In September 2017, I heard the Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna sing to a packed auditorium in Mumbai’s cosmopolitan locality of Bandra. The 800-odd-seat St Andrews auditorium usually features English plays, rarely Indian classical music. The music that day was pure Carnatic, the majority of the listeners not South Indian. Given Carnatic music’s traditional appeal to a narrow band, it was a stunning moment for this esoteric genre.

Having been reared on Carnatic music and loving it deeply, I had long despaired that it was not reaching larger and more diverse audiences, even though the genre is comparable with Hindustani music in antiquity and classicism, and has common roots.

TM Krishna sings Muthuswami Dikshitar’ Chaturdasha Ragamalika at St Andrew’s Auditorium in Mumbai on September 16, 2017. Video credit: Filmed and produced by First Edition Arts

Popular reactions say that relative to Hindustani music, Carnatic, as practised today, privileges vocal over instrumental music; gives importance to lyrics, which largely being in Telugu, Tamil and Sanskrit, are understood by few; it foregrounds the composition, and so musicians seemingly devote more energy on accurate reproduction than on manodharma, or improvisation; it encourages the arithmetic aspects of rhythm to overshadow melody; and finally, it has a narrow social base of performers and listeners, which makes it exclusive and excluding. This is all partly true, but misconceptions and the ethnocentrism of non-Carnatic listeners also contribute to these perceptions.

Among experts, veteran musicologist Pappu Venugopala Rao points out that the audience for concerts is still largely South Indian, Brahmin and elderly, even though, in a significant change, performers are now younger. Many star performers are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. V Sriram, a historian of Carnatic music, argues that the form lacks broader appeal because the lyrics draw almost exclusively from Hindu gods and worship: it is religious music.

Notes of change

The most articulate critique currently comes from TM Krishna, a gifted musician in his early 40s. He is vociferous against what he argues is the narrowness of contemporary Carnatic music, with respect to form and outreach. He has brought in changes in his own practice, slowing down his pace, exploring the vilambit, or ultra-slow, laya, while the typical concert races like an express train over multiple ragas, slowing down only at a couple of stations.

He also often breaks the conventional kutcheri, or Carnatic concert, format, with respect to the order and proportion of ­elements. I have heard him sing an alapana without a composition, or leave the alapana to the violinist altogether, or sing the usually prefatory varnam in the middle of a concert. While concerts now include lighter pieces in Malayalam, Kannada, even Hindi bhajans, Krishna has breached the boundary of kutcheri dharma by including Tamil Islamic songs.

As for access and outreach, he has criticised Carnatic music as being for Brahmins, by Brahmins. He has stopped singing at the famous Chennai’s December season, citing the irreconcilability of its ethos with his. He goes beyond singing, to explore concrete modes of action – writing, activism, boycott, performing at alternative venues and for new audiences. He has started an annual festival in a fishing settlement in Chennai, with classical, folk and popular art forms sharing the stage. He has rendered Chennai Poromboke Paadal, a song about the destruction of the commons, in Carnatic style, in colloquial, polemical Tamil, seated against the stark backdrop of the encroached wastelands of Ennore creek.

TM Krishna sings Chennai Poromboke Paadal in a series of Carnatic ragas in this video filmed by Ratheendran R Prasad and produced by activist Nityanand Jayaraman. The song was initially a Tamil rap song composed by Kaber Vasuki, which Krishan retuned. Video credit: Chennai Poromboke Paadal.

The more TM Krishna antagonises sections of the traditional base, the more he appeals to a new, cosmopolitan, politically aware, pan-Indian audience. Some people comment that his political views are the draw, not the music. This is partly true, but he is certainly catalysing a crossover of the genre.

His criticism about Brahmin dominance is broadly valid, but irks many within Carnatic music as being a cavalier condensation of a complex scenario, especially when it is reproduced in sound bytes. To merely say that Carnatic music is casteist fails to situate the genre in a larger social and historical context. To decode the enigma, one also has to search for clues within its aesthetics, its structure and its history of innovation.

Social and historical context

It is true that Carnatic music’s organisation was caste-based. But why should we be surprised? It reflected the caste structure of society at large, with its segregated occupations and monopolised hereditary transmission in families, clans and castes. Moreover, the historical record shows that Brahmin dominance is recent – a product of modernity via British colonialism, which conferred social and economic mobility on select groups. That is why Brahmin dominance is more evident in metropolitan Chennai, rather than being an inherent and pervasive phenomenon.

