Sunday, August 28, 2005

With Masters of Melody

Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer

'There was again a world of difference between my guru and Mahavaidyanatha Iyer in the care they took to preserve their voice. The latter went to extremes... [H]e was afraid that the tiny flame of the magalārati would cause excessive heat in the body and a spoonful of teertha would bring on a cold! He stuck to a strict diet of rice and pepper rasam. He scrupulously avoided midday naps and practised brahmacharya.

Patnam Subramanya Iyer

'My guru was exactly the opposite, "Why on earth should one learn music of one has to starve like this?" he would argue. He ate... sumptuously without bothering whether the preparations were cooked in oil or ghee. He slept whenever he liked and as long as he chose to! He would go for his concert in the evening with absolute confidence and return victorious! He would ask with a smile, "Vasu! Who should dictate terms, the singer or his voice?"'

Carnatic music, like any other Indian tradition, suffers from a lack of reliable accounts of its composers and performers. And one of the greatest of Carnatic composers, Tyāgarāja's life is shrouded in legends. In such a situation, Nā kaṇḍa kalāvidaru, Mysore Vasudevacharya's collection of short bios of his contemporary musicians (set in early 20th century), is a wonderful surprise. I read its English translation, With Masters of Melody.

Himself a well-known performer and vāggēyakāra, Vasudevacharya's bios are filled with delightful anecdotes and peppered with a gentle humour. The quote given here at the beginning is his contrast of the rival musicians, Mahavaidyanatha Iyer and Patnam Subramanya Iyer (Vasudevacharya's guru and a famous composer). Also included are accounts of the great veena vidwāns from the Mysore region, Veena Seshanna, Subbanna and Padmanabhiah. Of violinist Tirukkodikaval Krishnaiyer, undoubtedly the Paganini of Carnatic music. Of 'Poochi' Srinivasa Iyengar (and his gargantuan appetite) and of 'Tiger' Varadachariar (and the tiny cap that he wouldn't take off his gigantic frame). And Bangalore Nagaratnamma, the lady who undertook the construction of Tyagaraja's samadhi.

His accounts paint a bygone era - when the gurukula system was still in vogue, where learning was more by listening and osmosis than direct teaching; when the artists depended on patronage of kings and zamindars for their survival; of royal performances and the attendant palace intrigues:

Kuppiah and Appaiah were brothers who [...] once went to Tanjore seeking royal patronage. But, it was not to be as easy as they had thought, for the jealous musicians of the court kept a vigilant watch over those who came from outside lest the King's grace should slip through their fingers.

It was also the age when the artistes had to go against their families' preference for vedic studies and disdain for the pursuit of music.

Reading this book, I was also reminded of Semmangudi Srinivasier's reminiscences, tinged with his characteristic wry humour. I wonder if they have been preserved for the future, as they well-deserve to be.

If you are a Carnatic music aficionado, Mysore Vasudevacharya's With Masters of Melody is something you should not miss!

Friday, August 19, 2005

On doubts and unselfconscious cultures

My professor at CMU once pointed out how Indian students differ from Americans when asking a question during lecture: we express a "doubt." I had never noticed this difference in phrasing - We do not "question" a professor's point, but just wish to have a "doubt" clarified.

This observation came back to me when I recently read about Amartya Sen's latest book, The Argumentative Indian:
Amartya Sen in dhoti
...As a high-school student he had asked his Sanskrit teacher whether it was permissible to say that Krishna [in the Bhagavad Gita] got away with an incomplete and unconvincing argument.

“My Sanskrit teacher told me that maybe you could say that, but you must say it with adequate respect,” Sen recalled.
* * *

On the flight home, I was reading Conceptual Blockbusting by James L. Adams. While discussing the factors crucial for generating good ideas, Adams says,
[The United States'] is a self-conscious culture. New religions, forms, social movements and styles in dress, talk, entertainment and living crop up
continually. Age and experience are venerated only if "relevant"... A very high value seems to be placed on innovation. Yet strangely enough, many individuals value tradition more than they do change. This is probably good... However, as far as good conceptualization is concerned, such an attitude has negative effects.
Unlike the Americans, we Indians carry a rather huge baggage in the form of a long history and hoary tradition. We have, what Adams calls, an "unselfconscious culture," where "traditional forms and ceremonies are perpetuated, and often taboos and legends work against change."

Our politicians are mostly fighting (alleged) historical wrongs. A large percent of our population is still hemmed in by archaic social laws. How much has such a culture actually cost us?

Things are changing now, thanks to various phenomena like the Internet and our students encountering new cultures while studying overseas. People are re-examining their baggage, trying to identify the rotten apples. A Good Thing.

This, however, we should hope to do (as was suggested to Amartya Sen) "with adequate respect."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Moved back to India

My apologies for the long silence.

End-of-program evaluations kept me preoccupied. Once I put these behind, it took time to wind up stuff, shop, pack, etc. Not that I had absolutely no time for blogging (which would be a lie): but once I took a break, inertia kicked in. I needed to force myself to muster up the escape velocity to overcome my laziness.

Now that I am back home in Madras, I shall attempt to make amends.