New Visions

My regular readers know that my focus is normally on lyrics and meaning. So I am stepping out of my norm in writing this post today. You see, I rather worry about the future of CM. Has it become something of an anachronism, to be appreciated by the aging or the aged? Concert goers often report that the audience is predominantly made up of seniors. If that is so, what of the future?

My exposure to Carnatic Music came when I was but a small child. My parents were in their twenties and thirties, and so were all their friends who also went to those concerts. Do the current generation of twenty-and-thirty somethings show any interest in CM? If they don’t, how will their children be exposed to this music like I was? Those days of playing outside sabhas with other children of rasikas with CM playing the background have certainly made a difference to my own tastes.

Perhaps it is entertainment available at home via TV and mobile devices which influence the type of audience at CM concerts. In my early childhood there was no television. My parents and other people of their age group depended on concerts, plays and movies for their leisure time. But with the constant bombardment of home entertainment, added to appalling traffic conditions, I guess going to concerts as a family outing is quite unappealing. How then are the little ones getting exposed to the concert experience?

Perhaps it is the lessening impact of religion amongst the youngters of today. After all, CM is mostly devotional, and maybe it does not seem so meaningful to the young as it does to those of us of a different generation.

I confess that I am rather old fashioned in my tastes in CM; I like it totally traditional. However, I don’t ever want to be one of those oldies who always start sentences with ‘in my days….‘!! With this is mind, I have, for the past few years, listened with interest to innovative videos on YouTube. What is the artists of the younger generation doing to appeal to the youth of today? CM artists have, for a long time, collaborated with musicians from other parts of the world in attempts to merge different worlds. These attempts don’t appeal to me. However, other innovations have caught my attention and I am presenting a few for your consideration today. Tell me what you think!

Carnatic Progressive Rock Band -Agam : When I first saw Harish Sivaramakrishnan’s video a couple of years back, I was quite struck with his voice and his presentation. I believe he and his band Agam are performed in mainstream sabhas last season. Look at the audience; so many youngsters and everyone enjoying themselves too! I’ll be happy to attend Agam’s concert if that’s possible one day.

I have also been following videos by Indian Raga on youtube. You can read about the iniative at their website here  Given that it is Ramakrishnan Murthy who sings (I do like him!) it is absolutely authentic. I have also been seeing Mahesh Raghavan’s videos for sometime, he is quite amazing with his iPad! How’s this for youthful appeal!

Now this is again from Indian Raga, but a totally different kettle of fish. Vinod Krishnan, Aditya Rao and Mahesh Raghavan give a Carnatic take on Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You. Of course this is not CM, but will it influence youngsters to take an interest in CM, do you think?

This fouth video is totally classical but I have included it to showcase this talented youngster. The non-traditional setting and attire have no impact on his music but may make it more accessible to youngsters, don’t you think?

I hope you have enjoyed the music I have presented today. Perhaps, like me, you can reassure yourself that CM will endure, perhaps in a slightly different guise, but still recognisably CM!



Filed under Carnatic Music

12 responses to “New Visions

  1. Padma

    Dear Suja
    Exactly the same thoughts were in my mind when I was at Sikkil Gurucharan s concert in Pune last Sunday . Though the artists who performed are all young , Sikkil , Vittal Rangan on violin, Bharadwaj NC on mridangam.. there were hardly any youngster in the audience . Atleast 80% of them were in 50-60 and above ..I expressed my concern to my sister that day .
    Yes , like you say presentation probably needs a change .. to make it more accessible to youngsters .
    All the videos you have shared are great to listen to .. and like so many of our traditions have been adapted to suit present generation tastes .. CM too will survive in a different avatar .
    Cheers Padma

    • Dear Padma, we have noticed the same thing, haven’t we. It is sad indeed to see so few youngsters in concerts. Still, I remain hopeful..
      Cheers. Suja

  2. Ravi

    Your justifiable concerns about the survival of Carnatic Music, Suja, reminded me of a blog post by David Shulman (not an Indian) who wrote about other disappearing masterpieces of South India. Titled, “Creating and Destroying the Universe in Twenty-Nine Nights” (, Shulman began his post thus:

    “I have a weakness for masterpieces that are on the verge of disappearing from the historical record. As it happens, in the areas in which I work—the Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam cultures of southern India—there is no dearth of such threatened treasures.”

    Mr. Shulman was not talking about Carnatic music, but of other art forms, which are indeed closer to disappearing than Carnatic music.

    Now that I’m in my early sixties, I worry more about the survival of the planet that our children and their children will inherit from us. I’m less concerned about the survival of Carnatic Music if only because I see it being practiced by youngsters in New York (see photos from which has been my home for closer to five decades. I may be in a fool’s paradise, but let me be! Hopefully children in South India are also taking and enjoying Carnatic music lessons and keeping it alive.

