Is Carnatic classical music elitist?

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, 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.

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. In the past, elite was more identified with castes.  Today, the privilege is more to do with the economic elite of the society, although some of the older cultural prejudices remain. I concede that situation has changed to a minor extent (for the better) in modern India.

Carnatic music is an elite art and elite pursuits allow self-selection to greatness only to a few. Any elite activity, by its nature will exclude people, who either cannot or choose not to handle tough challenges. Such people cannot blame the elite (in Sen’s sense) for their hunger and dedication to excellence. The art deserves the elite and they deserve to be at the top. Nonetheless, it is important that we have a level playing field that gives everyone a fair go.  Strangely (in a good way), Carnatic music is still thriving amongst the Indian middle-class and has not shut itself to the underprivileged (both historically and economically). I know we are not in an ideal world. I don’t mind if Carnatic music survives only in pockets of India. However, Carnatic music must break away from deep-rooted prejudices and cultural barriers, now increasingly a class barrier. Can that be achieved with the kind of inequalities that we see around us?  

PS (added on July 30th, 2013):  Thomas Hampson, a leading Opera singer talking on BBC Hard talk had said that Opera is 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) did not and does not share the ‘elistist’ tendencies of Carnatic music. It is a puzzle. South India has come out of its caste and religion 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 Shishyas…..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. Subbalakshmi, M.L. Vasanthakumari ….. Access to Carnatic music by non-Brahmins was available up until the 1940s.   Then the Dravida movement…painted…Carnatic music as Brahmin music.  [and as a] 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 exceptional cases defeats his purpose. I can add a few other names.  Who can forget Sheikh Chinna Moulana and his sublime naagaswara?. Let us all take a look at the state of naagaswara sangeetha today. I love naagaswara. I think dOlu is one of the most versatile drums in the whole world. Why is it that these instruments have limited takers from people outside a certain caste or creed? 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.  


14 thoughts on “Is Carnatic classical music elitist?”

    1. After re-reading my own article, I also felt that the article is incomplete Mr Sathya. But, it is in the sense that I haven’t elaborated on the current scene. The article was meant to be light hearted (mildly mocking in parts) and the idea was also to pose some open-ended points so that the reader can come to his/her own conclusions.

  1. Probably the article speaks of time atleast a 30 – 50 yrs back when carnatic mucic was part of a privilege group. It has surely opened up to anyone to learn and practice. But, sure you need the ‘janma vaasana’ to like carnatic music and become a performing artist in this art form. Yes, it needs strict ‘saadhakam’ and lot of sacrifices to become a great singer. No one stops anyone today in becoming one. To be part of the audience, who stops any one. Somone cannot digest this music and so does not attend concerts. If you want you have lot of free concerts and paid ones. Looks like this article is outdated.

    1. I appreciate your sentiments Mr Menon. It seems we agree on most points raised and differ only with the way we perceive present day realities. Ofcourse no one stops no one…nonetheless, the undercurrent of discomfort prevails and it is quite palpable in the homogeneity of sabhaas, music schools, and their patrons.

  2. True Carnatic music is elitist in nature. This is so because the system withits myriad rules regulations and plethora of dos and don’ts! Excellence lies in ones ability to scale higher levels iconforming to the system. Those who fail to conform are left behind and end as informed spectators! Is this not true in all sports,literatureespecially poetry,and so on. Some are born great, some achieve greatness! Mark the adjective-some! Only elite 11 players make it to the top in sportslike football,hockey etc,the number varies! Elitism involves a degree of knowledge,skill and commitment,to go higher and sill higher!

    1. Sir, you mentioned the dos and don’ts that add to the elite quotient. Vid R K Sreekantan, the legend, once remarked and I paraphrase what he said, “people shouldn’t be complaining about rules in carnatic music, because carnatic music is an ocean. It takes a life time to understand a grain’s worth of what it offers. Breaking a rule is very easy but it is not necessary“. There are no two views on whether Carnatic music is elite or not.

  3. Today, Carnatic and Hindustani music offer everyone a chance to get in and learn the art. It cannot be said to be elitist, and there is no one stopping anyone from composing on Christ or Allah using this medium. Of course, once you are in it, you have to play by the rules. You cannot play football using a cricket bat. Now, in spite of it, if people do not take to it, that cannot be ascribed to the art form. Of course, some stereotypes have to go, and the day a lady can climb on stage wearing jeans and a t-shirt and sing soulfully, is the day the elitism has well and truly gone. It needs some more old coots to die before that happens.

