Friday, December 23, 2005

Our languishing music heritage

India has an astonishing wealth of music. Besides the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions that we all have heard of, there are a number of lesser known ones such as:
  • Panns: The Tamil region since ancient times has had a well-developed music system, mentioned in the Sangam literature and extensively discussed in the 2nd century epic Silappadhikaram. The Tamil bhakti texts (circa 7th century AD) such as the Thirumurai and the Devaram were set to panns (ancient ragas). Unfortunately, large parts of this music was lost after Malik Kafur's raids in the south. Whatever remains has been assiduously preserved by a dwindling number of odhuvars, who traditionally sing these hymns in temples. The panns are believed to have had considerable influence on the development of the Carnatic ragas.
  • Abhang, the bhajans of the Marathi saints, Namadev, Jnaneshwar, Tukaram and others, who were bhaktas of Vitthala. To this day, their itinerant followers, called the varkari panthis, celebrate the names of the Lord in these songs of intense devotional fervour. The abhangs even spread to the Thanjavur region (which was ruled by Marathas) and were merged into the divya-nama tradition of Tamilnadu.
  • Vachanas: In the 12th century, a Shaiva movement was founded in Karnataka by Basaveshwara. A revolutionary, he fought caste, glorified manual labour and condemned ritualism. The ideas of Basava and his followers (cutting caste and gender) are expressed in Kannada poetry, called vachanas. The original melody of the vachanas are probably lost; they are now sung in the Hindustani style.
Such wonderful, but little known, music deserves a wide audience, but unfortunately there are few recordings widely available.

Recently I met a gentleman who has recorded such music, but is unable to find anybody willing to market them. He has produced the Thirumurai sung by an odhuvar in the original pann system, abhangs by varkaris as well as basava-vachanas. Marketing people expect a well-known name on the label for reasons of commercial viability, but the authentic sources of such music are unknown and poor persons languishing in remote villages or temples. The gentleman I met is very commited to such an undertaking; he has set up his own studio for this purpose; he also has a keen attention to detail evident even in the aesthetically created jackets for the CDs.

Do readers have any suggestions as to what could be done to market such productions? I was thinking along the lines of setting up an e-commerce site. Probably Yahoo! Store is an option to consider; does anyone have experience with such stuff? Or better ideas?


Suraj Kumar, a Carnatic enthusiast and guitarist who works at Amazon, suggested:
I talked to folks. Seems the Amazon Advantage Program will fit you right. BUT... are you trying to sell only to India? or Will this include global audience as well?

The good thing is the kind of systems that we have in place that would help you as a seller. Firstly, when you decide to sell via most online stores, the route is quite long. You as a publisher / producer will have to go to a distributor and the distributor would place your product on a lot of different places (amazon, barnesandnobles, etc.,.). But you end up paying up a lot of cuts. This would be advantageous if you expect a whole lot of audience purchasing your product (like you are selling iPods).

This is why the amazon Advantage program is beneficial for small sellers.
More suggestions from Shivku and Sivaram in the comments below.

Thanks a lot everybody!

Update 2: The details of the pann recordings: (These were produced by him for Kosmic Music, not for his own fledgling company.)

1. Pann muraiyil Thirumurai (3 volumes - audio cassettes)
2. Pann muraiyil Pasurangal (2 volumes - audio cassettes)
Both by Muthukandasami Desikar, the odhuvar at the famous (Rock Fort) Thayumanavar Temple, Trichy.

The panns covered are:
Nattapadai (Gambhira Natta), Sigamaram (Malavagowla), Thakkesi (Kambhoji), Kolligouvanam (Navaroz), Megharagakurinji (Neelambari), Pazhamthakkaragam (Arabhi), Vizhakurinji (Saurashtram), Thakkaragam (Kambhoji), Nattaragam (Panthuvarali), Sevvazhi (Yadukula kambhoji), Kausikam (Bhairavi) and many more. (I am too lazy to type all of them.)

These cassettes are also listed on the Kosmic Music site.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Panini couldn't write? - Sanskrit scholar answers

"Was there no writing in Panini's (the famous Sanskrit grammarian's) time?" I had wondered sometime back, and if the phonological ordering of the Sanskrit letters was his contribution.

Sunil, the blogger at the wonderful Balancing Life, was extremely kind to take up these questions with his Sanskrit professor, Dr Richard Salomon, an expert on ancient scripts. Dr Salomon's responses reveal rather interesting facts. A lot of thanks to Sunil!

Read Dr Salomon's thoughts here.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Rain and Cricket in Madras

The water scarcity of Madras is world-famous. The last time the city had a normal monsoon was when K. Veeramani organised that grand annadānam at the Triplicane Parthasarathy temple.

The people as well as their benign rulers in the government tried all they could, but the drought never really came to an end. Jayalalitha sent up airplanes to seed clouds; the pilots sighted the first cloud only after reaching Cherrapunji. After this incident, Amma stopped smiling. Karunanidhi set up rainwater harvesters to catch water from even light showers; however, the sun blazed away without any break. This is when, in protest against the sun, the Kalaignar took to wearing goggles.

The sign was clear - the gods were unhappy.

One day it really seemed like it would rain. The sky was grey; the sound of thunder was booming; lightning was falling all over the place. This was the result of the Varuna Japa conducted (like this one) at the Kapaleeswara Temple: Priests stood in waist-deep water (obtained from distant villages at a great expense) praying for so many days to propitiate God Varuna. R. K. Narayan got inspiration for his novel Guide from this ceremony.

Finally, there was... ah, no rain. The priests had got their vedic gods wrong. Varuna may indeed at one time have been the bringer of rain. But later, as this article tells us, his stock fell and he was supplanted by his rival Indra, who was now the True Rain God. The varuna japa was a gross miscalculation - it was akin to greasing the palms of the official at the Public Works Department, when you should have been bribing the one at the Central Public Works Department.

So, you may ask why is it that everytime a cricket test or one-day international is scheduled or staged at Chepauk it pours in torrents. What, haven't you heard the crowd at the Chidambaram Stadium chant "Ind-ra! Ind-ra!"?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Book times are here

"Why buy that book when you can get it from the library?" my parents would say. In accordance with their advice (now, also approved by a Nobel laureate), the bulk of my reading came from my school and neighbourhood libraries. And guess what I found in my (software) organisation's library - The Penguin History of Early India!

Having started earning and all, I let myself more leeway these days on buying the stuff. My choice tends to be:
  • Nonfiction on subjects that interest me or
  • Fiction I don't tire of after a single read. The first read would come from a library of course!
And it's a good time for book-lovers in Bangalore. Just a couple of weeks before was the Bangalore Book Fair and now there is the Strand Book Sale. For the former, booksellers from different parts of the country came together at the Palace Grounds. I got a couple of Telugu books that I would not have normally found outside Andhra; the History of Tamil Literature from the Sahitya Akademi stall at a 50% discount; and a Sanskrit primer from Motilal Banarsidass.

As I was going around the place, I heard a recording of Purandaradasa compositions in the Tanjore Namasankirtana style, which immediately took my fancy. The sellers turned out to be Giri Traders of Madras.

The Strand Book Sale that I visited yesterday offers (the Sale is still on) considerable discounts, starting at 20% and going upto 80. I bought a P.G. Wodehouse (Uncle Fred) omnibus at 25% less. However I could not find the collection of Somerset Maugham's short stories that I was looking for, or anything much on Western classical music.

Still, if you are in Bangalore and love books, don't miss the Strand Sale!