Concert season and the canonisation of Karnatik music

The label ‘classical’ Karnatik is attached to these performances today. But the classification did not emerge overnight. The colonial (and technological) encounter has been integral to the process.
Last Updated : 27 April 2024, 00:31 IST
Last Updated : 27 April 2024, 00:31 IST

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Rama Navami, today, is to Bengaluru what the December season is to Chennai. Concert halls and temple annexes of the first are filled with audiences during March and April. Ganesha Chaturthi is the other season. The inspiration for taking music to a public forum comes from the celebratory calendar of Mysore city and palace. However, palace events were held whenever it pleased the princely dispensation. 

In Chennai, as recorded in the late nineteenth century, August and September were the main months of music. The season shifted to December-January in the forties, to acknowledge the Tamil month of Margazhi. The Music Academy Festival is held in this month even now. 

The label ‘classical’ Karnatik is attached to these performances today. But the classification did not emerge overnight. The colonial (and technological) encounter has been integral to the process. Kingly courts and temples, where music was patronised, lost their prerogative to support musicians and musical activities after the British came.

It was during an epoch, straddling nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that the city of Madras was raised. It became the centre of colonial administration and its military and civilian populations grew.

Meanwhile, squeezed out of livelihood because princely patronage had dwindled, musicians moved to Madras. By 1900, a network of voluntary associations belonging to different communities had sprung. They gathered in homes and community halls to sing bhajans. This was the social setting for music sabhas, the new patrons of Karnatik music. Each community came to have its own sabha.

This was also an era of new technologies — microphone, the amplifier, as well as devices for printing, recording and broadcasting. Musicians, music teachers, critics, technologists and society influencers formed a loose manifold that would lead first to the emergence of new sets of implicit and explicit codes of behaviour governing performers and listening subjects alike.This led to the canonisation of Karnatik music. 

Writer-critics who were often musicians themselves brought to a new audience of music students and concert-goers, the patronage of kings and the escapades of musicians in royal courts.There was a ferment following the All-India Music Conference held in Madras in 1927. It called for measure to correctly understand, improve and standardise the theory and practice of Indian music. The Madras Music Academy, founded a year later, began implementing these proposals. It sent out a committee to tour south India and record, on gramophone, ‘‘authentic versions of compositions’’.

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, who was involved with the affairs of the Music Academy, proposed a new concert format which would cater to the new type of audience. As a consequence of these proposals, by the 1950s, concerts began to feature composed pieces rendered in a standard, universally recognisable way. Whereas earlier, kritis would be improvised upon in a concert, the pancharatna kritis came to be seen as complete and well composed. A time limit was set for a concert. Singing a number of compositions (items) in different ragas with limited improvisation was recommended.

Thyagaraja’s musical lineage remained intact through Pattnam Subramania Iyer (1840–1910), whose guru was the direct disciple of Thyagaraja. He lived in the saint-composer’s town Thiruvaiyaru. His body of work was critical to the canonisation of Karnatik music which had locatable origins in the life and work of Thyagaraja, among others. Iyer also had significant influence on the practice of a style of music patronised by Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, sometimes referred to as the Mysore tradition. Of course, Mysore’s veena tradition is the better known and has been very influential. Vasudevachar, whose discipleship with Iyer was supported by the prince of Mysore, wrote with wry humour, an anecdotal account of his life with the master; of the ethos of a guru-shishya tradition.

Vasudevachar has also written about another name that is frequently mentioned as part of the early history of this style of music: Tiger Varadachar. Comparing the concert performance of other singers to a refreshing cup of tea, one critic declares Tiger’s as “a full meal, provided you have got the stomach to digest it. The former is beach oratory of a popular demagogue and the latter [the grand] University lecture of a learned professor.’’

Published 27 April 2024, 00:31 IST

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