Caste in my living room – 5

Margazhi Special – Caste and Carnatic Music. As a part of the “caste in my living room” series, an acquaintance suggested I wrote on the issue of identity. The first word that came to my mind as I heard that word was, not pride or privilege, but, “art.” Art, some say, is an excess, a vent that a society will plunge in during peace times. Peace comes from lack of hatred, and that comes from lack of inequities. But peace is hardly the common denominator of the world we live in. We are constantly on the lookout for labels and dockets to file us under. We are trying to tell others that we are not them or them but THEM. Our idea of peace has nothing to do with another man’s. In fact, ditch global peace, whatever that is. There is nothing common between us anymore, even if there is, we jump cut into the scene to clarify that it was a freaky coincidence which can’t be told aloud. For instance, I’d someone wish me a “happy Gregorian new year” with a tagline saying they believe that it is an “immigrant festival” which is against the Indian culture, but they want to wish anyway. I really don’t celebrate the birth of the New Year, but neither could I understand what can be so wrong in celebrating a day that rest of the universe celebrates anyway. Of course, I was expected to appreciate their generosity.

What makes us the sole guardians of what we think as our culture? What makes us protectionist? In reality, we know very little about our art forms, we appreciate very little, we practice practically none of them to distinguish one form of art from another. But yet, that constitutes our identity. My music, my dance, my literature, my place or worship, my sport, my couture – it goes on. Question is, can art forms be inherently casteist enough to demand protectionist stands? Answering part of the question, art forms can have casteist origin. Art forms have a geographical, political, social reasoning for their birth and flourish. Take Madhubani /Mithila painting – a quintessential matriarchal art with the womenfolk of Mithila region. Madhubani art is tradionally created by BrahminsKayastha and Dusadh women, predominantly. Brahmanas and Kayastha are high up the social hierarchy and Dusadh comes under the Scheduled Caste. But that doesn’t make Madhubani an elitist art nor does it represent the Dalit art.


Does it serve any purpose labeling an art form as upper caste or low caste art? I guess there is. The common feature of this primeval, hierarchical classification is that, it creates a sense of pride and a sense of fraternity among the members of the community. Calling an art upper caste makes it inherently esoteric. It also encourages them to protect it from outsiders, like a much coveted ancestral property and moves them to look down upon others who don’t concur with their thoughts. On the other hand, a lowered class art is a symbol of rebellion, a clarion call against discrimination. The discriminated members take this opportunity to spit on the ways of the elites and their idea of art.

That brings us to the core issue we will deal with today – is Carnatic music an essential Brahmin art? To start with the scales or the panngal have originated or coexisted among Dravidians even before this music gathered its concert grammar. In fact the prior to the trinity – Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri (19th CE) – there were the Tamil moovar – the Tamil trinity – Muthuthandavar , Marimutha Pillai,  Arunachala Kavi (18th CE), none of whom were Brahmins. Purandaradasa was from a trading family and Kanakadasa was a Dalit. We also know that music and dance were once the strong hold of temple artists or Devadasis and only in the past century or so do we actually see the Brahmin women dominating the scene (gender bias right there!). One has to agree that it is rare to find a non-Brahmin Carnatic musician today. Even if there are, you find that they have Brahminized themselves enough to gain recognition from the Brahmins. But that’s really not how it all came into being.

When Carnatic music started spreading wings in all its glory in South India, there was one another community doing equally well in the scene. We see that the Nadhaswara players making brief appearances in weddings and in temple festivals are markedly different in their looks and demeanour. A little peak into the history reveals the role of Isai Vellalas, a community which has music in their very title, who developed the traditions of Periya Melam (trivium – “Chinna melam” is the term used to refer to Bharathanatyam concerts) in the Thanjavur districts. Their music was predominantly ritualistic and heavily tala-oriented, the rituals being accompanying the deities, kings and patrons in their goings and comings around the temple town. Music, was both their way and means of life, so much so that the it became hereditary, the ritualistic connotations being transferred from one generation to the next. There is an interesting anecdote on Naina Pillai, a rare Isai Vellalar vocalist, who demanded that the Brahmin musicians accompanying accord due respect to him. What if they don’t? He would trick, tease and pound them with complex ragas and talas, true to the Nadhaswaram traditions. Artistic tease to elicit artistic surrender is something we can live with, don’t you think?


This ritualistic tradition, a product of privilege, patronage and passion, is largely accepted as the precursor for the modern day Carnatic music. As the grammar and parameters for concert based Carnatic music solidified, the scenes started drifting from Thanjavur to Madras with the backing of institutions like Music Academy. The extent to which institutionalization influenced Carnatic music as we hear it today is so unfathomable that it is ridiculous. A popular example is that of the Music Academy passing a resolution that a certain musical phrase (“PDNPMRGRS”) can be sung, but only once, while elaborating Sri raga, a nuanced scale which if sung differently runs the danger of sounding like a different scale (Madhyamavathi or even Manirangu) altogether. 


