Neocarnatic gajabuja gilma

For the Tamil challenged, Gajabuja means “megabigbang” and gilma means “Strange stuff”

The audience has changed. They now tote cellphones with annoying ringtones. They arrive in chauffeur driven Ford Ikons. The jewelry is contemporary Tanishq. The sarees sport bold new colours and patterns. The women now hold Phds. The cafetaria outside serves sandwiches and the filter coffee comes with no default unholy amounts of sucrose.

But the music hasn’t. The Madras Music Academy is stuck in a 1950s timewarp. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, it is said, laid down (pretty hard I believe) the rules of the Carnatic concert. Of course, it’s not all his rules. He just formalized the whole thing.

  • Salute the elephant god for starters,
  • Sing prathi madhyamam and suddha madhyamam songs alternately and not together
  • Tukdaas (lighter songs) towards the end and serve Madhyamavathi for desert. No deviations. Capeesh?
  • No accompanying instruments other than violin and mridangam. Optionally ghatam, ganjira and morsing.
  • Mic settings as follows: Vocalist: 400 db, Violinist and others: audible to dogs and bats using hearing aids.
  • Do not even engage one tenth of a neuron in considering announcing song names, raagas, taalas and god forbid, song meanings and symbolism ahead of the performance. This is an elite audience dammit. They will either know, or pretend to know.
  • Violinist parrots note-to-note exactly what the singer does. Any originality is frowned upon.
  • The lyrics should have been written more than 400,000 years ago.
  • If it’s experimental, it’s not carnatic. It’s the F-word. Fusion.

I am not sure this can go on for ever. While it’s nice to delude oneself about the inherent awesomeness of our music, let’s face it. No form of music survives unchanged for centuries. Shift happens. Institutions will tend to stifle innovation, but musicians deep down don’t like formulae. They prefer the explosions from the failed experiments in the chemistry lab than the dreary theories that arise from the successful ones.

Here are a few ideas to disrupt this 50 year old state of antiquated affairs.

How about some basslines for a change? The carnatic soundscape lacks severely in the bass end of the sonic spectrum. A bass guitar adding some grooves to the mridangam will do nicely.

How about a few other instruments for a change? Keyboards, Electric guitars and Cellos can provide excellent accompaniment to vocalists without necessarily “spoiling” the purity of the music. Especially Cellos for female vocalists. Today, both the female singer and the violin uneasily occupy the same high treble end (Shriek Shriek) of the spectrum.

Vocal harmonies anybody? Not all the time, but at specific sections of the song, where the harmony could add depth to the overall effect.

People do not always know the difference between Karnataka Devagandhari and Abheri. Please tell us. Also, we would love to know what “Orajoopuchoo” means. It simply sounds way too cool.

I had the privilege of playing the violin for 15 minutes at the Podworks unconference (rather ordinarily I might add). While I played Rajaji’s “Kurai Ondrum Illai“, 2 very smart people bought up the wikipedia article on Rajaji and the song lyrics and meaning on the large projector. Why couldn’t the Music Academy do this at their concerts?

And um..since no serious article is worth its weight in words without a few jalsa suggestions,

My younger brother recommends a Carnatic moshpit

Techno dance beats for Thillanas (Aren’t they about dance too?)

28 Comments

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  1. Something like “Carnatic Hero” would get the younger generation interested.

    I would love playing awesome ultra cool thaniyavarthanam using a mridangam shaped controller with a few buttons on either side or use the whammy bar like thingy to control the gammagam of the violin or voice.

  2. There are people ready to do it. I mean a few people do play carnatic in cool new age instruments, but will the kanjeevaram clad maamis come in droves? The PYTs and the jeans clad techie will come to the odd concert, but what about the end of year season?
    I think the problem is that, we are a culture, are averse to change. We view the western influence as a bane, in spite of the fact that most of what we know today as carnatic is a mix of mostly telugu compositions with the odd tamil composition thrown in.

  3. I think they will, if the changes are gradual enough. Just sneak in a bass guitarist one day. Create a story about it – say “Thyagaraja’s final will referred to his desire to explore lower frequency ranges” or some jalsa like that. You will be surprised. Kanjeevaram clad maamis today use sms and chat about soap serials. It’s all about the packaging. How on earth do you think serials manage to get away with topics such as adultery, the kind that used to be totally taboo few years back.

  4. @Karthik:

    Brilliant Idea! It could even be multi-console: Dappanguthu Revolution for the Wii and Xbox 360, and a game like Loom, with Carnatic influences for the DS and PSP.

  5. Good Point; change is essential for carnatic music-but i also think it has survived so long because of its ability to accomodate changes. I think there was always musicians experimenting with it in every generation though the “so called purists” were making a lot of noise about how sacred carnatic music was.

    But one needs to also be careful about what the change needs to be-because you have to understand something properly before trying to change it; if a mandolin has occupied such a place in the carnatic music i think it is because of a person like U Srinivas who was able to mould it to produce the essence of carnatic music.

