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THE world of the arts is as expansive and as deep as the ocean. Many of us who have become one with its vastness seek at its horizon a reason for our existence. We want to know how and why we have become inseparable from the water itself. Philosophically speaking, all artists are diving into the same waters. But the way we come to the water’s edge, let it wash over our feet, and finally take the leap is programmed. We are not free minds and so even as we enter those waters we carry with us our perception of the water. So we need to ask, are we truly diving into the blue waters with our eyes open to the wonders within? Or are we just skimming the surface?

I inhabit that section of the art universe that expresses itself as the past – classical music. This does not imply that the music is static or unchanged. What we are expected to infer is that all that we hear as classical music today should resonate with the core values of a tradition, custom; in other words, ‘a past’. I have huge ‘issues’ with the phrase ‘classical’ but let me say here that I shall use the term for convenience’s, not conviction’s sake.

But this is true of everything else in life! So what makes this observation unique to classical music? In my world of music, the experience of the present comes with a catch and that catch lies in every artist and connoisseur wanting to recreate that which they think was experienced musically over a hundred years ago. For this the artist must be entrenched in the learning, listening and lore of the form itself. Digging unconsciously into this an artist participates in the discourse that reiterates the past in the present.

At one level we can analyze these iterations as techniques and styles but at a deeper level they are about the re-establishment of the primordial philosophical principles that drive the music. This need is also a continuum, which means that in every relative present these are preserved and it is from that preciousness that the music itself derives its ‘precious’ purpose, often thought of as its classical dharma. In one sense this is beautiful because it does reflect nature’s own movements through time.

But before we celebrate this artistic time-flow let us re-examine this ‘preciousness’ idea. That which is held as ‘integral’, ‘core’, ‘ideal’ and ‘precious’ to the art is crafted by human beings and hence is vulnerable to human misconceptions, collective socio-political manipulations and the shenanigans of individuals. Therefore, the examination and critique of the philosophy of ‘artistic continuity’ needs to be a constant.

Clarity about the past can change the experience of the music itself and therefore, unlike what some people would like to believe, this is not an academic or theoretical exercise. In fact no truly intellectual or academic enquiry into the arts can afford to ignore the ‘experience’.


None of these issues are exclusive to the classical world, let alone the world of Karnatik music to which I belong. Until about ten years ago I sang and sang and sang, performing the ‘act’ that contained those perceived ancient values that defined the art. Learning and growing meant acquiring newer tools and resources to only further establish those very core values. I believed strongly that what had been handed down to me through the teaching and performing tradition was the unquestionable truth of Karnatik music. I was not unquestioning as such, but my questions were only directed towards the peripherals that influenced performance and never went beyond to question the ‘unquestionables’ that were said to be hidden behind every breath, every svara.

But somewhere, something changed for me. It was not a moment of epiphany or revelation but a realization gifted by the music itself. Each time that music ‘happened’ for me, it cajoled me to experience it and, doing so, to ask questions about many of those ‘unquestionables’. And at each such moment, I was convinced that the music was way beyond the value knots that we had tied it into. Unaesthetic considerations were strangling our experience. Therefore, these questions were not born out of a need to protest, revolt or rebel and there was no anger or frustration. But this was just a feeling, a sense and nothing more.


In order to see the ‘truth’ in that feeling, I had to first understand why I stood where I did, on that shore. I had to understand how and why we, as an artistic community, have come to perceive the art in a certain way. Where did it all begin? How have the core aesthetic concepts evolved? What have been its various interpretations? What has disappeared, reappeared, redesigned, camouflaged, metamorphosed or been discarded through what is so easily called ‘time immemorial’? What is this ancient-ness? What are we saying through our music? What have been the socio-political contexts circling it, encircling it, through the ages? And soon one question tagged itself to another and they continued to multiply.

A commonly heard comment about artists who begin articulating their thoughts on their art is, ‘why?’ Why does an artist need to explain his art or study its history? Why doesn’t he confine himself to its practice? This beautiful sounding question masks its real message: the artist need not speak or write.

