Out of the sabhas, into the world: Unlikely instruments of the Carnatic world

These artistes have been striving hard for excellence and their contribution towards giving Carnatic music some breathing space must be acknowledged.
Out of the sabhas, into the world: Unlikely instruments of the Carnatic world
Out of the sabhas, into the world: Unlikely instruments of the Carnatic world
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Carnatic classical music lovers are strongly divided between the vocal and instrumental genres. Those who like vocal music go on endlessly about the poetic quality, grammatical beauty of the Sahityam and so forth. Those who like instrumental music try to buttress their arguments saying their music is beyond the written word. It has a universal appeal and does not confine it to those who can understand the language it is being sung in. Among those who enjoy instrumental music are two more sections. The first one that calls itself ‘purist’ and will only listen to what they call “original” Carnatic instruments which include the Veena, Flute, Mridangam and so forth. More than confessing their love for good or bad music, what is amusing is their disdain for what they call “foreign” instruments.  The other lot of people is open to listening to any good music, immaterial of what instrument is being played.

When the Violin was first introduced to Carnatic music, these so called purists must have rejected it outright for its foreignness. Eventually the violin made its way through, from an accompanying instrument to one that could merit a solo recital, thanks to the efforts of great violinists like Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu and others.  Now it is impossible to think of a Carnatic concert without the violin.

Similarly, when the young U Shrinivas took up the Mandolin, there was enough commotion among these ‘purists’.  He not only proved his point to them musically but also successfully managed to make the Mandolin an integral part of the Carnatic genre.  Today, is it remotely possible to imagine the history of 20th century Carnatic instrumental music without Shrinivas and his Mandolin? A few of his contemporaries, who dared to venture on the same path, have been making some outstanding music.  All of them are trained in Carnatic music and use their own sense of music making to spread awareness of this genre.

Kadri Gopalnath grew up learning Carnatic music in his village in Karnataka. But it was the sounds of the music band in the Mysore Palace attracted his attention. He fell in love with the music of the Saxophone. He decided when he grew up; he would take the Saxophone and make Carnatic music on it! He trained in Carnatic from Vidwans like Gopalakrishna Iyer, Balakrishna Pillai and T V Gopalakrishnan. One of the first to take up this alien western band instrument, Kadri Gopalnath breathed Carnatic Ragas into it. With his own modifications of the instrument, he plays excellent Carnatic music on it.  He won numerous awards and accolades among which is the Padma Shri award from the President of India.

If you thought the Saxophone was bad enough, the next generation of musicians was willing to take better risks. The results of taking these musical risks were fine performers like Prasanna. Guitar Prasanna took his Carnatic classical training at a young age from his Gurus Thiruvarur Balasubramaniam and violinist A Kanyakumari. When he was ten years old he began taking guitar classes from Dr CG Shanmugaraj and later from Samuel Thangadurai. He gave his Carnatic debut at the prestigious Madras Music Academy in 1989. In addition to his musical qualifications and training, Prasanna holds a Bachelors degree in naval architecture from the IIT Chennai. Today, he is rated among one of India’s top musicians from South, both in Carnatic and in Jazz music. Listen to him play Mutthuswamy Dikshitar’s famous ‘Vatapi Ganapatim’ in Ragam Hamsadhwani. 

Ok, even if the guitar has been fairly ‘Indianized’, what was a pure western classical concert instrument like Piano doing in Carnatic? Pushing the envelope further are performers like Anil Srinivasan. Trained in Carnatic music, Anil managed to bring in the massive grand piano into the Carnatic music fold successfully. His collaborations have been with the most diverse of musicians, from traditional Sarangi players to world famous jazz pianists. For his contribution to music he was awarded the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar from the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi for creative and experimental music. Listen to him here in collaboration with Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam. His sensitive piano manages to tame and tone Aruna’s demanding singing into a beautiful melody. 

Last but not the least, a small group of musicians, fairly unknown outside of Chennai is making some fantastic music. Taking the language and vocabulary of the Carnatic genre, utilizing the technical wizardry of western instruments, the Madras String Quartet makes some of the most amazing music one has heard since the famous Violin trio of L. Subramaniam, L. Shankar and L. Vaidyanathan. The Quartet comprises of violinists VS Narasimhan and Mohan Rao, Viola Vidwan K Sasikumar and Cello Vidwan VR Sekar. Using their knowledge of ancient Carnatic music and pairing it with western classical harmonic principles, this Quartet has changed the face of chamber music performance. Listen to them play the famous ‘Krishna Nee Begane Baaro’.

In the end, there is only good music or bad music. For self-proclaimed purists who are busy with the politics of the music industry, are equally tone-deaf to good music. Aesthetically rich in their music with a long-term vision, the musicians mentioned here are all set to take Carnatic from the musty Sabhas to global audiences. They have audiences worldwide and their global appeal surpasses that of many traditional Carnatic musicians. One isn’t setting any parameters of judging but the canvass is large and there is enough space for every kind of musician to make music. These artistes have been striving hard for excellence in their respective fields and their contribution towards opening new doors and giving Carnatic music some breathing space must be acknowledged. May the force be with them! 

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)

Images: Krishnamurthy and Senthil B

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