of a South Indian musical concert, variety in ragas and talas, the authors of the pieces sung, and their quality with reference to raga bhava are equally important. Karnatic music has been rich in its composers and compositions, and among them, the great Tyagaraja and his lyrical treasures should tower above the rest. However, one cannot afford to ignore or neglect the pieces of other good composers, particularly those of Ottukadu, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Syama Sastri, Mysore Sadashiva Rao, Veene Sheshanna. Pattnam Subramanya Iyer, Mysore Vasudevacharya and many more versatile composers
Karnatic music is renowned for its unique and glorious feature, its beautifully classified system of ragas. These pure sound melodies offer a rich variety of tones that can stir up a range of emotions without the aid of words from any language. While some exaggerated and legendary notions of their magical effects may be dismissed, there is no denying the mathematical precision and ample scope for personal genius, skill, and imagination in the classified and codified system of ragas.
A musician who has a mastery over ragas and raga bhava can infuse a distinct and exquisite flavour into their performance. However, due to the excessive development of tala accompaniments, music has shifted its focus to the rhythmic variety, neglecting the importance of ragas and raga bhava. As a result, even the duration of the raga alapanaa has been reduced.
While the learning and exposition of compositions, Swara, and Tala may be comparatively more mechanical and easier, ragas require a great deal of skill, imagination, patience, and other personal qualities. Unfortunately, the convenience and circumstances of the average professional musician often prioritize the former, leading to a loss of the natural grace of raga bhava. In an attempt to compensate for this loss, some musicians seek to make their music attractive through a mechanical finish and polish, lacking the flesh and blood of raga and raga bhava.
This leads to the question of tastes in musicians and music lovers, which is the chief determining factor in the standards and appreciation of art. While uniformity, steadiness, and refinement cannot be expected from the many-headed multitude, the responsibility for forming good tastes lies with the musicians and discerning music lovers. The crowd will always follow a definite and strong lead, and thus, the formation of tastes depends greatly on culture and character. The former gives the artist the ability to discern good from bad, while the latter enables them to withstand or avoid any temptation to pander to the vitiated or moribund tastes of the gallery.
The paradox of voice qualities persists in South Indian music. Although little attention is paid to the selection and cultivation of voices, some apparently rich and gifted voices are found to be so ill-trained that they do not display the necessary elements of good music. Musicians of profound knowledge sometimes struggle with bad or indifferent voices, yet still compel respect and admiration for their practice and exposition of brilliant features of a highly-developed system of music. The uninitiated crowd, including many so-called educated gentries, often prefer the music of stage stars and slipshod amateurs with ravishing voices and bad or no technique, while attempting to prevent by legislation the so-called scientific musicians of bad and indifferent voices from taking to vocal music. Conversely, the pandits and prudes can only be appeased by musical gymnastics and acrobatics, considering mere sweetness as effeminate and fit only for the un-understanding plebeians.
The absence of a master-musician like GNB, KSN who combined most of the necessary, desirable, and highly-appreciable qualities of voice and technique, practice and presentation, culture and good taste, leads to these factions in tastes and appreciation. There is not much to choose between them, and much of the want of attractiveness in the average professional music of the present day is due to obtrusively over-wrought technique, killing melody and grace, though laudable exceptions may be found here and there.
In the general dearth of good and well-trained voices among platform musicians, and scared away by the excesses of dry acrobatics of the technical experts, the democracy of the music-loving public, as the real paying patrons of art, runs mad after sweet sounds as such, wherever they are found, irrespective of the quality of cultivated art. While sweetness of natural music, such as that found in the voices of women, young boys, and singing birds, is necessary and desirable, it cannot make a whole and true picture of a highly-refined and cultivated system of art like South Indian music without the aid of developed technique and practice.
Just as gold ore or bar gold is valuable, but becomes more attractive when beat, moulded into some shape, given desirable size and proportion, and a smooth polish, so too can music become more beautiful through refinement of technique, practice, and presentation. Good music is a happy combination of natural music of sweet sounds and the refinement of technique, practice, and presentation.