Even if, for the argument’s sake, I grant that an artist need not speak to or write for others, but what about his own reflection? Every artist must speak and write to and for himself. If he does not, he is not an artist; he becomes only a performer. The articulation of thought, which is usually a post-facto occurrence, needs to be part of the artist’s reflective journey. This does not mean that the artist is forcing logic on to his art, certainly not. The artist is trying to give form to the ‘experience of art’ and here self-awareness is the governing principle not rationality. This is also not a dissection of the art experience, it is the artist’s realizing his role as the enabling force of that ‘art experience’ using the art’s aesthetics. The listeners and readers are essentially witnesses to this internal discourse. But the moment an artist begins asking questions of a form such as Karnatik music, he is troubled by the perceived disconnect between the oral and the textual traditions.


Within our classical music’s textual tradition there are broadly two kinds of texts: those that discuss only the nuts and bolts of the music and those that also go beyond structural technicalities and place them within philosophical discussions on art and its experience. In the Indian artistic tradition there is one very intriguing feature. Most treatises until about the 14th century were of the latter variety where the art’s construction and philosophy were intertwined. But post the 14th century we find that almost all treatises especially on music, read like technical manuals. I am not deriding their relevance but wonder why this change in approach took place. One reason that could have led to this change in tone and content is the evolution of multiple independent music traditions that over a period of time separated themselves from the traditions of drama and dance. This might have led to the need for a codification of just the musical practices and hence, a different approach to textual documentation and theorization. Be that as it may, the textual and the oral traditions clung on to what they saw as historical legitimacy.

A fine irony shows itself here. The Karnatik musician sees himself as the protector of the oral tradition and scorns at the musicologist. He believes written texts do not capture the nuances of musical practice. To him the music lives only in its oral tradition and those who choose to read and interpret these texts are in general ‘failed’ musicians. Yet, the performing musician needs pre-14th century treatises to establish the philosophical superiority and antiquity of his music. It is in the religious and philosophical theories embedded in the texts such as the Natya Shastra (between the 2nd centuries BC and AD), Dattilam (roughly placed a little before or after the Natya Shastra), Brhaddeshi (9th century) and the Sangita Ratnakara (13th century) that Karnatik music seems to gain philosophical superiority over almost all other musical traditions of India.


The Karnatik community believes that Karnatik music is closer to the ‘true’ artistic tradition of India, since it was not ‘influenced’, or should I say not ‘corrupted’, by Islamic influences, an argument that has been and needs to be challenged. Ancient Indian music is said to have evolved from the Vedas and hence this so-called ‘cultural purity’ of Karnatik music links itself philosophically and structurally to those hoary texts. This idea has been reinforced in the oral tradition by composers who have mentioned this Vedic connection numerous times.

A serious study of these ancient musical traditions quite clearly establishes the fact that there is very little commonality between Karnatik music and the music described in these pre-14th century texts. There are terms and some ideas that resonate with the Karnatik, but this does not tie the two together in one string. The Karnatik community knows that there is very little connecting it musically to the ancients but it does not quite say as much. If it did, it would move it away, religiously and philosophically, from the Vedic past. This creates an artistic compulsion to claim that Karnatik music evolved from the time of Bharata. This is not a new phenomenon, it resonates in almost all its treatises and oral history.


Nor is it peculiar to just the Karnatik tradition. It is found wherever art and religion intersect and in India the two have been inextricable. Literal religious understanding envelopes aesthetics, and art is given legitimacy not because of its own form but by religious authority. In India religion informs almost every human activity including art, but certain art forms travel beyond this context to inhabit a larger universe of human experience. These arts offer the experiencer an abstraction of human emotion that is detached from the actuality of places and events. Their societal context is the ‘stage’ but their structural intent liberates them from this bind.

In the Natya Shastra when Bharata speaks of Gandharva and Gana, he describes the former as the music offered to the gods and the latter as the music which was for people’s pleasure, a part of his Natya. A study of Gandharva leads us to believe that the music was highly systematised, regulated and defined. Gana which takes all its musical building blocks from Gandharva was an anga of Natya, and its svarupa was defined by the needs to Natya. Hence ‘liberties’ could be taken of the rules that governed the musical form.