In the learning stage, and I have learned Carnatic music in and around Tamil Nadu from about 4-5 teachers (one of whom is a non Brahmin) I found that my class is/was not elitist. I have yet to find a Carnatic music teacher who said he/she won’t teach someone for they were not Brahmins. So, are the Brahmin kids given more attention in the class as opposed to the other children? It is a very subjective question. I found that the long time student of a guru, someone who they had identified as their stellar student (and they usually were) was given all the attention as opposed to others. If a non-Brahmin student wants to grab the attention of their music teacher, they had to work twice as hard as a Brahmin student because of the fact that they had very little background in the music. This lack of prior knowledge sometimes plays the spoilsport, it gets the student chided by the teacher or the society and sends them packing their bags on music. They see no point in getting back to the music as by now they have lost all interest in it.


Most eager Carnatic music students, including the Brahmin students with their advantage of prior taste, never get to the performance stage because of the inherent complexities of Carnatic music and the tedious process of getting into the good books of the Sabha managers. (You are a true blue Chennai-ite if you could draw parallels to cricket.) Oh wait, too much emphasis on the “complexity” and “grammar” of Carnatic music has been its boon and bane – boon in the sense it makes it sound challenging to even appreciate the music and bane because it wards people away as being too rigid. Carnatic music, like any other art form has rules and regulations, that doesn’t make it any better or worse than other arts. It is purely a personal choice to divert one’s attention to it. Coming back, Sabha concerts are reserved to the most brilliant practitioners of Carnatic music, or so they say. So, the prerequisites are – you are a student of a great musician/guru who has a reputation in the concert scene, you sing/play extraordinarily well, and at times, you are willing to pitch in some (read a lot of) money. The fact that you are a Brahmin is a foregone presumption. Unless you do something, look a little different, speak in an accent that belies your Brahmin appearance, people assume you are a nammalava, one among theirs. If you are a non-Brahmin and a talented musician, the possibilities of which the Sabha heads can’t fathom, they prefer you over a Brahmin and an equally talented musician. Their reasoning is that, it is not in the non-Brahmin’s tradition, he/she could go back to their path and leave this music be ours. There is an unlimited amount of in-breeding here in the sense that it is almost the same teacher who has brought out 4-5 disciples, who in turn preach that style to the next generation and so on.

Is there creativity despite the restrictive environment? Yes. But would it serve as a reason to let Carnatic music be a Brahmin bastion? Shouldn’t music be a part of the commons? May be the question wouldn’t even arise if Carnatic music were wallowing in poverty and was practiced by the marginalized in the society. We don’t ask “is koothu and parai a Dalit bastion?” There we use the community label to push the art and thereby its practitioners into mainstream – there is an implicit call to people to appreciate the art as opposed to the “hear if you want or don’t” kind of vibe that Carnatic music exudes . At times I feel that we are muddling the intent of the “Dalit” tag by reducing it to just another casteist tag. (May be some of the Dalits who hog the limelight are the culprits behind this reductionism)
Cut to the present day, how many of us listen to Carnatic music? Answer to this is, a sizable number of Brahmins do. Do we listen to Carnatic music because of our caste identity? Would it be any different if one is not Brahmin? Perhaps. In the sense, that being born in a Brahmin family means one gets acclimatized to the tones and rhythms associated with Carnatic music very early in their life. So much so, if one is born in a Brahmin family learning Carnatic music or Bharathanatyam is almost a given. Even if they didn’t go through the rigours of learning the music for some reason, one can easily identify a Hindolam or a Mohanam in the passing. But this is only from an initiated listener’s point of view.


What about a lay listener? I recently found references to how the NRIs are hogging the December season concert halls with their put-up accents and over the top behavior to blend in. Now, as a resident of Koyambedu, which is light years away from the Carnatic music hub a.k.a Mylapore, I find people staring me down when I attend the concerts. If I speak in an unaccented Tamil (that is Tamil without Sanskritization) they look as if their worst fears are confirmed. Should I prove to them that I totally belong to their caste or should I rub in their weak point and have a ball? Reminds me of the incident in U.S.A where a Sikh man was targeted because the terrorist thought he was a Muslim. One cannot say what is worse. I find that the Mylapore-normal of silk sarees, accented speech, sabha-smiles, tales about the quality of canteen food amusing and annoying at the same time. It is hardly my idea of normal even as their idea of musicality coincides with mine. If this is the plight as someone considered an “insider” faces, I can’t imagine what a lay listener not belong to this community faces.

