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THE IDEA OF SINGING BIRDS
- A tribute to a vital artistic tradition

A Southern music: The Karnatik story By T.M. Krishna, HarperCollins, Rs 699

If a successful and busy Karnatic singer takes time off in order to write reflections on South Indian or “Karnatic” music, the book release function is bound to be met with considerable interest. Many invitees were unable to even enter the packed Kalakshetra theatre for the release function which can, at least partly, be ascribed to the fact that a revered international figure, the Nobel awardee, Amartya Sen — author of The Argumentative Indian (2005) — was the guest of honour, to whom the first copy was offered. In view of Sen’s family association with Rabindranath Tagore, it hardly surprises that he welcomes Krishna’s contribution to an open ended debate in yet another realm of his own liking. His speech at the book release points to the fact that classical music fails to reach the masses. This raises moral issues most lovers of Karnatic music would rather not be reminded of again: caste and other “social segregations”, and also a reminder that “Karnatic music will have to battle social identities.” These are the issues to which Lakshmi Subramanian and Amanda Weidman have devoted entire books. Readers familiar with Indian philosophy, particularly its subversive effect on the troubled minds of 20th century youth, would recognize another strand in Krishna’s writing: exhortations like “Let us break this assertion down” are echoes of J. Krishnamurti’s rhetorical style. The author of A Southern Music could be called an “alumnus” of this philosopher’s reform school in Chennai. To understand the opportunities ‘K’ offered to all pupils, it is good to recall that for some decades, leading exponents of Karnatic music, notably the popular scholar-singer, M.L. Vasantakumari — popularly referred to as ‘M.L.V.’ — and the innovative Palghat Mani Iyer literally served as teachers at the main institution in remote Andhra Pradesh, the Rishi Valley School. At a time when the music and film industry began to change the entire field, congenial surroundings for musical practice, and time (rather than money) were still available in plenty. Concentration was easier to maintain then, unlike in the “media age” that brought us “multitasking”, a myth already dismissed by scientists. As in Santiniketan, learning was supplemented by the appreciation and study of nature on a daily basis — preferably in the open air, later also in the laboratory. (The collaboration during investigations of drum acoustics by the physicist, C.V. Raman, illustrates the spirit of that age.) Not surprisingly, Krishna refers to “bird song” more than once by making thought provoking statements such as this: “The idea that the bird sings is ours, not the bird’s”; or his welcome tip to “think of a bird gliding in the sky” when discussing kirtana aesthetics. In search of the possible origins of our creative urges, he invokes the more conventional sensations such as “wind ruffling the leaves, air travelling through bamboo, the calls of the birds and animals, the wave and thunder.”

He pays tribute to the tambura (the tanpura) as “the life-giver, the soul of our music”. For Krishna, “it is the one instrument that can be said to hold within itself the very essence of classical music. So unobtrusive is this instrument, so self-effacing in its positioning on the stage and so tender of nature, that it is almost taken for granted.” Sadly, the tambura is rarely played “live” even during live concerts where it tends to be drowned by its electronic surrogate with devastating effect. Restoring its presence would seem indispensable in efforts such as those outlined under two chapter headings, “To Remove the Barriers Imposed by the Music” and “To Expand the Listenership of Karnatic Music”. The very concept of “fusion” is dismissed as a “lopsided idea of the music.”

The author is indebted to pioneers like P. Sambamoorthy, a prolific writer whose contribution deserves to be revisited and adapted to suit the needs of our own age. The ubiquitous and irresistible urge among the young and the young at heart calls for a climate that makes active participation in this Southern Music a real option again, rather than remaining a distant dream for most: “Our role as musicians and educators is to give every individual an equal opportunity to learn.” Thirty years ago, Ramachandra Shastry, my own Karnatic teacher in Kalakshetra,used to call this his “service” to society.

The fact that 15 out of 588 pages are assigned to an Index is welcome in view of the publisher’s ambition to provide readers with a “path-breaking overview of South Indian classical music.” A mere glance at the Contents page and Index proves that, as in his concerts, T.M. Krishna would take nothing for granted, starting with instructions titled “A Note on Reading”. Describing his work as “a book of essays”, he subdivides it into three ‘books’, rather self-consciously titled “The Experience”, “The Context” and “The History” respectively. If this may be read as suggesting that the last word on each of these topics is thus said, his concluding remarks are reassuring — “To the reader who has reached this page, all I ask is this: agree, disagree, argue... as a fellow seeker.” This resonates with the insightful Foreword by David Shulman, the renowned Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu scholar, himself an ardent student of Indian music: “Though [Krishna] embodies a tradition given to various orthodoxies, he is open to experimentation.” Shulman highlights the fact that “passages of this book sound deliberately provocative” as something that “befits a vital artistic tradition.”