If I was to accept Gandharva literally it would seem to be only an offering to the gods, a ritual. And that would make the musician a mere service provider. Was there not more to it? The placing of Gandharva as music which was not to satisfy the needs of man reveals many important characteristics of that music. It was probably not meant to satisfy social, religious or political needs of people which means that the music could not be aesthetically altered. But it is true that Gandharva was rendered in the presence of people, so what is it that they were receiving? They were listening to music as sound where melody, rhythm and text came together to create aural motifs. Listeners were, I am sure, touched by what they received, and were moved by it in a way that was distinctly different from music that directly addressed their various socio-religious-political needs.


The complex structure of Gandharva also gives us an insight into the intricacy of the form that gave it so many shades and contours allowing for a varied musical experience. It had obviously evolved over a period of time leading to the development of a highly complex melodic, rhythmic structures and compositions. The musicians had to be intensely trained and become of high calibre to present Gandharva. The music was most certainly not gospel music nor was it an extension of Vedic chanting; it was a serious musical construction that allowed for a purely musical experience.

Once the music was regarded as pure, unadulterated and beyond the human realm, it forced practitioners to stay true its form. In fact musicians were not required to seek the approval of the audience; they had to be in the music for the sake of the music, feel every musical shift and at the end all they hoped for was divine blessings! It might have done one more interesting thing, which was to encourage audiences to engage seriously with the music and comprehend its intrinsic aesthetic facets. This was definitely not music for collective religious singing; the audiences were witness to a musical presentation.

Did the musicians believe they were singing for the gods? They probably did. Almost all of Indian art was situated inside its religious discourse and, therefore, the context of artistic exploration was rarely beyond the socio-religious framework. But this did not turn all Indian art into religious art. By that logic almost all visual art in early 20th century Europe was political art. But such an interpretation would be incorrect. The politics of the time was the moving emotional energy that gave direction to the creativity of the artists, but the art itself transcended politics.


This is how we must see the role of religion in the music of Gandharva. What were the emotions that a musician hoped to share through the music? They may have been offering it to the gods, but who were these gods? This brings me back to what I said about there being no epiphanic moment, but that music in itself having meant for me a change. And this is what makes me say, with an emphasis on experiential integrity, that the aesthetics of the form informs us that the music was an abstraction of sound that structured melody, rhythm and text allowing for numerous modes of experience. The non-literal, abstractive, symbolic and intangible essence of this art experience naturally meant that it had to be for something, someone beyond the human self – God?

So was Gandharva religious music? In my understanding it was not, but religion was its seat. From that seat Gandharva clearly explored non-religious spaces. Unfortunately, scholars have bound themselves in the literal tangle where ritual, gods and their religious connotations are taken as the philosophical basis for the art itself. This same argument has been brought forward to Karnatik music.

I grew up believing that Karnatik music was quasi-religious music, that the creative improvisations of alapana, neraval, tanam or kalpanasvara had to be extensions of that which is the soul of the music, it’s bhava. I was taught and I believed that when I use bhava in the Karnatik context I am referring directly to the lyrical meaning of the compositions, ‘that which is being conveyed.’ And since almost all the compositions are connected to the Hindu pantheon of gods there is absolutely no doubt that we were singing religious music, that raga and tala are used to convey the bhava that is encased in the lyrics of the compositions. I was schooled to note and appreciate the fact that when composers worked on their music, it was to convey their innermost religious beliefs and philosophies through the vehicle of music.


It follows that the musicians respect the religion, the belief system, understand the meaning of the texts and transfer that experience to themselves and thereby to the audience. Likewise when musicians render a composition, they are recreating the bhakti as felt by the composer. No individual creativity can therefore be allowed to mar the devotional intent of the composer.

Now, suppose we were to flip this on its head. Can we look at the religious import of the lyrics as the social-seat of the music and not its aesthetic intent? And does the form allow me to do this? In fact it does. A critical study of compositions both in the oral and textual tradition reveals a fascinating truth.