The problem of suffixing and prefixing caste name everywhere with everything is that it kills the soul.  As for the argument of Carnatic music being true to Hindu religion, I think there are some positive changes in that regard. K J Yesudas is known to sing Christian-themed songs in Tamil in the season concerts. Sanjay Subrahmanyan recently presented the arguably secular compositions of Mayuram (Samuel) Vedanayakam Pillai (who incidentally wrote Tamil’s first novel “Prathapa Mudaliar Charithram”)  in a thematic concert in December 2016. (Has anybody tuned Umaruppulavar yet?) But let’s face it – the actual creative aspect of Carnatic music – the manodharma part- raga aalapanatanams and kalpana swaras are practically wordless and are secular at least as far as the lyrical aspect is concerned. There have been some innovative, non-religious Pallavis set by musicians too. Examples  – Nattaikurinji Pallavi SiRantha engalathu nattai kurinji enbAr (Alathur brothers), the more recent Aanum pennum nigarenak kolvadhAl arivil Ongi vaiyam thazhaikkum (Mahakavi Bharathi’s lyrics set to Valaji raga by Sanjay Subrahmanyan).
Is there a limit to which Carnatic music can mould itself? Should “others” do it too? Should we include secular lyrics in Carol singing? Who is to stop us if we do? It is easy to say, “just sing what you like” or “don’t mind the stares” – but as people we all like to belong, to be accepted, to be recognized. I dislike the other conjecture too, where they say “sing your own music”, “appreciate the art that you created” which sounds like “enga area ulla varadha.” No musical tradition or for that matter no art form can be the handmaiden of a few. The fundamental truth is, art never originates in vacuum. Art is hardly an invention by an individual or a class/community of people to claim patent. It is a social innovation, a shared labour, where a lot of people act simultaneously and something, somewhere strikes to create something beautiful and joyful. 

Art needn’t, shouldn’t, and can’t be a product of a caste, even if members of a certain community have contributed benevolently to the flourish of the same. The fact that you still hear a certain kind of music or read a certain language in a literature is because the public, including the ones who don’t necessarily like what they hear or read, have given their tacit approval for its survival. By that logic, art is for everybody who wants it to be.
So, there is a T.M.Krishna, a Magasaysay awardee (in the category of “emerging leadership” for bringing “social inclusiveness in culture”) who has constantly talked about taking Carnatic Music to other communities and has opened the Pandora’s box in the best possible time. TMK in a recent concert sang the verses penned by Perumal Murugan, the author who is now identified (unfortunately) with his controversial novel “Madhorubagan.” (One part woman) We have the less appreciated revivalist (somehow he is seen as a conformist) in Sangeetha Kalanidhi Sanjay Subrahmanyan, who brings the Nadhaswaram traditions in his vocal recitals, thanks to his guru Vidhwan Semponnarkovil SRD Vaidhyanathan*. Sanjay’s much talked about Tamil songs repertoire even earned him the “Isaip Perignar” title in 2016 from the Tamil Isaich Changam. The contributions of Annamalai Chettiar and his brainchild Annamalai University to music is worth a mention here. Also, there is a Swarnamalya, who even calls her Bharathanatyam recitals as “Sadir Kacheri” and ensures that the adavus and gestures are true to the Devadasi tradition**as opposed to the perfected gestures now. Not to forget Anita Ratnam who has attempted to revive the now fast diminishing play Kaisiki Natakam (a combination of poetry, music, dance and dialogue) traditionally performed by devadasis in Thirukkurungudi Nambi temple.

We notice that most of these changes are coming from the top-notch artists, staunch practitioners, sticklers to the time-tested conventions of the art form in their own way, who invariably belong to the Brahmin community. It is only fair and fitting that the “insiders” realize that this tacit arrangement may breed exclusivism as opposed to excellence in the future if not immediately. In fact, a good number of them don’t even believe that they should do something to make Carnatic music inclusive, yet they create possibilities of accessibility. One can ring about the change in the name of tradition by bringing back the historical past to the fore or by wiping away the historical inequities for the sake of the future.  Both these narratives have substance and love for arts, and therefore to humanity. Whether they like it or not, the change is here. Welcoming it with open hands will make one look gracious and open-minded is all I can say. May be, art is to ensure peace and harmony, after all. 

*Watch this video from 4.10 to appreciate the genius of the Nadhaswara Vidhwan.

** When I saw her perform recently, I kept thinking that she is just not keeping her hands straight and it affected my cultivated sensibility of appreciating mudras and adavus. Reorientation is really not easy even for a lay audience.

P.S. – this post is dedicated to the gentleman who let me tag along, a rank stranger, to a Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s concert on 31.12.2016, in his member pass as the tickets were sold out well in advance. Thank you, sir. 

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