Fighterization of Carnatic music

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been writing a few essays on certain extensions of the studs-and-fighters theory. For example, I had written about how after a while, every profession gets “fighterized” so as to enable a larger set of people to undertake that profession. Then, I had written about processes and about how most of them are idiosyncratic ways of work for some “stud” and that most of them haven’t been originally designed to be general processes.

I was reminded of these when I was reading through Guitar Prasanna’s interview in the New Sunday Express. A couple of excerpts:

“Jazz is constantly evolving, while Carnatic music is static. That is the reason Carnatic music is in such a pathetic state today.” His point is simply that Carnatic musicians get caught up in expressing everything except themselves. “There are very few who play in order to express their personality. We don’t have radicals like Balamuralikrishna or GN Balasubramaniam or ‘Veena’ Balachandar anymore. Carnatic music was founded on the basis of bold innovators, dynamic thinkers, visionaries like Thyagaraja and Dikshitar and Syama Sastri.” And to listen to Prasanna, all the musical thinking today is done within the safe confines of an ironbound box.

And coming to the process bit,

“Everyone follows the Ariyakudi kutcheri format, which he formulated for reasons that suited him. He wanted to clear his throat by starting with a varnam. But I don’t have to warm up my throat. I only use my fingers.” During the last couple of seasons, therefore, these fingers opted to delineate some of Prasanna’s own compositions from Electric Ganesha Land, his Carnatic-rock tribute to Jimi Hendrix. “And I didn’t play a single tukkada.”

So the current format of a Carnatic concert was not designed to be the general concert format. It was simply the one that suited Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar the most, and people have simply ended up copying him (even though they may not have the same requirements) and his format has ended up as a “process”.

Now the thing with Carnatic music is that there is constant pressure on performers not to “sell out”. It is as if there is a union in this industry, and the union has defined a certain set of standards, and if anyone in the industry doesn’t conform to those standards, he is decreed as having “sold out” or they simply say that what he is playing is “not Carnatic music”. I wonder what can be done to bring back the same level of innovation back into Carnatic music.

The problem with Carnatic music is that as soon as somone starts doing things differently to the way they have been done, they lose the support of the rest of the industry, and given how small the industry is (compared to other genres of music), this industry relies heavily on I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine kind of arrangements – in terms of concert invitations, accompaniments, students, etc. What this means is that as soon as a performer wants to innovate (and thus “leave the genre”) he better find enough support for his “new system” to function completely independently of the existing system and infrastructure (this is stretching it a lot but it’s somewhat like ICL).

There have been a number of Carnatic-based musicians who have been bold enough to innovate, change the nature of their concerts, get in different influences, etc. Some of them have succeeded in getting in new audiences for their music, but still this new-found audience hasn’t been enough for them to inspire too many others to take their path. Another problem here is the clear distinction of genres. Going back to the interview

“In the US, performances aren’t advertised as ‘a jazz concert by Wayne Shorter,’ or ‘a classical concert by Elliot Carter.’ They merely say: A concert by Wayne Shorter or Elliot Carter.’ It’s the artist who’s the draw – and besides, everyone knows Wayne Shorter plays jazz.” But here, come December, the ads admonish: A Carnatic concert by Prasanna. “It indirectly tells me to be only one part of me. I’ve done that for many years, but today I’ve come to a stage where I want my audience to connect to me through my entire being. I still use the mridangam and the ghatam – but I don’t want to define my concert as Carnatic.”

It is this clear distinction of genre that is again a hindrance to integration of carnatic-based music into mainstream Carnatic music. Of course, Carnatic musicians “belonging to the union” are well-justified in keeping the genre-distinction strict, for it helps them to keep their own audience. The question is what someone who wants to bring in more influences into his music must do.

I wonder if there is a way in which studness can be brought back into mainstream Carnatic music. For now, the only hope is for established players to diversify their stuff after their careers have been well-established – but given that their career has been established on a base of conformity, this is not going to be very common. People will need to figure out how they can bring in more innovation into the system and still remain part of the “genre”.

15 thoughts on “Fighterization of Carnatic music”

  1. Had written a very detailed response, but then lost it because I forgot to put in my email id. Anyway I feel people decide what music they are willing to pay for and attend. The reason why many of the things in carnatic have remained unchanged are because people like it that way. I feel by hiding under a guise of tradition many of the carnatic musicians are just ensuring a livelihood.
    If prasanna wants to play more avant garde stuff he is welcome to it, but then it seems like he also expects people to appreciate it and pay to see it. If he would end up playing good music, people will come finally. Being a jazz musician himself he should know this well. John coltrane who according to me was one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived was playing significantly off main stream jazz when he died and it had very few followers. The very fact that coltrane thought it was good music attached significant credibility to that form, but people didn’t think so. Somehow Prasanna’s tone sounds to me like – I want to play what I want and I know its good music and so please come in large numbers and pay me for that. Well it doesn’t happen that way.