    When I arrived in New York as a teenager, living in Manhattan, seeing another Indian was a rarity, leave alone groups of enthusiastic children practicing Carnatic music. Then, as more and more Indians started to migrate to India, temples began to sprout up and dance and music teachers used the temple venues to showcase their students.

    I did my part by sending my daughter and son to study Carnatic music, vocal by my daughter and mridangam by my son. Although they both went to take classes dutifully, I didn’t know how much they really cared about it until my son’s mridangam teacher passed away. My son had finished his bachelor’s degree by then and was working full time and doing his master’s in music technology part time. He had finished taking CM lessons after high school and saw his guru only rarely. But when I told him about his Guru’s passing, I saw he was near tears. We went to his guru’s funeral and soon thereafter he wrote a tribute to his guru ( that moved me to tears. My son’s thesis, which he is currently working on and hopes to present this semester, is titled, “Automatic Drum Transcription of Mridangam for Rhythm Analysis,” and he will be dedicating it to his late guru. I suspect my son is not the only one who cared/cares about the gurus that inspired and encouraged them. Or so I hope.

    The concluding sentence of your post, “Perhaps, like me, you can reassure yourself that CM will endure, perhaps in a slightly different guise, but still recognisably CM!,” keeps hope alive for me and, I am sure, many others.

    Thank you, Suja.

    • Thank you for your very thoughful reply Ravi. I read Mr.Shulman’s very interesting article with interest. I had not heard of this tradition of month-long plays before. How will it ever survive in this world demanding instant gratification?

      I have been well aware of the disappearing arts and crafts of India for a long time. An expatriate like you, my visits to India after varying periods of time make me sharply aware of what has gone missing. As an example, there used to be a small jeweller close to my parents home. His shop was little more than a shack and he worked alone. If I wanted some small repairs – a broken link in a chain for example – we would just wander up there. He would do it all in front of us, with my mother carefully watching his every move. His work was good and he would charge but little. It’s hard for a small time artisan like him, using traditional tools and skills, to survive in today’s world. When I looked for him one trip, I found his shop had closed and he had left for parts unknown. He is, of course, one of many such small time craftsmen who find it hard to survive. I wish there was some way to help them, some way to make sure that their craft is not lost.

      Much as the people in Chennai speak scathingly of all the NRIs who descend for their dose of culture during the music season, the NRIs have and will continue to have a part to play in keeping interest alive in CM. Perhaps being so far away from our roots makes us hyper-aware of how precious the music is. In Melbourne, where I live, there are thriving music schools with many youngsters being trained in CM. I hope they find what your son found in his Guru. His article is beautifully written and very touching, a wonderful tribute indeed.

      There are plenty of youngsters learning CM and still following age-old paddhatis, but I wrote this post to especially highlight those who have are experimenting outside the paddhatis to say that they too have a role to play in the survival of CM. Like you, I remain hopeful.

      • Ravi

        Thank you, Suja.

        i know what you mean by those who are experimenting outside the paddhatis. I am not a strict traditionalist as far as that goes, but my son is a traditionalist. When he sees me watching an OS Arun Concert, which more often than not features a tabla in addition to mridangam, he looks at me unapprovingly and shakes his head and says, “Tabla? Really?!” What can I tell you? I raised an intolerant kid! Shame on me!!

        As an aside, David Shulman also wrote about Tamil. A critque here may interest you:

        Take care and stay well.

  3. indigoite

    All forms of artistic expression will wax and wane over time, I believe. Carnatic music is no exception. Classical music in general is on the decline in most parts of the world with a general inability to attract younger audiences who are drawn to more contemporary forms of music.

    I have however seen a turnaround (moderate) in audience composition. About 6-7 years ago, I often would be the youngest person amongst the listeners – it did wonders for my ego but starkly reflected the problem. No longer. In Bangalore, there is a considerable audience of younger listeners and it is no longer dominated by the geriatric. This season in Chennai , I found to my pleasant surprise, bigger audiences everywhere and a fair sprinkling of the young.

    There is much that can be done in making this genre attractive to more people. One dimension what you have eloquently brought out is innovation. Every one of the examples you have quoted is nice. I like them and would go anyday to listen to them. But they are caught between the devil and the deep sea. The traditionalists abhor them. And they are not attractive enough for the segment that is completely out of the genre.

    In India, the route to popularising is through films. The movie Sankarabharanam single handedly did that four decades ago. There has surprisingly been no other attempt after that, at least to my knowledge.