The genre’s traditional custodians belonged to the non-Brahmin Isai Vellala community, while zamindars, whose munificence sustained it after royal patronage vanished, were also not Brahmins. We also need to recognise its spread in the four southern states through the patronage of the Travancore and Mysore courts. Think also of Carnatic music’s close and continuing association with Tamil liturgy, such as Tevaram, Tiruvachagam and Pasuram recitations, in small temples throughout Tamil Nadu, and the way ragas such as Ananda Bhairavi and Neelambari undergird folk melodies, or perhaps it is vice versa.

Perhaps Carnatic music’s base is narrow as a concert form. The concert is like a hothouse flower. And the annual Chennai music festival – whose 91st edition took place in December – with its record number of concerts, vast array of brilliant musicians and intense self-absorption of the musical community is only a specific aspect of the genre. The broader system and musical culture undergirding it has percolated society at large in South India and its diaspora.

Carnatic music has interacted with South Indian film music and classical dance. Think of how AR Rahman, and even more, Ilaiyaraaja, have synthesised from its melodies to take their film music beyond the local to the national and international; the way Vikku Vinayakaram’s ghatam sounds have seeped into global bands; and the way the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees from Jaffna have deployed Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam as a Tamil identity issue all over the West. Indeed, Carnatic music is more than a genre or a system. It is a civilisational resource nourishing and being nourished by many devotional and folk forms in South India and Jaffna; it is part of popular cultural memory.

AR Rahman.

Carnatic music in its current form is connected to larger developments in the first half of the 20th century. Then, burgeoning nationalism was based on the mobilisation of educated elites, until Gandhi turned it into a mass movement. Classical music and dance went through a transition in order to meet the need of the time to revive and reinvent classical arts of antiquity.

Furthermore, there were contestations of the Carnatic system, notably from the Dravidian movement’s interventions in the region’s cultural politics. The Brahmin stamp and dominance of Telugu compositions were targets of the Tamil Isai movement of the 1940s, with its roots in a nascent Dravidianism. It split the community of rasikas. When the hallowed and influential Music Academy opposed the demand for giving central concert space to Tamil compositions, Carnatic music lost out on its non-Brahmin patrons, argues Sriram.

But Dravidian movements, too, made political points with their rigidity, disregard of history and overstating the genre’s exclusivity, eventually reinforcing the exodus. The narrow social base of Carnatic music is thus both a result of a functioning elite’s desire to perpetuate itself as well as Dravidianism’s ideological goal of Tamilisation.

Cultivated taste

Any critique must acknowledge that Carnatic music is exclusive also because becoming a performer carries high risks and few rewards, even compared with Hindustani music.

Carnatic music is today an elite preoccupation, just as classical forms everywhere tend to be. They are by definition complex forms with considerable abstraction.

Carnatic music’s fundamental concept of learning and performance as being an embodied and not a cerebral process has resulted in two prominent characteristics. The first is a long and arduous apprenticeship, dissuading popular participation. Even listening is a cultivated taste. The second is an axiomatic faith in its inherent nature.

With long, immersive training, the cultivated nature of classical music recedes from the consciousness of performers and audiences alike. The prevalent mode and style, with a specific order and choice of ragas and texts – after all a product of a context of time and place – gets imbued with what French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “habitus”, a collective stance cultivated so thoroughly that it becomes naturalised. For the community of rasikas, it becomes a habit, comfort zone, a refuge.

I came to this understanding through personal experience. As a 10-year-old in Delhi I began learning Carnatic music from Venkateswaran saar, who would write the text and notation in Tamil script, in a long thick notebook with pale green pages. He would not let me look at it. It was only for later, just in case I forgot a note. “If you look at the notebook and sing, your music will sound stilted; the life flow will dry up.” So he would sing one line of a new composition, and I would sing after him, five or six times before moving on to the next line and then to the different stanzas in the same manner, line by line. Ditto for improvisation.

Often, in this endless cycle of repetition, my mind would wander freely. Yet from a space beyond the mind, from my being, I would still reproduce his musical phrases, pronunciation and accent down to the tiniest detail. Any departure and he would stop, look at me, and repeat the errant phrase. This was how all my teachers taught me. The song, style and modulation got drilled into my memory, voice – and body. When a line from a song I have not sung for years wafts in through the breeze, I can pick up the thread and sing the whole song, to my own astonishment.

This method is of a piece with the powerful oral trans­mission traditions of India, whether a villupaattu folk song in a Tamil village or a Vedic chant. The latter is tightly controlled by ingenious mnemonic devices to ensure accurate reproduction, while folk genres have always allowed more flexibility.

