Music and justice


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EVERY word has its own habitat, an environment where it comes to life. It is within those precincts that it acquires meaning and finds its purpose. It then becomes part of an entire linguistic ecosystem where words and phrases are interdependent for survival and effect. Words import relevance and power from one another. Like with any natural habitat, some words become significant, some remain on the fringes, while others just vanish, only to reappear generations later in a new avatar. There is a constant war of power and influence among words. But, even as this battle rages, the overarching ecology keeps them together.

I have used the word ‘war’ to describe the tension and competition among words. But we should know that words never become ‘prisoners of war’; they cannot be imprisoned. As time moves, they travel – free – into uncharted territories, unusual terrains and even distant lands. In these travels, they acquire an array of meanings, contexts, forms and sounds. It often happens that we encounter a word we have known and used all our life, but just cannot recognize in a new aural appearance. Sometimes a word widely debated in one silo is hushed into silence in another, all by the same people. What the word brings with it, in certain contexts, then becomes disconcerting. It makes us uncomfortable. It demands reflection and, more difficult, a reaction such as, at times, even a dismantling of the present framework or an overhaul of the power dynamics in this word-world. Unable always to do this, we either co-opt it as a superficial inference or as a self-affirming crutch that leaves everything as it is or we just bury it.

Here wafts in another world: the world of music. Such a beautiful expression that – the world of music – is, isn’t it? It gives us the impression of a sonic unity like an Aurora Borealis that traverses magic casements, boundaries, breaks barriers and overcomes limitations. Somehow, in that phrase, all humanity seems to come together. This beatific vision is far from the truth. There is no such thing as one world of music or a world of one music. There are many worlds of music, each in its own space, with little open interaction with the other. And much like words, when tunes travel between these worlds, they do so of their own volition, subverting its bearers and tricking the recipients.

In this unheard intersection, ownerships change and the distinction between the outside and the inside blurs. But after tunes and rhythms manage to manoeuvre their way in, their own value depends on the agency of the receivers. If they are the movers and shakers, they stabilize and are embraced wholeheartedly and the memory of the external source gets erased. If not, they are relegated to the outskirts of the territory, only to be used occasionally as token signets of the owner’s openness. As an altered melody is actualized, the power centres remain intact, retaining their parochial and insular nature.


I know this essay reads almost like Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, a rather obscure world of sound and meaning. But it is just that; an abstract aural society. We understand it only through one medium: human beings. But, we keep the music itself at a safe distance from reality. I am speaking here of the music’s sound, not the semantic or dialectic meanings it may host. As ‘meaning’ enters, sound flees. The nuances of accents and accentuations are often crushed under the overwhelming weight of the imprimaturs of usage, linguistic purism, historicity and community usage. What about just the sound of a word? The sound itself carries meaning, identity and holds within itself a universe of reactions.

Life, I believe, is about experiences, feelings and judgements that emanate from these abstract interactions, and our life story is just a collection of such incidences. But we are unwilling to look at this under a microscope. Social Sciences explore every thread of society’s fabric, understood through ideas, words, actions, cross-over migrations, but ignore the inherent presence of the abstract within this discourse. Even if dealt with, it is as just a box that is ticked.

Those who are disturbed by music’s social realities just walk away, unable to reconcile these with the pleasure it gives them. It is actually the guilt of pleasure that makes them walk away from the truth taking with them only the pleasure unchallenged. Unfortunately, they do not, or are unable to find the soul within the sound. If they did, they might have just stayed back, grappled, discovered, rejected, accepted, expanded and simply flown with the music. Because, music lives not in the pleasure it gives but in the experience it provides of its unreconciled intensities.

While we may reflect on our own actions, thoughts, past, social order or relationships, rarely do we wonder whether any transformation in these spaces has changed the way we receive a melody or recognize its beauty. Overt social change occurs through cognitive and conscious socio-intellectual activity but lurking beneath, undetected, is our true self. Even the socially awakened are rarely alive to this interior. They stay glued to narrowness in a most surreptitious manner. Therefore, if we move further inward and question the sound of music itself, we just might be able to subvert our conditioning and break the stranglehold it has on us. We might then discover a possibility of freedom for ourselves and the music we are trained to love.


