Over the last few weeks, I’ve been writing a few essays on certain extensions of the studs-and-fighters theory. For example, I had written about how after a while, every profession gets “fighterized” so as to enable a larger set of people to undertake that profession. Then, I had written about processes and about how most of them are idiosyncratic ways of work for some “stud” and that most of them haven’t been originally designed to be general processes.
I was reminded of these when I was reading through Guitar Prasanna’s interview in the New Sunday Express. A couple of excerpts:
“Jazz is constantly evolving, while Carnatic music is static. That is the reason Carnatic music is in such a pathetic state today.” His point is simply that Carnatic musicians get caught up in expressing everything except themselves. “There are very few who play in order to express their personality. We don’t have radicals like Balamuralikrishna or GN Balasubramaniam or ‘Veena’ Balachandar anymore. Carnatic music was founded on the basis of bold innovators, dynamic thinkers, visionaries like Thyagaraja and Dikshitar and Syama Sastri.” And to listen to Prasanna, all the musical thinking today is done within the safe confines of an ironbound box.
And coming to the process bit,
“Everyone follows the Ariyakudi kutcheri format, which he formulated for reasons that suited him. He wanted to clear his throat by starting with a varnam. But I don’t have to warm up my throat. I only use my fingers.” During the last couple of seasons, therefore, these fingers opted to delineate some of Prasanna’s own compositions from Electric Ganesha Land, his Carnatic-rock tribute to Jimi Hendrix. “And I didn’t play a single tukkada.”
So the current format of a Carnatic concert was not designed to be the general concert format. It was simply the one that suited Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar the most, and people have simply ended up copying him (even though they may not have the same requirements) and his format has ended up as a “process”.
Now the thing with Carnatic music is that there is constant pressure on performers not to “sell out”. It is as if there is a union in this industry, and the union has defined a certain set of standards, and if anyone in the industry doesn’t conform to those standards, he is decreed as having “sold out” or they simply say that what he is playing is “not Carnatic music”. I wonder what can be done to bring back the same level of innovation back into Carnatic music.
The problem with Carnatic music is that as soon as somone starts doing things differently to the way they have been done, they lose the support of the rest of the industry, and given how small the industry is (compared to other genres of music), this industry relies heavily on I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine kind of arrangements – in terms of concert invitations, accompaniments, students, etc. What this means is that as soon as a performer wants to innovate (and thus “leave the genre”) he better find enough support for his “new system” to function completely independently of the existing system and infrastructure (this is stretching it a lot but it’s somewhat like ICL).
There have been a number of Carnatic-based musicians who have been bold enough to innovate, change the nature of their concerts, get in different influences, etc. Some of them have succeeded in getting in new audiences for their music, but still this new-found audience hasn’t been enough for them to inspire too many others to take their path. Another problem here is the clear distinction of genres. Going back to the interview
“In the US, performances aren’t advertised as ‘a jazz concert by Wayne Shorter,’ or ‘a classical concert by Elliot Carter.’ They merely say: A concert by Wayne Shorter or Elliot Carter.’ It’s the artist who’s the draw – and besides, everyone knows Wayne Shorter plays jazz.” But here, come December, the ads admonish: A Carnatic concert by Prasanna. “It indirectly tells me to be only one part of me. I’ve done that for many years, but today I’ve come to a stage where I want my audience to connect to me through my entire being. I still use the mridangam and the ghatam – but I don’t want to define my concert as Carnatic.”
It is this clear distinction of genre that is again a hindrance to integration of carnatic-based music into mainstream Carnatic music. Of course, Carnatic musicians “belonging to the union” are well-justified in keeping the genre-distinction strict, for it helps them to keep their own audience. The question is what someone who wants to bring in more influences into his music must do.
I wonder if there is a way in which studness can be brought back into mainstream Carnatic music. For now, the only hope is for established players to diversify their stuff after their careers have been well-established – but given that their career has been established on a base of conformity, this is not going to be very common. People will need to figure out how they can bring in more innovation into the system and still remain part of the “genre”.