Carnatic Music and Religion

Karthik, who is from a family of classical Indian musicians, asked me today, "How did you get this interest in knowing about India and carnatic music?" Karthik said that he was so happy that someone not from India actually appreciates carnatic music. "Many people do not know about it. It requires such a dedication and lots of practice to be at least somewhat good at it." 

There was an article I read that really sparked my interest--Many discontents of the Season, which is about how the Margazhi Festival's organization has a lot of downsides and how newcomers have a tough time and face a lot of budgetary pressure. But the festival still serves as a good showcase for new artists and I am impressed by the number of serious patrons for art. This is an interesting excerpt from one of the participants:

“I find that in the North, artistes are a lot more united. They won’t take this kind of crap. If someone makes an unreasonable demand, and a performer takes the high road, all his or her colleagues will, so the organisers have to step back and be nice. Here, things are far more cut-throat. If you stick to your principles, there are a whole lot of people who will swoop in. And that’s given the sabhas all the power. I see it in the way Hindustani musicians are treated, during special concerts for Margazhi. They’re given lakhs as performer fees; they’re put up in five-star hotels. But how are Carnatic musicians from out of town treated? What does that tell you?”

Also, the star of the festival was--

Carnatic singer TM Krishna
The 36-year-old singer draws a mob at practically every kutcheri (a place where people gather to listen to classical music concerts of vidwans.). A vocalist who’s been famous for longer than he hasn’t been, his flair and creativity on stage have earned him a devoted following—and a reputation as an eccentric. He often questions the competence of music critics, the sanctity of the structure of a kutcheri, the politics of the season.
Over the last few years, he’s taken initiatives to set things right. Once he refused evening slots to make way for new talent. Another time, he said he was taking December off to attend other musicians’ kutcheris; and in 2012-13, he said he would only give free concerts. So rasikas dashed to his four-hour concert at an auditorium with 700 seats.
TM Krishna is not only renowned singer, but also a thinker and writer. He has a theory about practicing, his as well as a book on Carnatic music.
I have this theory that we should push our mental capacity to the extreme during practice. A lot of nonsense may be there inside your head. When you practise Natakurinji for six hours for instance, other raga-s could be there inside you. Every musician has to develop a sieve in the thought process that will help to bring out the juice of what your mind is thinking and deliver it. Not necessarily in a concert, but when you sing naturally. You first need to throw everything out. You need to expel all extraneous matter. When you sing for four hours – you will reach a point when you are brain dead. But you just have to get to that point, where you are so saturated that you will go mad! After that, the mind starts clearing up what you sing. Among 50 ideas that come up in your mind, one idea may survive. Many people told me I was overdoing it, singing too much. Being the kind of person I was, I rebelled and continued to do exactly what I wanted to do. This was very good in one way. I learnt it all my way. If someone asked me to sing Todi, I just poured out everything I knew of Todi, all the sangati-s.
If only I could work that hard for learning a language...

I have also been reading Janaki Bakhle's Two Men and Music before Hindi classes started and it's also very inspiring. I look forward to reading TM Krishna's new book on Carnatic music; the excerpt in The Hindu was also very reflective and honest.
Within the modern world, the Hindu religious content raises an important question. Can an atheist or a non-Hindu be a Karnatik musician?
The environment that pervades Karnatik music makes it very difficult for an atheist to function within its world. There may be a few, but they will find it very difficult to come out in the open and articulate an atheistic narrative for Karnatik music. They will silently pamper the religious responses to their music and encourage devotional and philosophical expressions. I am not finding fault, but highlighting the difficulty for them to be who they are within this world. The musical fraternity at large does not feel it necessary to give Karnatik music, especially its compositional forms, a purely aesthetic thought.
What about practitioners of other religions? Among the nagasvara community there were not a few Muslim families that mastered this art form. Most of them flourished in what is now Andhra Pradesh and a few still live alongside the most conservative Hindu communities of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu. My admiration for these people is immense, as they have been able to negotiate two very opposing ideas, but there is a nuance. They have had to, perhaps willingly, accept the Hindu pantheon within their world. You will find their homes adorned with pictures of Hindu deities and their immense respect for Hindu gods and goddesses even when their religious practices are Islamic. This is a credit to their ability to straddle two worlds. But they cannot display apathy for Hinduism and be accepted as musicians by the Karnatik world. 
TM Krishna raises very important questions. I find this issue common in many cultural activities in India. Among my fellow Hindi language students during the summer, two have studied music from Oberlin, and both have interests in Indian music. I also really like Qawwali music (such as Qari Wahid Chisti) and ghazal ballads. In fact, Agha Shahid Ali, who introduced ghazals in an English form, is my favorite poet. I have also watched Bengali Baul performers (Purna Das Baul) in Beijing, at 后山艺术空间. Bauls pride themselves for being Hindu-Muslim syncretic and without caste. They have rituals and beliefs in addition to musical performances. Carnatic musicians, for example, play at religious functions as well.