    In mu humble (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) opinion the following things can change:

    1. The current pathetic acoustic science used in carnatic concerts

    2. The standard cutchery patantharam

    3. The pseudo cutchery crowd

    4. Audience education (instead of assuming everyone knows everything OR let only people who can understand come to the concert) but not bringing down the bar to the level of crass commercialization

    5. The so called schools-bani’s of music as they say “Semmangudi school” “dhanammal bani” etc

    6. Not letting people get on stage unless they reach a certain maturity (as they do in Hindustani music)

    7. Giving much more respect to the accompanists (i think it is much better than what it used to be maybe 10 years back)-ofcourse the accompanists also need to earn their respect because of their vidwat (default for the performing musician)

    8. Fusion/Experimentation without Con”Fusion”

  6. @Vasoo,
    Good sensible points. The change needs to be gradual and audience education and acoustics are a good beginning.

    @Raghav,
    Dappaankutthu Revolution (ala Dance Dance Revolution) is an awesome idea. One just needs to wait for a critical mass of the indian gaming console market.

  7. gajabuja purinjudhu.. gilma purinjudhu.. yenda veena vaasikardhu vittutomnu thonichchu.. adhukku mela onnume puriyalai! 😦 (naa idhu sonnadhu veena maami ketta, odhaippa!)

  8. Saary krish, Im happy that some things don’t change and Carnatic music is one of them. Would audiences in Vienna agree to put jhankaar beats in Bach’s mass in B Minor for instance?

    The world is changing fast enough as it is. Its worth preserving some elements of the past instead of steamrolling everything into one standard gothsu like morasse. I’ll go to a fusion concert if I want to listen to fusion music.

    Im not terribly enthu about ragam talam composer announcements either sorry. There are enough resources outside of a concert for a true listener to go and read or listen to, if they really want to know the intricate nuances of Carnatic music. There’s no sense in subjecting 50% of the audience with information they already know… Or worse still, killing the suspence of a lot of people (self included) who love identifying ragas, talas and locating the composer mudras in the kritis.

  9. @Bikerdoddanna,
    But I am not talking about radical changes. Musical styles always evolve slowly. In the case of carnatic music, evolution seems to have stopped entirely. Adding a bass instrument in addition to the tampura will improve the overall sonic experience. Ofcourse, that might be a personal opinion, but the overall point is – start thinking about evolution. My points are simply examples. None of them might turn to be practical. For e.g, you are right about the thrill involved in identifying raagas, but why couldn’t the academy put together a pamphlet that can be picked up by the audience optionally. Western concerts do that. I was handed a lengthy instruction manual on when to clap and when not to at the Zubin Mehta concert at Delhi. (A long time back)

  10. The words ‘Carnatic’ and ‘moshpit’ are simply wrong together.

    People would listen to Carnatic more if they understood it and if it sounded catchy. No point in sounding like prayer.

  11. Marc, your ears need to be replaced. As for me, I like my carnatic music as it is. And I wouldn’t want every kind of music in the world sounding the same. I agree that there could be a more organised structure to concerts, as in, have a schedule with artist profiles and so on, and better acoustics will be welcome, but they aren’t terrible in any case. As for bass guitar and so on… noooooooo!!! i listen to carnatic music simply to get away from bass guitars, which i don’t dislike, but i can do without at certain points in time. And stop ridiculing the people who listen to carnatic music. At a rock concert, you get absolutely knowledgable crowds, don’t you? And what’s headbanging and the ‘baba’ gesture? Sign of being ‘knowledgable’ about rock music? Or is it just ‘pretending to know’? Like the ladies in the front row of carnatic concerts with the silk sarees? And it has never had any mass appeal, so I don’t see the point of getting people like Marc into a carnatic concert. If he’s happy in a lesser universe, let him be.

  12. @Leddis and Jants,
    Plis to be notings.
    This is not a Rock vs Carnatic debate. Both are poles apart as genres of music. The intent of this post was to simply find out if Carnatic music can do with some innovation. To rock’s credit, it has undergone sea changes in the 40-50 years of its existence. It has also spawned innumerable further genres that have in fact diverged so far from their original roots that they are separate genres of their own (compare Pantera with say, Chuck Berry)

    Now ofcourse, some of you do not want changes, and some do. But let’s understand that it is not distortion guitar or jhankaar beats that I am proposing to include in a carnatic concert.

    @KK,
    Just a faint feeling that you are confusing the bass guitar and an electric guitar. I might be wrong. Apologies if I misconstrued and you well and truly do not want a bass guitar at a carnatic concert. A bass guitar plays only low frequency non-noise non-distorted bass notes, not very different from the last string of U Shrinivas’ mandolin. In fact, Shrinivas’ overall acoustics have improved a hundred fold ever since he started playing with a larger, much more guitar like mandolin, at lower keys. He sounds great in most of his new recordings. Now, that is what prompted me to suggest a bass guitar for certain concerts where a lot of high pitched sounds are to be heard.