  4. The author implies that Carnatic music is exclusive for Brahmins and it does no 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 non-Brahmin Sishyas. In fact, when one of his Sishyas who was a non-Brahmin was having a bad time according to his horoscope, he approached a Pandit o teach him of a Mantra to relieve him of he bad effects of the planet. The Pandi refused. This Shishya came and narrated the above to Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar. He immediately composed 9 kritis – one each on Nava Graha. Then he said, now you can appease the planet by singing as no one can stop you from singing. 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. All is was true up until the 1940s. Then when the Dravida Kazhagam movement started, the DK leaders painted Carnatic music as Brahmin music. With the result, the non-Brahmins from musically oriented families went towards cinema music. In Sri Lanka where there was no Dravida Kazhagam movement or recently created hatred for Carnatic music, you still find non-Brahmins learning Carnatic music from Brahmin teachers.

    1. Dear Mr Shiv, you are citing exceptional people as examples. I would be a fool if I doubt the great composers. You probably ignore the fact I was talking about ordinary mortals (people like us). The overwhelming feeling is that Carnatic music has come of age in the recent decades and anyone can learn and participate in it. I would agree with the argument to some extent. However, while carnatic music remains one of the best ever original contributions to world art by South India, I cannot overlook the fact that by its nature it requires people to grow up in a certain way and follow certain norms. I heard Pandit Ravindra Yavagal (Tabla maestro) say the following and I quote “krishna nee bEgane baarO… has wonderful lyrical qualities when it is sung, and you can appreciate the lyrics as well as its emotions when you listen to someone singing it. You cannot convey the same with Instrumental music and that is why Hindustani music evolved an instrumental style, which needed no help from lyrics“.

      If you don’t know the lyrics and if you don’t understand the spirit in which Vyasateertha, the composer perceived the composition Krishna nee bEgane baarO, then the listener (if he/she is not trained enough) cannot appreciate the nuances of the composition. Someone will enjoy the composition because they are staunch followers of Udupi Krishna…someone else would enjoy it because they love the raaga Yamuna KalyaaNi. If you are trained, you can feel the song when someone plays it on the flute. Otherwise, the experience would be incomplete. Hence, Carnatic Music (like most other elite art forms) can fulfill its promise and realise its true potential only with a handful of fortunate people, irrespective of whether they are performers, teachers, or connoisseurs.

  5. At the highest level any human endeavour is elitist in the exclusivity sense. Very few people can sing like MSS or play flute like Mali or the guitar like Jimmi Hendrix or play cricket like Tendulkar. But the question is whether common people can appreciate watching cricket or listening to rock music or carnatic music and are they able to take basic lessons or attend cricket coaching camps.
    In this sense Dressage ( is an elitist sport (in its exclusivity sense) whereas cricket is not.

    Seen in this light, the answer is positive in case of Carnatic music. At least in Kerala, religion/caste is no bar to learning carnatic music privately or in music colleges. But more temples organize concerts than churches or mosques, so non Hindus will be left out of some of the musical events. Of course, the majority of concerts are organized by musical societies (sangeetha sabhas) which have no religious affiliation so it is not that much of a serious problem. There are christian and muslim faculty in musical colleges in Kerala even though they are a minority.

  6. Definitely the time has evolved to allow anyone to learn Carnatic music. But I do agree with your point, Carnatic music was with elite people for at least last hundred or more years. Also Carnatic music was accompanying Bharatnaatyam which was not considered elite. There may have been centuries when even Carnatic music was not considered elite. Those were the days when the interests of king played a major role in deciding the elitism of art forms.

  7. Going by the data and history, I would not hesitate to say that this elitist feeling is driven by some modernizing force who think they are more secular by disassociating an art form of an archaic culture, which has not modernized to match western or other music formats. I think this is an agenda driven drive to capture the minds of even artists like TM Krishna who goes without any logical reason to down grade the culture while keeping the music at all time high to earn by driving his political agenda.

    1. I agree with you when you criticize a few who disassociate an archaic art from its cultural roots (whatever their motifs be, they are unjust and unjustifiable). I think it is wrong to expect carnatic music to modernize in a sense that it adopts western ways. Western ways are as flawed if not more flawed than our own ways. The archaic (Indian) culture you refer to, had in itself many voices of egalitarian reason. We should rediscover our roots. Classical music must remain elitist.

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