    I am not sure if we all realise how intimidating a concert is for a new listener. When I started getting interested as a newbie some years ago, I could make absolutely no head or tail of a concert. There is zero introduction, no explanation, no attempt at weaving in popular pieces from adjacent to the genre, nothing that would make a first time concert goer at ease. When I expressed this aloud, I was told I would have to listen for the next 5 years to start understanding. Terrific. I have seen a complete difference in every Hindustani music concert I am going to these days in Bangalore. There is always the explanation of the raag, the significance, the bandish and some of the nuances, and even tips on appreciation, before they start. Maybe they do it because they see audiences in Bangalore as a non expert audience. I have found it far easier to start listening to Hindustani music than when I started listening to Carnatic music, despite my family familiarity with the latter.

    Yet another dimension would be to make the concert experience an outstanding one, beyond just the quality of the music. Whatever you may think of his music, Andre Rieu has done much to popularise the classical genre in the West. There is simply no equivalent in India.

    This genre will remain a niche, I suspect, but a strong niche. As always, your post is one that elicits a long response !

    • Thank you Ramesh to have taken the time for such a thoughtful response.

      As you know, I have not had the privilege of attending many live performance of CM. The few that I did attend in Europe and Australia had just seniors in the audience. I am glad to hear that you are seeing a turnabout in Bangalore and in Chennai too. Wonder what exactly has changed to make CM more interesting to the youngsters?

      You actually make a very valid point that non-traditional CM initiatives are not attractive enough to interest a new audience to CM. But innovations don’t happen in one day or by one individual/group. Very often when we credit inventions to an individual, he/she are standing on the shoulders of many other individuals who have contributed before them, sometimes extending far into the past. I am happy to see that the art form has inspired youngsters to try out new things. Who knows, one day someone may just find the right note (ha! thats a pun!) to attract a new audience! I do know about the movie Shankharabharanam; I should have remembered it while writing the post, thanks for reminding me. Films have always held sway over India and you are absolutely right, that is a medium which should definitely be explored more.

      I did not realise that Hindustani musicians give intros to their music. I have often seen dancers do that, explaining the abhinayas and mudras, translating the song and giving a synopsis of their piece. That is so very useful to an untutored audience. Another good idea for CM artists to consider.

      A strong niche is nothing to sneeze at..if CM continues to be that into the future, I’ll be happy. ‘Popular’ is not exactly a label to aim for!
      Cheers. Suja

  4. Jay

    Hi Suja,
    Interesting topic and qualified comments.

    I share Ravi’s views, and would not worry about CMs demise. Ramesh’s comments are also on the mark: on what the CM practitioners should probably do to make it less ‘intimidating’. Like everything in life, art forms too have to evolve and that’s not undesirable.

    The new forms you shared are sound feast for the ears, and like the elaborate thali capturing all flavors, every time and harmonic space has been filled with music! These progressive music types, at best, are inspired by CM but not an evolution of CM. I enjoy some of them if not all. Of the lot, I liked Abby the best followed by Mahesh Raghvan. These have: over the top electronic sounds filling the sound space, are arrangement/orchestration centric and at times rely on theatrics (not that there’s anything wrong with it). There’s saying that it is the silence between the notes that provides grace to music. When you have all of audible spectrum completely filled up, there’s never any silence. Vocal music in the middle of it all, struggles to convey the rasa. To digress, this almost reminds me of the “shock therapy” that Siddhartha Mukherjee writes about in “The Gene” when during the earlier days of genetic research, scientists misconstrued that it is by shocking the genes that they probably evolve. Another reason to critique is that CM like Sanskrit poetry, are really multi-layered. Indira Peterson in her book on Kiratarjuniya describes the similarities between raga and mahakavya: it is a process of building up the complex patterns with subtle variations in prastaras. The bhava of a raga is complex and takes prastaras to come to form slowly. True, that we can find a signature to a raga soon but the elaboration of raga has more going for it than a few signatory melodic patterns. To use an audio engineer terminology, all those facets get ‘compressed’ when we inject hyper-technology into CM. No doubt it can be pleasing and appealing, but it is not CM. On the other hand, there is some good fusion music that I may have recommended. See the works of flautist Kudamaloor Janardanan, who in an interview offers some stringent criteria on presenting fusion forms. Also, CM played on electronic musical instruments has limited expression, plus they always sound identical. There’s almost never a change in tone, lesser variation in style, intensity and the subtle microtones compared to the true instruments. While Mahesh is such an excellent player and has tremendous command over the raga, his tones over the ipad leaves more to be desired. Look at it this way – if you subtract technology, what remains in these renditions? Here I want to repeat a point I made earlier in this forum.This has to do with present day conventional CM performance. Percussion sometimes takes a larger than life role that the artiste builds up ‘wonderful steel frame structures, and spectacular skyscrapers, rather than enchanting villas and breezy mansions…over undulating greens’ (from Weidman’s book). In the widely heard album by MSS at Carnegie Hall accompanied by TK Murthy on mridangam, Murthy’s drumming is subtle but effective. It never encroaches on the singer. The vocal section should be front and center.

