In a recent interview Prof Amartya Sen , an Indian economist of repute, batted for ‘elitism’ [in education] and he explained that by ‘elite’ he meant ‘striving towards excellence’ and not ‘exclusivist’. In the case of Carnatic music, we mean less of ‘excellence’ and more of ‘exclusivism’. This is an age old debate and before I begin, let me qualify and quantify (!) my position in saying that I am nowhere near ‘elite’ (in both senses).
There is a tendency in discussions on anything good, old, traditional, and orthodox (invariably tough and classical follows) to say that they are to be preserved and nurtured. What constitutes ‘good’ is a difficult question, which we will pretend as though it doesn’t exist in this article. However, who has to preserve it, where, and how are relevant.
In medieval Southern India, Carnatic music evolved as a tough art that had fundamental strengths including a sense of natural beauty, symmetry and versatility that allowed it to become an elite art. It was elite in that it needed dedication, training and skills to acquire some ground. That was the good part or Prof Sen’s part. However, we should not forget that any art form is a product of its time including its customs and people. Carnatic music had a theory that was hard to interpret by the masses and it had certain norms of practice that had an explicit exclusivist philosophy to put it mildly. During the renaissance period of Carnatic music, the emergence of daasa koota (15th century) followed by the trinity (18th century) made Carnatic music into an instrument of pious pursuit of God (‘nobility’ if you prefer that). Again, the element of God (only Hindu), the use of Sanskrit by some prominent composers (Purandara, Kanaka and affiliates cannot be questioned here), the association of certain instruments and forms with certain castes, and other contemporary realities made Carnatic music into a club that needed privileged access.
Although the situation has changed to some extent in modern India, Classical music still has many rudimentary rules that are only on paper (not in practice) and caters to a select group of audiences, who are inclined towards it because of one or all of the following (1) it has an element of godly/heavenly pursuit (2) it is tough and it tests and pushes someone’s musical ability to the hilt (3) it is an instrument of pulling the herd (club members) together (4) it is a tradition, a legacy that needs to be preserved (5) if you are a South Indian and if you like and understand classical music, then you have acquired one among many pointless tastes needed to be an elite (there you go!) (6) it gives a kick (euphemism for moral high) (7) it is funny (especially the mannerisms during a concert) (8) any other obscure reason.
Carnatic music was identified with certain communities and caste groups in the past and unfortunately it continues to be so. Many in India give the name ‘samskaara’ to justify the propagation of any skill in blood lines. Yes, one has to have a natural inclination towards something to begin doing it and an enabling environment has meant that a privileged few have a historical advantage in taking the first step. I know we are not in an ideal world. It is sad to see that many who did not have connections to Carnatic music still see it as an activity restricted to some communities and it may not change. I don’t mind if Carnatic music survives only in pockets of India. However, it should be open to all. People should be free to choose.
Elite art and scientific pursuits allow self-selection to greatness only to a few and they cannot be blamed for their hunger and dedication to excellence. The art deserves them and they deserve to be at the top. Any elite art, sport, intellectual activity or pursuit, by its nature will exclude people, who either cannot or choose not to handle tough challenges. Nonetheless, it is important that we have a level playing field that gives everyone a fair go. Can that be achieved with the kind of inequalities that we see around us? I don’t know. I hope we are moving towards correcting the wrongs.
PS: India won 6 medals (2 silver and 4 bronze) in the London Olympics 2012. It has been India’s best ever performance at the Olympics. India is not a sporting nation. Surprisingly it applies to Cricket also (contrary to popular belief) and it has slowly changed over the last decade (Listen to the Bradman oration by Rahul Dravid). India achieved 6 medals because 6 individuals had the hunger and the prior exposure to do well at that level. Yes, they were supported well by the state and their sponsors. However, many others also received similar support but that did not lead to top 10 performances. In my book, reaching an Olympic final is equivalent to winning it because in most cases luck on the day determines the winner among equals.
PPS (added on July 30th, 2013): Listen to Thomas Hampson, a leading Opera Singer talking on BBC Hard talk. Opera can be considered the western equivalent of carnatic classical music in being tough, rare and as a result elite.Thomas Hampson: Music is a language. The BBC hard talk website introduces Opera as one of the least watched art forms in the world, and possibly the most expensive. In other words it is a ‘CLUB’. You need to be a privileged member to experience its services.After thinking about this a lot, I also find that Hindustani music (the Northern offshoot of Indian classical music) although has its own contentious issues, did not and does not share the ‘elistist’ tendencies of Carnatic music. It is a puzzle. South India has come out of its caste barriers much more than North India but the art forms do not reflect the same.
I also found a comment in reaction to this blog article on a yahoo forum and I am quoting it
“The author implies that Carnatic music is exclusive for Brahmins and it does not allow non-Brahmins. Only someone who has perfunctory knowledge will make such claims. The father of Carnatic music Sri Purandara Dasa belonged to Vaishya or trading community. Sri Kanaka Dasa belonged to Dalit community. In fact, Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar had a few non-Brahmin Sishyas…..that is, in the past, Carnatic music was available to non-Brahmins also. In fact, there were non Brahmin composers of repute – like Muthu Tandavar in the past as well. Great singers of the past – M.S. Subalakshmi, M.L. Vasanthakumari ….. Access to Carnatic music by non-Brahmins was available up until the 1940s. Then when the Dravida movement…painted…Carnatic music as Brahmin music. With the result, the non-Brahmins from musically oriented families went towards cinema music …….In SriLanka… you still find non-Brahmins learning Carnatic music from Brahmin teachers“.
What this commentator/critic has missed is the fact that I have acknowledged the greats of the past. They were true greats and they came up because they were exceptional (point on being elite in its true sense). The very reason that he has to give examples of exceptions defeats his purpose. All of us have moments of ignorance. After thinking further, I wonder whether cultural barriers (of carnatic music) are typical of any elite art form. They remain unbreached at the same time being open.