Karthik's reply:
As you correctly pointed out, a person who knows and practices carnatic music will find it very difficult to be an atheist. It is virtually impossible. I can assure that not a single carnatic musician will be a complete atheist. They may be agnostic but atheism isn't there. I will tell you something, I didn't know atheism was a thing until I was 19 yes old. That's the effect on the society. The word is not uttered and a person is not taught anything about it. Also, most of the carnatic compositions are based on god. Exaltation of the deities is an important tool in keeping up the tradition and teaching carnatic music.
The holy trinity in carnatic music, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Thyagarajar, and Shyama Sastrigal all composed music based on deities. Mr. Koteeswara Iyer was the first person to compose tunes in all 72 mela karta raagas. Even he composed music by praising the gods.
See, there are very complex societies in India. Also, most of the carnatic musicians are Brahmins (including me). It is a subculture within the tamil culture itself. We are, from a very young age, drilled about the concept of god. So most of us don't know what atheism is. To us, god and music aren't different. Yes.
I said that this is also the one aspect I find troubling in Buddhism, which proposes no god. I like music so much, and the existence of such wonderful music makes it hard to believe that there is no god. I think Christians feel similar in regards to some classical music.
He pointed that "there are quite a bit of christians who actually sing carnatic music, praising both the hindu gods as well as jesus christ. Weird but true. This happens in Kerala a lot. It is just that carnatic music is taught not only with notes but also with devotional lyrics. Because many devotional songs are taken as examples for classic raagas.
He goes on, "The carnatic music is actually seen by many muslims as a hindu thing. So Muslims don't do it often. However, there are many successful musicians who are Muslims and have a carnatic background. Most of them however, prefer western classical music."

Here is I made a mixtape of the five tracks I like best under the theme of "Joy"

1. Ganesh & Kumaresh - Yaare Ranganaa

2. Venkataswamy Naidu - Ragam Thanam Pallavi

3. Ganesh & Kumaresh - Yaro Iver Yaro

4. Anil Srinivasan, Supratik Das & Sikkil Gurucharan "Raag Megh" Live @ The Peninsula Studios

5. Ganesh & Kumaresh - Seethapathe

6. https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10204715600635230
Composed by the amazing musician from Kerala called Sharreth.

I asked Karthik about track 1, in which Ganesh and Kumaresh said that Yaare Ranganaa was written by someone 500 years ago. What was used in place of violin in Carnatic before violin?

Yaare Ranganaa composed by Purandaradasar is a vocal composition. It wasn't made for instrumental. In fact, instrumental carnatic music didn't exist until 1980s. The man who created a revolution in instrumental carnatic music was Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan. Muthuswamy Dikshitar introduced violin to carnatic music. Before that, the accompaniment depended upon Veena or Sitar. I added, TM Krishna also said in his column that Carnatic music can be understood as very young as well.In a usual carnatic music setup, you have the singer, now you have the violinist who accompanies the singer, then you have mridangam as percussion. This is the basic setup. The extra instruments are Ghatam (which looks like a clay pot), Kanjira, Morsing etc. So violins performing independently was non existent a couple of decades ago. Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan changed the entire scene. He brought out something called the "Solo Violin" revolution. Many violinists then started playing independently. Only then the respect for that instrument vastly increased. This music director called Illayaraaja again introduced violin solo pieces in movies. V.S. Narasimhan took centre stage then. Most of the carnatic musicians try to complicate and twist the music as much as possible in order to provide complexity. So, over a period, complexity started to get associated with beauty and skill. 

"Many people, in the name of complexity, started to make it sound boring. That's why many people don't find it appealing. M.S. Viswanathan and Illayaraaja made this observation and created music in such a manner that the essence and beauty of carnatic music reached far beyond the educated audiences."

Karthik also has an interesting opinion regarding Bollywood music: Many people think A.R. Rahman is the best musician in India. He is a brilliant technician. However, he is no match to Illayaraaja and MSV. The factor which made Rahman famous is media and technology. He rose to prominence when India opened up to the world. That was the time when the state controlled media became privatized. With that came more money, a different genre of music, and a young composer with it. This had a brilliant effect and now Rahman is pretty damn famous. Actually speaking, Illayaraaja never broke into Bollywood. He did most of his films in Kollywood, Telugu, Malayalam, and Bengali film industries.