    Recently, in a conversation with a colleague, who sometimes moon lights accompanying professionals remarked about the paucity of new expressions in CM. Most exponents are following templatized patterns, playing to the gallery, offering formulaic versions. I would recommend the book by Amanda Weidman: “Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern”, who has well-researched CM and lived in Madras for a while. I feel that CM needs to move outside the bhakti strait jacket, outside the confines of the compositions that is sung ad nauseam. Back in the days, when CM was formed, the lyrics were always based on religious themes. The objective should not be to minimize composer or their compositions or go past the trinity and chieftains of yester years, rather to seek another lyrical substratum to cover the range of human thought. We are living in an era of technology. I would expect that it will leave its indelible marks. You will see musical sections adopted to shorter timeframe and the emphasis on brisk sections to continue.

    Glad to see Ravi’s mention of David Shulman. Prof Shulman has written several books and has researched several south Indian art forms. I would recommend the book ‘More than real’ which is about the history of imagination in South India (on art forms). In Jan 2018 I got to meet him quite by chance. He was in Kerala for over a month, with his students based out of Germany, for Koodiyattom workshop. I spent few hours and a meal with him and his students. The man’s personality belies his scholarship. He embodies the Sanskrit dictum: vidyaa dadhati vinayam. He is a kind man and a peace activist.


    • I can always depend on you to have a lot of interesting things to say on CM topics Jay! Thank you for elaborating on so many ideas and adding facets to the discussion.

      Like you, I like my CM to be traditional with greater focus on the voice. In fact, for me, just a good voice with tanpura sounds more appealing than anything else. I always listen to Madrasana presentations in their YouTube channel with great pleasure. So yes, I do not like every interval filled with sound. But this post was not about my taste, rather it was to acknowledge the experiments and experimenters. And to explore the question of how to attract a younger audience to CM. You make very valid points regarding what is CM and what is not, and I see myself nodding in agreement.

      However, I personally do not at all like CM set to non-traditional lyrics, whether it is modern non-religious poetry, or non-Hindu religious poetry. I have no issue whatsoever listening to old and familiar compositions. In fact, the familiarity is important to my mind. It takes away the mind’s ‘chatter’ when there is something new, allowing my concentration on the beauty of the raga and the performance. The interaction between the familiar kriti and the unfamiliar variations gives me great joy.

      Thank you for the book recommendations. I am so very busy that I will not get to them anytime soon, but I will add them to the ‘need to read’ list which is very very long already!

      Thank you again for such an informative response.
      Cheers. Suja

  5. Krishnamurthy Narayan

    Hi to all. I must admit Personally I am very much old fashioned. I still recall the days of Thiagaraja Utsavam with Sri Ariyakudi and several others. Yes you are right the upcoming youngsters have changed or one can say evolved the CM. I miss the traditional Sri Rama Navami Utsavam concerts by Alathur Brothers, Sri Madurai Mani Iyer and so many great legends would come and give free concerts (in Bangalore). Those were the days…

    • Many people feel exactly like you do! Music is more than sound waves beating against one’s ear drums. We react to the sound but add our memories of atmosphere, friends or family we were with, our own youthfulness of those times, the sum total of our experience of that raga and so on. It is a complex reaction, and a very personal one. If you and I like our music to be traditional and old fashioned, it is with reason. And as music is a personal experience, we can happily indulge in what we like and ignore the rest 🙂
      Cheers. Suja

  6. kanakapriya

    Hi Suja,
    Music education seems so much more omni present now, the lack of youthful audience at a concert is quite perplexing isn’t it? I have 2 sons and I started both of them in music at a young age. After all the exposure I had in the US I decided my older one would learn both. He dropped Carnatic completely along the way! I was smarter with the younger one who was born 8 years later. He is learning vocal and violin and while he may not have the wild talent of his older brother he is quietly persistent and getting there.
    The format, as you pointed out, is definitely one reason for the lack of popularity. Kids like to experiment, layering sounds on any music app they can get their hands on over their own playing.
    The other reason I find for the dwindling of interest at least in my own home is the extremely tight bond between Carnatic music and Religion, especially Hinduism. We were bought up devoutly and accepted religion like the monsoon rains or summer mangoes. These kids question everything and accept nothing. The older one sets the path and the younger one just follows. This has the unintended consequence of loosening the bonds of CM. And that is ok too I suppose If they are aware .of what is there, they will come to appreciate when the time is ripe right? The unquestioned faith is neither strong nor deep.
    And rest assured, there is a lot of innovation in Carantic Music. The rhapsody group tries to blend science concepts into Carnatic music. My son’s class sang about Doppler effect! Many write songs about current themes on a somewhat Carnatic structure. Just like our economy, our arts also become more global I suppose?

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