    Similarly, one of the other suggestions – cello instead of violin for female vocalists is again not a radical, noise producing, headbanging change. Cellos and violins belong to the same family, and cellos, in fact, produce a beautiful mellow and rich sound that moves the heart. Purely from the perspective of frequency balancing, a low pitched cello forms a perfect counterpart to a high pitched female vocalist.

    Summary: It is true that the carnatic audience today is a very hidebound dont-change-anything sort of audience, but this shouldnt stop the music establishment from frequently encouraging small, meaningful innovations and changes. Let’s not forget that 100 years ago, a Carnatic concert was entirely different. 200 years ago, the violin was an evil foreign instrument that had no place in the pure, stratified air of Tiruvayyaru. So there, every generation resists change and claims that things are hunky dory. But hey, shift happens.

    1. I completely agree with KA. Many a times, I have gone to Carnatic Classical concerts only to be disappointed that there is zero information available about the compositions. I would prefer an introduction about the composition, what are the special aspects of it, the speciality of the raaga & the thaala. I definitely see it as an educative experience. When I used to go to these concerts in Bangalore, I invariably used to see only elderly people (with or without any knowledge about Carnatic Music) with hardly one or two youngsters. Youngsters shun Carnatic music (unless they have a musically inclined family or they themselves are being trained), because they do not know what is to be appreciated in it and since they do not know much about it, they find it either too complicated or completely dull & boring. Make these concerts more interesting, attractive and educative to the common folks. That’s my 68 paisa!

  13. Forget acoustics or instrumentation, but is it not possible to reinvent the lyricism and imagery, to reflect perhaps the modern condition?

    For me, the imagery and lyrics are very important. A post-rock neo-western classical band like Godspeed You Black Emperor or Explosions in the Sky is more relevant than a Beethoven or a Mozart.

    Similarly. I would want to hear a carnatic composition thats similarly more relevant. If there are such, forgive my ignorance.

  14. The only thing I’d like to change about Carnatic music is the obsessively religious angle . Hindustani for example has, over the years diverged into subjects like love, rain, philosophy etc.

    My cousin wants me to sing a non-religious Carnatic song at her wedding and I had to inform her regretfully that no such thing exists.. 😦

    Krish the more I think about it the better the idea of incorporating instruments like the cello sounds. Its going to tough to play carnatic on a cello though cos the strings are very tough!

  15. mate, i know exactly what a bass guitar is. why not accomodate the tanpura in a western classical concert? why does evolution simply have to mean americanising everything? i’d like small innovations that don’t affect the nature of the music. bass guitars will change things drastically. a didgeridoo instead of/in combination with the morsing…

  16. bass lines sound interesting. Got any samples :)?

    Keyboards – havent we kinda been there done it with that (pardon) abomination harmonium ;)? I think it used to popular even in the first half of 20th century and of course is still popular in hindustani world. My dislike for it though is based purely on the timbre of harmonium.

    One thing I imagine is a “symphony” type of thing in ragas like hindolam, kalyanavasantham etc. You know 20 violins, some cellos, some percussion – doing intense swara passages etc. Of course with my lack of knowledge its all just wild imagination!

    Besides to be truthful I am still trying to suck in all the beauty of the music as it is – before looking for “new variety”.

  17. @KK
    Sorry about the bass guitar assumption. Didn’t mean to disparage in any way.
    A Tanpura may or may not make sense in a western classical concert for many reasons. Since my knowledge is fairly shallow, I cant really judge one way or another. A Tampura is a drone instrument with a natural flanged sound, and with almost all instruments in an orchestra playing clean, unflanged sounds, perhaps it might not mix. But a tanpura might make great sense in spacey ambient rock.

    The point again is – its not about radical changes. A Didgeridoo is not a pitched instrument. it most certainly cant take the place of a morsing.

    For that matter, Western classical music and carnatic music have undergone several changes in the past. I am simply trying to ask – is it time for some changes?

    @Arun,
    Great ideas. We should meet up sometime and cook something up. But ill first have to lodge an FIR against this missing person in my life – Time.

  18. @ Bikerdude,

    There does exist atleast one sub-genre of songs in carnatic world that are non religious. They are called javalis (and some padhams). But if you are singing them at a wedding, people in the crowd better not know the meaning (usually not a problem ;)), or you can get into serious trouble!

  19. no – aNDAl atleast historically is considered as someone truly in love with her Lord and thus did write poems directed at Lord only (although I dont claim to be able to relate to that kind of a bhakthi). I realize this can be subject to argument and so I will take the easy way as say nAcciyAr tirumozhi wasnt composed in carnatic style 😉

    But checkout padams of e.g. of kshetragna.

  20. @ Bikerdude
    I would suggest the javalis of Swati Thirunal.He did compose on on non-religious themes but managed to bring in “Padmanabhadasa” every time .
    Or how about the nationalistic songs of Bharathi?

  21. @Bikerdude,

    try Periyaswami Thooran as well and Madhavayya for non religious.

    ‘Shanti Nilava VaenDum’ is a good one. Ignorant about its composer.

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