We are conditioned to experience ‘word’ as language, as something that conveys a meaning, but suppose we experience words as sound, what would happen? In an unknown land, among people who speak a different tongue, we hear language purely as sound and at times say something like this: ‘Isn’t Russian such a beautiful language?’ We have just experienced language as an interplay of sounds. The vowels, consonants, aspirated stresses and conversational pitch shifts, interspersed with the most mystical pauses, revealed a beauty. This beauty was not a product of comprehension, it was a result of just ‘sound’, abstract, pure, untouched, incomprehensible but exquisite. Almost as if it was meant for the gods!


Can this happen in a language that I already know? This becomes a little more complex since understanding and communication are the fundamentals of language. But when language is an aural facet of music, it seems to allow for this possibility. In Karnatik music, language in the form of text, along with raga and tala, share aural space to create innumerable motifs that transport us to unchartered emotional realms without the need for an understanding of even one word. This is what the great composers created in the Karnatik tradition. The evidence for this is found both in the oral and textual traditions of the music. In the old notations of songs and their oral versions we find many a time that words are split on the basis of the musicality and not meaning, incomplete poetic lines are repeated for musical embellishment and musicians in the past have improvised on lines that would be considered linguistically infelicitous.

There are numerous examples and when we study them, we can clearly see that the Karnatik tradition saw language as sound and when linguistic sound, melodic forms and rhythmic structures came together, this whole was experienced as a body of aesthetic experience. So the splitting of the word did not matter, the meaning of the line chosen for improvisation was not relevant, and the repetition of a linguistically incompletely line was ignored only because all this made perfect musical sense. The genius of the great composers was their ability to see their own creations as aural forms and not evangelical bhajans! They held their beliefs and allowed their personal context to flow into art, but did not trap the art in it.


The moment we understand this idea of language in Karnatik music, bhava takes on a completely different meaning and the religious import of the compositions become inconsequential to the aesthetic experience of the music. And the ‘beauty’ is that musicians and rasikas already knows this! While delving deep into the melodic exploration of a line from a composition, immersed in the musical flow, the meaning of the line and the whole composition disappear from the consciousness of the musician. The listener too is lost in the beauty, not because of ‘the meaning’ but just by the music. Here language is not ignored, it is essential but only as the body of sound.

Yet the Karnatik community, especially over the last one hundred years or so, has tended to strip this abstractive quality from the discourse on Karnatik music. This is not just a problem of linguistic articulation, but has also led to the most lamentable musical re-engineering. Musicians have found convoluted ways of trying to render the words as complete forms in compositions demolishing musicality, and musical pauses have been filled with stretched sounds so that the continuity of the word could be established even if it completely destroyed the structure of the composition. Some elegant lines for improvisation have been dropped because the meaning was incomplete. So many beautiful musical motifs in compositions remain unexplored only because the language does not permit it.

All Indian art is not of this nature. There are those art forms that exist only because of religion. Music in such a form would be used only as a tool to propagate the religion. The differentiation between music that is beyond religion and those musical forms that serve religion can only be made by the aesthetic study of the form. And from this it is quite clear that religious music, almost all over the world, has certain distinct characteristics. Karnatik music does not fall into that category.


Unfortunately by forcing the ‘gospel’ element on to Karnatik music we have affected the quality of the music and its performance, leading to an overall decline in the aesthetics of the music. Even the greatest of musicians who musically moved beyond the ambit of religion were unable or not willing to articulate the non-religiosity of Karnatik music. Or maybe they too believed that everything was religious, even the breaking free of the literalisms.

Life is social, religious and political yet all human activity is not limited to serving these needs. Art allows us to travel beyond our context, to be touched by the unexplainable, to cry because we cry and not out of sadness or happiness and to feel ecstasy just because it exists. But if we are to interpret all this in terms of religion or politics we will be twisting the nature of the artistic experience.

Diving into the ocean of art with this on our shoulders would be similar to diving into the azure of the aesthetic imagination with a life jacket.