Sunday, December 22, 2013

Where is the Carnatic Music in a live show?

This has happened many times to me. I plan to write an article or a post on a topic and someone else beats me to it. This was one of them, Sushila Krishnamurthi's article "Sober dress for soulful musc?" that appeared in "The Hindu" on January 6'th, 2013 (yes, early this year) under the "Open Page" section. A week later, on January the 13'th, V.Kalidas responded to Sushila Krishnamurthi's article and titled his article "Clothing soulful music in colourful format".

To summarise the two articles in brief here goes. In her article Sushila had pointed out how today's artistes particularly women were making such an ostentatious show of themselves in live classical music performances that Thyagraja's "Bhakthi" marga and Dikshithar's "Moksha" marga (devotion and liberation) the very foundations of Carnatic music were completely lost.

In Kalidas's rebuttal he talks about artistes (including MS) who took pains to dress immaculately during their performances and that a certain amount of ostentation was not a bad idea and that it only added to the personality of these performers.

So what's my take on this?

Obviously I am going to go with Sushila's article although I am not saying that Kalidas does not have a point. It is just that Kalidas is either oblivious to several things or pretending to be oblivious to things just to contradict Sushila. I also think Sushila was also limited in the openness of her article due to the bindings, restrictions and censorship from "The Hindu". Luckily for me, on my blog I am more free to voice my thoughts.

Let me get straight to the point and explain. Around the end of 2012 and when the "sabhas" in Chennai were overflowing with carnatic music concerts I made a visit to one of them after being invited for a performance. On that day several concerts were scheduled. On arriving at the venue I was actuallly surprised to notice the sparsely populated hall. An instrumental performance was already in place. Among the artistes that evening, the famous Ranjani-Gayatri duo were also to perform.

After meeting with one of the performers (who incidentally had invited me) I was introduced to another performer who was to perform later that evening. After exchanging greetings it took me a while to identify her. This was the same lady I had been watching on the internet for several months and I couldn't even recognize her.  She looked as though she had walked straight out of a movie-set. No one there could avoid noticing her just-been-to-the-parlor-straightened-hair, gorgeous sari worn sensuously, make-up on her face and eyes and lips done seductively. When did carnatic musicians desire to be titillating to other senses besides the aural?

It is not just a "certain amount of ostentation" (as Kalidas has written) that goes into the attire and make-up of several of today's artistes but hours and hours of preparation and that includes time spent shopping for saris, costumes, make-up kits, jewelry and sessions with their beauticians.

When seated in the audience I can easily hear "maamis" commenting and discussing on the singer's "mookuthi", chain, necklace, sari and I wonder whether this what they came to see in a concert. Not to forget receding lines of blouses and constant adjusting of the saree on stage.  Sure our artistes need  not drape the saree around both shoulders but they can still dress modestly and avoid embarassments for themselves on stage and for the viewers watching them.

When I see undue ostentation as this, that artiste's music to me instantly flies out of the window. I try sometimes to look away (mostly down) and focus on the music but the moment I look back at the performer or the ostentation my focus on the music just goes away.

The worst is with twins, particularly ladies where diamond for diamond, colour, dot for dot on their costumes is matched. There are patterns too. Readers will instantly recognize who I am talking about. One sister's sari color matches the color and pattern of the blouse of the other and vice versa. And how many such combinations of saris and blouses do you think this duo may have, just a few? One wonders then, how much time and laborious pains have been undertaken to facilitate such attire and their accompaniments. Kalidas mentions of how MS had a well stocked wardrobe of Kancheepuram silks. Now here is where Kalidas has completely missed something very important. For a non-violent and devotional form of art such as Carnatic music why should it involve so much of violence? Wondering what I am writing about? Read on...

Most of today's south Indian classical musicians come from Brahmin families (by the way, this goes out for non-Brahmin classical singers too) who according to the Vedas and Hindu Culture epitomize non-violent living. Many or most of them are vegetarians and they abhor animal killing and yet in their wardrobes are stacked dozens and dozens of saris and "pattupavadais" and other attire, made from silk, that is produced by killing tens and thousands of silkworms. The killing is actually very tragic and graphic in that that the silkworms that generate the cocoons are killed by drowning and scorching them in boiling water. On an average 10,000 silkworms are killed to make just one silk sari. It is for this very reason that the Maha Periyava of Kanchi refused to wear anything made of silk and refused gifts such as the "Ponnadai". I am told that he even refused to grace functions that involved felicitating him with the traditional silk shawl, just to discourage the use of silk. Unfortunately his followers don't seem to pay any heed to this non-violent attitude of his. You can imagine the wardrobes of our popular singers and can also picture the mass-killing of silkworms that had to be done to fill their wardrobes with items made of silk. Ironically, one of the very popular singers in the Carnatic music scene was even modeling for one particular brand of Silk sari (you know who).

With all this ostentation, in my opinion, the genuine music I long to hear in a live concert is certainly taking a back seat.

Since both Sushila and Kalidas left their email addresses in their articles, I will be writing to both of them to take a look at my article and comment on the same.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello Sir,

I just happened on your article while searching for something else and could not help reading about pattu pudavais. While I am Brahmin myself, sing carnatic music, enjoy kutcheries and wear ahimsa pattu and do not use leather, I cannot but remind you that Brahmins are not necessarily non-violent. I get the feeling that you are being too idealistic in your perception. While MS Subbulakshmi seems so divine now, she herself decked herself in diamonds and silks which was more than what you would see other singers wear back in those days. Also, she was blessed with a pleasing visage already. Times are changing and while I agree one does not have to go over the top like Sudha Raghunathan (am sorry I refuse to be as discreet as you are trying to be) I see nothing wrong with matching blouses and sarees. In fact it gives me a sense of pride when I see a singer dressed well and singing well. There is of course no need for a pound of makeup caked up on your face but a surely a dab of lipstick and a clean face makes for more enjoyable concert. How does hair straightening affect your being able to enjoy the concert? In fact I find I look more presentable now that I have found that it is an option!! I feel so much more happier looking nice instead of teh curls I constantly struggle to get out of my face. If you wanted an audio recording surely the radio or a couple of CDs should suffice. I am actually proud that women and men on the stage are paying attention to what they wear instead of just wearing whatever the cat dragged in. Singing Tyagabrahmam's krithi does not necessarily mean that I should be dressed as he was or that my bhakthi is lost if I dress well. Perhaps with regard to wearing silks, if more people looked for alternatives, we would be able to make better products that match the pattu pudaivais today. But to look good on stage is aesthetically pleasing and should only increase your enjoyment of the music. It is ofcourse pathetic that some lose their direction into just looking good but the pair with matching blouses and sarees have been rendering some of the soulful notes I have heard in a long time without giving in to exaggeration. So while you enjoy music I would request you to not pretend you are a saint or that the singers are/should be. Let's criticize where required and not club everyone into it. And it is OK to try and look good, even with some effort, when you are singing to the world. I just wish more of us realise this.