    1. yes. i agree with you that in order for a musician to be successful, there should be enough people who like his music enough to buy his tapes and attend his concerts. maybe as you say – prasanna’s problem is that he thinks he plays carnatic and he wants the carnatic audience to listen to him, nad not necessarily find himself new audience.

  2. I think this is a state of ‘equilibrium’ and not a fighterisation process. If one were to fit ‘fighterisation’ in this context, I would say that it stops at content planning. As a concert performer, I would think that some ‘stud’ has figured out an acceptable format of presentation. So, let me use my ‘studness’ on my content (the kritis). So, the studness of the performers is seen in the rendering of kritis.

    An analogy here would be the way content evolves in the broadcast media. You chance upon a Saas Bahu concept and it is seen that it clicks … so, you go on producing a similar content till it becomes an overdose.

    The reason why Carnatic concerts still attract large crowds is because of the ‘studness’ element in the rendering of the kritis.

    To change this concert-format, you need a carnatic equivalent of a KBC. A different format championed by one of the top singers. And, I see that coming in the next 3-5 year horizon. A lead indicator for this may be a trend of declining foot-falls in concert halls (?) which may force people to think in a non-linear manner.

    1. you have a point here in the sense that in terms of the actual music, there is still a fair bit of studness involved. again – actually – i don’t konw if it musicians are trying to “perfect” something or if they are trying to innovate. if it is the former, then it is fighterization only.

      for example if someone told me “you have played the perfect nagumomu” i’d take that as a compliment to my fighereness and not my studness. i suppose you are getting the drift

      and interesting point you make about carnatic music needing a KBC. elaborate please.

      1. The KBC success could be split into two components … the format (i.e., a not-so-difficult quiz show) and the content/presentation (i.e., Amitabh hosting the show and the slick outputs of the show).

        So, what Star should have thought is this … I have with me a format that has the potential to click really well but the problem I face is to ensure that people actually tune-into this program (as against an organic word-of-mouth publicity). So, let me put in someone who, through his sheer presence, would attract a lot of eye-balls.

        Similarly, if I am a Sabha secretary who is facing declining foot-falls, I would walk up to a leading artiste and tell him/her to try out a non-Ariyakudi format. The role of the leading artiste is to lend credibility to the ‘alternate-format’. My view is that the declining foot-falls would not be seen till the element of ‘content-studness’ is fairly dominant.

        Btw, on the back of this analogy, I am hypothesising the following … can you tell me if there are any flaws here:

        1. The selection process in a ‘stud-field’ (like arts / music) tests the artist for ‘fighter-qualities’

        2. The selection process in a ‘fighter-field’ (like banking) tests the applicant for ‘stud-qualities’

        why am i saying this …
        For 1., look at what happens to a young and upcoming carnatic singer. He is tested for a flawless performance (with the voice being above a tolerance threshold). This is in the initial days of the artiste (which is the equivalent to an interview process in a corporate setting)

        For 2., look at what happens in a banking interview. You can crack the interviews if you are a stud and floor the interviewer. However, the on-the-job requirement may require that part of your thinking for only 10-20% of the time.

        I have a feeling that I am force-fitting this … so, wanted your inputs on this.

        1. excellent stuff. and i completely agree with you on the flawed selection process bit. happens in jobs also. sometimes the only way you can get promoted – in which case you’ll get to do stud work – is by being good at the low-level fighter work. so you end up having studs leave and fighters messing up the stud work.

          1. The next logical defensive step (from the point of view of a Stud) is RG ? This may explain the presence of RG in places where there is a fair mix of studs and fighters.

  3. Hmm, I don’t recall many (any?) ads that said “Carnatic concert by X”. When we put ads in the Hindu, it always said “Music Club presents Vijay Siva”.

    Prasanna’s main goal is to differentiate himself from Carnatic music, yet here you are, trying to integrate his music into Carnatic music..

    Very nice post on the whole, though there is very little in it that agrees with my views on the topic 🙂

    1. ok i must admit i’ve never heard him. my post was based solely on his interview. and i found these 2-3 points he made pertinent.

  4. Good point you make here. Although, I think the issue is more nuanced than that. For instance, Western Classical concerts are also bound by certain rules and traditions. When ‘transgressions’ are beyond this framework, it is no longer a Western Classical concert.

    Personally, I love Prasanna’s stuff. I enjoy his heavy classical as much as I enjoy his jazz. If he wants me to come just because it is him, and not because he’s playing a ‘Carnatic’ concert or a ‘Jazz’ concert, if he wants me to know that both his avatars will make an appearance in the concert, I’m very happy. But I don’t think this will be the case with many listeners. People not all that familiar with Carnatic music might prefer his jazz, and vice versa. And they’d like to know.

    Btw, there is a long post on the same interview on my blog –

    1. i think the thing with carnatic concerts is that “conventions” have become “rules”. I’m not calling for people to break ragas or stuff like that. All i’m saying is they should continue to innovate and not be bound by conventions.

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