Words such as ‘justice’ are rarely heard in the halls of music. Even when used, it is only in an anthropological sense of ‘material culture’, the tangible social manifestations of community, power, negotiation and control. All the while within the music, undemocratic markers and alterations are being carried forward vigorously. Even if justice demands equality in the sharing of the music, the practice of music itself does not pause even for a moment. It changes hands and, through appropriation, erasure, acceptance or alternations transforms into a powerful unquestioned entity that aesthetically manipulates the past and the present, thereby shaping its future.

Therefore, justice has to go beyond, right into the sanctum sanctorum, to a long longed-for epiphany. We need to demand justice in the sound of a raga, in the movement of a dancer, in the shapes and contours of a sculpture. Because by doing this, we can lift layers of history that are burying the beauty embedded in aesthetics. Fundamentally, we must excavate the sites of entombed beauty.


Most qualities that we value are expressed in intangible terms and are difficult to grasp. Justice is no different. It is emotional and tugs at something deep within; we know what it means. But by the time we find expressions to describe the feeling, it is gone and words remain like a place card before a vacated seat. We analyze, explain and substantiate, yet the meaning has escaped from the word. In Tamil, we often use the word needi for justice, but we mean law, as in the reductionist interpretation of justice. But the Tamil nationalist poet Subramania Bharati clearly points to the inner needi in his poem Nenjukkuneediyum, calling for the justice in our hearts, that ethical compass.

But needi is actually not a Tamil word and for that matter Tamil does not have a word that is exactly equivalent to needi. Aram is found in ancient texts and is used in the context of both law and justice. The truth is that the test of justice lies in the double question: Is it just? Is it fair? Ask only the first and it is not complete. Ask with the second and it is complete. For the first comes from a book, or a law, or a maxim; in other words, from the seat of power. The second comes from the conscience of the giver, when his fairness merges with the satisfaction of the receiver of it. Aram imbues both, ensuring that the ethical emotion of justice translates to a reality, while the reality of law does not forget its inner roots. In that expansive sense, aram is simply truth.

Dharma is not dissimilar. An epithet for Yama (the god of death) is Dharma. Death is, after all, the unquestionable truth. Dictionaries give us many more meanings but I would pick justice, impartiality, moral reflection, equity and ‘an essential quality’. When we bring all these contextual meanings together, we arrive once again at the altar of truth. The outer meaning of Dharma is a code; the inner is reflective, conscience. Religious and social orders will adhere to the outer to establish control in the name of decorum. Philosophers and reformers will stress the inner to free themselves from control. The Buddha used the word ‘dhamma’ in Pali for a compassionate way of living. Justice is the seeking of truth and, for us, to reach that hidden place musically, we need to listen carefully to every note, syllable and beat.


Within every form of music, the contest between musicians and musicologists is a constant, with one considering the other lesser beings. To the musician, the musicologist is just a ‘failed musician’. As far as the musicologist is concerned, musicians do not comprehend historical context or the formulation of practice; they just do whatever they want! In between these two categories are the scholar-musicians, who try and keep one foot on either side of the fence. It would be fair to say that the accepted mainstream theorization of Karnatik music has been moulded by the male brahmin mind and voice. Sanskrit and Telugu manuscripts have been on the ‘must-read’ list. The others have been kept to the edges, only to be used to prove the music’s catholicity. There are socio-historical reasons for this, of course, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.


The one other community that gave Karnatik music its present form and allowed it to flow from generation to generation is that of the Isai Vellalars, a community of musicians and dancers. It is said that Vina Dhanammal, the grand dame of Karnatik music belonging to that community, mocked at scholastic brahminical discussions, saying ‘Oh they have started talking about music nowadays, is it?’ The so-called intellectual organization of Karnatik music was a product of primarily male brahmin musicians, sanskritists, theoreticians and others, who were just part-time musicians. The Isai Vellalars were more or less mere spectators in this process, called on occasionally to demonstrate practice, much like ‘native informants’. Their own intellectual agency was unrecognised. Brahmin musicians who subscribed to similar aesthetic notions as the Isai Vellalars were also sidelined or typecast as ‘old timers’.

Another term used to describe musicians who are unable to understand music in a ‘rule-based form’ is natural musicians. Used in the context of musical acumen, it is a derogatory remark. The idea of ordering, reorganizing and providing logical reasoning to practice is described as the systemization of music. This has been accepted as an aesthetic need for an art form. But what about aesthetic justice in this so-called reformation process?