No highly-developed art can be understood, enjoyed, or properly valued without some initiation into its technique and conventions, though not everyone needs to be an expert in theory or practice. Indian art is not growing from a crude primitive stage, catching random tunes or melodies from every source and making something new out of it. There is undoubtedly room for new creations, but one must first be acquainted with a large part of what already exists, or at least with its basic principles and principal features. Although the contribution of well-meaning amateurs to art is not inconsiderable, there is perhaps not much room for that type of dilettante with slipshod or no technique in a system of art like Karnatic music. Want of understanding of even the bare elements of technique and principles of the art is no excuse for the lack of proper appreciation of the same.
Music has its own style. While technique plays a crucial role, it cannot make music uniform or stereotypical. In fact, music takes on a highly personal color, depending on the individuality of the singer. The same piece with set sangathis or musical phrases sounds different in different artists. This is even more evident with Ragas, Swara, Pallavi, etc. Similarly, a rose can only be truly understood and enjoyed when it is seen, smelled, and worn. Likewise, style in music is to be heard, understood, followed, and enjoyed. However, one can only describe some of the outstanding characteristics of an artist that make their art their own.
Although each artist has some individuality, not all have developed it into markedly appreciable styles. A distinct and catchy style is mostly a freak of nature and born with the artist, irrespective of any profundity or depth of knowledge or intensiveness in practice. A combination of many mediocre but necessary and desirable qualities, presented with just balance and proportion, often enslaves a listening audience much more than an extensive or even profound exposition of specialized aspects of the art. Once in a way, we may also come across a genius whose art, though essentially based on technique and conventions, yet transcends both.
There is also the problem of regional differences in music, where the same system of music appears in different modes in different regions separated by distance. Furthermore, the growing contact of other systems of music on ours has to be taken into account. While there are violently different views regarding the desirability or otherwise of imbibing some of the necessary features of other systems of music into ours, their influence on our music, particularly that of the North, is steadily and imperceptibly growing and making its mark on the art of some of our popular artists.
Music in South India has been an ever-growing art through changing times and tastes. Therefore, how far the art of a later period can be confined and cramped within the theories and practices of a former one or of by-gone ages, is a highly debatable point. At the same time, we have to draw the line where innovations and extraneous modernity strike against the very roots of the system itself and do not fit in happily and unobtrusively into it.
These are only some of the factors that have to be borne in mind in approaching the problem of styles and standards in music and appreciation of the same. If it is only a want of understanding of fundamental or essential requirements of art or the elements of its technique, the problem would not be very difficult, and it may not be impossible to bring some sort of uniformity in the means and methods of appreciation.
However, public opinion, constituted as it is among the present democracy, is not altogether free from unnecessary sentimentality and artificial factions and prejudices regarding art and artists. Not infrequently, these are heightened when well-meaning and high placed public men are found to be airing views on things connected with art about which they are thoroughly and blissfully ignorant. It is not uncommon that really appreciable points in the music of an artist are left unnoticed while mechanical and superficially spectacular rarities are applauded.
The current situation is complex due to the abundance of Carnatic music recordings available in You Tube from various sources, creating confusion in tastes and standards. While recent efforts have been made by mechanical music manufacturers to promote the work of leading and popular professionals, the demand for easily understandable music, combined with the business needs of the trade, and the outdated tastes of some listeners, make it difficult to navigate the chaotic landscape and appreciate the art form fully. However, some institutions are attempting to bring some order and light to the field, although their efforts pale in comparison to what is still needed.
In such circumstances, art criticism is unlikely to carry universal conviction. Professional experts, with their varied interests and obsessions, cannot be expected to understand and evaluate each other’s art fairly and frankly. However, music lovers with a reasonable understanding of the technicalities and principles of music can offer their impressions of professional artists. If they possess an open mind and balance of judgment, and avoid biases and prejudices, they need not apologize for their opinions.
Factions, favouritism, strong likes and dislikes, sentimentality, and unjustifiable prejudices are unlikely to improve the situation. Therefore, it would be helpful to assume that no artist is perfect, and that each notable artist contributes something unique to the art and its appreciation. A clear vision of the essentials of good art, combined with an open frame of mind, frankness, and sympathy, may help music lovers appreciate our art and artists better.