In sum, Carnatic music demands years of sadhana to become a performer. It also needs a trained ear to appreciate. It is inherently an arcane form, and not a particularly attractive career choice.

Dynamics of continuity and change

This embodiment and consequent naturalisation of Carnatic music do lead to some resistance to change, but innovation and expressions of individuality are also a part of its history. While Carnatic music is embedded in convention and protocol, it has been in constant flux. When changes occur, responding to circumstances and answering a felt need, they succeed if they do not disturb the status quo violently. That does not mean they are not significant.

In the early 20th century, for instance, the pioneering musician Ariyakkudi shortened the concert duration and packed it with the clutch of features that have become trademarks of the contemporary concert. The trigger was the invention of the gramophone record, with its three-minute limit for songs.

Then, the “musician’s musician” and composer MD Rama­nathan introduced slow-paced singing, infused with bhava and laya. He was with Kalakshetra for years and the vilambita kala ganam of kathakali influenced his singing. T Brinda, the brilliant legatee of a traditional devadasi lineage, would sing her padams unhurriedly, as part of her overall approach to voice modulation, even though not everyone appreciated this super-slow pace.

MS Subbulakshmi’s emotionally rich music and raising funds for worthy causes through her concerts took Carnatic music all over India. Her association with the national movement, acting in films like Meera, singing bhajans from many Indian languages and smart packaging by her husband played a role in building her image. She took a bold position favouring Tamil Isai. Predictably, traditional musicians criticised her for not being classical enough.

M S Subbulakshmi.

A generation later, M Balamurali Krishna with his versatility, original ideas on classical music, willingness to engage with pan-Indian and global forums, including televised jugalbandis with Bhimsen Joshi, brought Carnatic music some new Hindustani listeners. As a maverick, he too had his battles with the canon. There are many others.

Were these just isolated bright sparks, exceptional but not enduring? That would be a misreading of the ways in which changes are absorbed into ancient cultural systems without overtly being called changes. Over the decades, the middle ground in the Carnatic system has undergone subtle shifts, responding to external situations as well as to reformers, mavericks and rebels from within. MS Subbulakshmi’s inclusion of Hindi bhajans, her emphasis on bhakti and bhava have seeped into current-day performances. Her centenary year in 2016 was celebrated with verve and respect by a canon that had earlier dismissed her as a lightweight. Balamurali’s jugalbandis have inspired others to experiment with collaborations without compromising on their classical standing.

The existence of a separate domain of the “classical” is part of the project of modernity and its ambivalent relationship with the popular and the mass. The concept of high culture and the classical arts, elaborated by Mathew Arnold, TS Eliot and others during the emergence of Europe as an industrialised society, was actually a cry for preserving an oasis of stability in the wake of revolutionary social transformation.

In India, it got a native twist with anti-colonial nationalism, whose political need was to retrieve indigenous brilliance and originality in the performing and plastic arts, literature and philosophy, to shore up the self-esteem of a colonised people. This added gravitas to the enterprise of building a distinct identity for classical music. In successive eras of mass mediation, including the contemporary digital media, and of hybridity and fusion, the need to keep a classical domain intact continues to have wide support, even while interactions with other genres and forms are accepted.

In recent decades, the local, national and global dynamics of musicians’ locations, and the technology of dissemination have changed dramatically. Contemporary Carnatic musicians such as Aruna Sairam and Bombay Jayashri, with original moorings in Mumbai, have foregrounded other genres such as abhangs in their concerts. They sing at global forums. In fact, the sounds of Carnatic music, fused and unfused, have crossed the oceans to concert halls and universities of the West in a small but significant manner. The South Indian diaspora, with its complex motivations for pursuing classical music and dance, has played a role.

Crossing the Vindhyas has been more difficult! This is where Krishna’s real breakthrough may lie. Responding to his barbs, Carnatic music’s middle ground may shift, but his tweaking the concert format breaks a habit, not a system. His music, however, leaves an unforgettable imprint on the listener.

I remember the violin maestro TN Krishnan ending a concert on Christmas morning with Jingle Bells, delighting the audience. It did not carry the same charge as Krishna’s rendition of Allahvai naam tozhudaal If we worship Allah. Whether the source of this charge lies within himself or whether he draws from happenings in the world around him, whether it comes from his commitment to diversity and outreach or his plumbing the depths of a universal spirituality are not questions I would venture to ask, much less answer.

This article first appeared on Economic & Political Weekly.