Keeping aside the obvious caste, class and gender dynamics that determine who theorizes, the question I am posing is: what happens to the music? In all Indian musical traditions, learning, rationalization and sharing are part of an internal process within and between artists. The magnificence of this non-scribal technique is the acceptance of diversity and the possibility of continuous musical change. The internalization of structure and form in the art, the role of memory and rediscovering without written reference keeps the music moving and varied. Every voice is not identical; the possibility of music bending and swaying across regions, traditions and time is real. At no point is the music etched in stone, trapped in time, a stone tablet of commandments. The assumption of those who propagated technical theorization was that the oral tradition allows for too much variance, is disorderly and hence arbitrary.


Scholarship in music was measured by the ability to read and interpret texts. Soon, this perception was passed on to musicians who slowly but surely began subscribing to these stifling formulations. Whatever did not conform to these new norms had no place. They were disposed, manipulated or cleansed. As a result, ragas have been melodically reorganized, which means certain features of their melodies have been morphed; some thought of as impurities or extraneous were removed. Compelling music to fall into a narrow set of regulations has also resulted in the disappearance of innumerable tunes.

When I followed one such ‘removed’ tune through oral practices and musical texts, I discovered that this one strand of music had a history of over two hundred years. We do not realize that within the DNA of every note and rhythmic stroke is aesthetic history. When we disrespect this ancestry and use directive intellectualism to clean it up, we destroy its vitality.

In a talk, T. Brinda, the granddaughter of Vina Dhanammal, speaks of a variation in a composition that musicians wanted eschewed because it was ‘technically wrong’. She sings the ‘original’ and the ‘cleansed’ versions and asks the audience, ‘which is beautiful?’ Justice spoke and sang there.

There are two kinds of beauties: one that happens because elements come together organically and another that is constructed order. Brinda was directing our attention to the former. Handloom textiles or hand-woven garments always have an extra knot in one place or a colour smudge somewhere else and the block prints are not uniform. What is even more marvellous is that, in the next fabric, these markers of the creators will be at another place. Are these imperfections that need correction? Every garment is an art object, each with a soul and a story to tell. A raga is no different. In the hands of an artist, it is her own raga. What keeps it together are not hard and fast rules but an inclusionary parabola of aesthetic intent.


But the imposition of the ‘rule book’ has forced a re-curation of music that abides to one set of laws for beauty. Since aesthetics are abstract and amorphous, the establishment of this new discriminative normal goes unheard. No one hears it coming; we may not even notice that it is being taught in a music class room and soon performers will habituate us into accepting this as approved beauty, sanctioned as tradition. This is not only a feature of melody; even in rhythm, we find something similar happening. Arithmetic that is not exact is pushed aside as wrong, forgetting that this is music where five plus five need not add up to ten; it could sometimes be 9¾th or even 10¼th!

Styles of percussion that embrace the layering rather than the numbering of rhythm are relegated to the back pages of percussive artistry. Absolutism in measure and approach become pre-requisites. Musicians forget that tala is not a carved-out matrix that contains music; it is the ripple that moves music. Machine-like precision is equated to intellectual prowess and music becomes a repetitive act of establishing this false axiom. Ragas and rhythms have to forget their histories and abide like slaves to the rule of law or be sidelined as unimportant, archaic and irrelevant.


The outside-insider game is also in play all the time. Older interpretations are either reinvented to suit the present context, erasing their source code or tainted as unnecessary inclusions. Styles of singing, instruments, compositional forms … all go through a rehashing and what remains at the very end is the acceptable organized constant. As all this unfolds below the surface, society only views socio-political flux. While inner musical dharma erodes underneath, arguments for and against are made, identity assertion discussed, and ownership and contribution of communities debated. But the tragedy does not stop here. As time goes by, academics begin revisiting histories, unearthing social truths and the disappearance of older aesthetics and practice.

But much water has already flowed under the bridge; the mechanization of music is complete and hence what is lost is gone forever. As if to add insult to injury, those who seek to revive the past come from the very same social group that once defamed this beauty. Then all of a sudden, the ancient is excavated, restyled and sold by these neo-saviours. The powerful go on to establish a new order, once again sanitizing the ‘unnecessary’, refashioning the old to suit the present times. While they claim to bring back the past, rescue that which is lost, what they end up doing is adding another coat of paint that further hides the truth. The cycle begins ones again and aesthetic violence continues unabated.