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.