In a recent youtube video, singers Ranjani and Gayathti, addressed the question, "Why Classical Music?" This was part of their RaGa candid series which they upload on every Monday. (The series has some nice episodes and some so-so episodes).
You can watch their take on 'Why Classical Music?" here
I saw the video and I was quite disappointed. Nothing they said was very specific to classical music. You could apply what they said to any form of music: film music, ghazal, folk music and so on. One of the points they say is that you need to be concentrating on various aspects like sruthi, tala, words etc. The challenge was the same or even tougher in film music. When the orchestra is playing the harmony or sometimes counter melody, the drumming is on and the bass guitar is playing a chord progression, you should be able to sing amidst all these distraction. If you think of singers like Janaki, SPB, Yesudas, Chitra, Jency, Malaysia Vasudevan et al, they would have had a very tough time singing because Raja's music was so complex. Additionally, unlike the classical musician, who knows the piece by heart, these folks would have learnt the tune just then and they have to execute perfectly in sync with the orchestra. (I am ofcourse talking about a different time, when live orchestra was used. Nowadays everyone sings to the click track. The only exceptions being singers singing in a Raja live show). The same way, the other arguments they place in front of you can apply to many other genres of music, not just to classical music.
I will try and write on my own idea about "Why Classical Music?". I am not sure how acceptable my thinking would be to you but let me put this forward anyway. It can be a good way to start a debate on this. The preamble is going to be long. You need to bear with me because I feel I need to set a base so that my ideas can be conveyed effectively.
Every musical form has its own concern. Let us take folk music. (Again, folk music has so much variety and diversity that putting all these under one umbrella is actually unfair. Just for the sake of illustration I can drawing them under one umbrella. I am in awe of the diversity). Folk music's main concern is communication of an idea. The communication has to be immediate and it has to be in such a form that it attracts the listener immediately. So folk music lyrics are typically the lyrics of a common man. They are straight forward and when necessary hard hitting. Abstract imagery or saying things in a roundabout way defeats the purpose. There is lot if excellent imagery in folk poetry but all of them are direct and taken from everyday life. I will give you two example. Both in Telugu.
First, here is Gaddar with his hugely popular, 'bandenka bandi katti'. This was featured in Gautam Ghosh's first feature film, 'Maa Bhoomi'. You can see a very young Gaddar singing here. This was written by Bandi Yadagiri
If you understand Telugu, you will realize the words are direct and very effective. This was song written as a protest against the Nizam rule. The tune is very simple and the interludes are used just to fill the gaps. The aim is to awaken the people. It is not to explore song structure or a raga.
Let's take another song now. This is Goerti Venkanna with his famous 'Latchumamma' song.
Venkanna is an outstanding poet of the people. Observe how the poet takes all the imagery from the village and conveys the beauty of 'Latchumamma'. You could have heard many lovely romantic songs in movies, with lovely orchestration but nothing feels more real to me than this wonderful song. The lyrics are such that you fall in love with the unknown 'Latchumamma'. Also, it is a joy watching Venkanna perform.
In case you want this song with the orchestra and the dancers, here is Goreti singing it solo.
Let us now take a genre like Sufi music or Qawali. Here the basic idea is to tell how insignificant your material life is and how you must approach life spiritually. I do know there are quite a few Qawali's which are funny ones but typically Sufi and Qawali music is all about spirituality. In this context they mainly compose melodies which have a melancholic touch and sometimes create a sense of dread in you. Again, a couple of samples.
'Jaag Musafir' by Shahi, Fareed & Abu Muhammad Qawaal. Arrangements by Rohail Hyatt
The song is about telling people to wake up or else risk losing their life. 'Why do you sleep even now? It is dawn. Wake up' is the call. 'You lost your teen age playing, lost your youth in sleep and your old age now cries. Wake up'. The tune is set in a melody which conveys this perfect.
Here is another very famous Qawali by Aziz Nazan. 'chadtha sooraj'. Once again note the sadness in the melody
Many of you are familiar with ghazals. Their concern is love, love failure and wine. Even the love failure is not something that destroys you. It is a sweet failure many a times. A failure you look back and enjoy. Like that small pain you sometimes experience. A single example.
'ranjish hi sahi'. The original from the Pakistani movie, 'Mohabbat'. Mehdi Hassan's voice, Ahmad Faraz's ghazal and Nizam Bazmi's music.
Ghazal is always associated with the softness of touch as far as the melody and orchestration go. Emotions never go over the top. Everything is subdued.
If you take the case of film, the primary concern is to supplement and complement what happens on the screen. The song or the background music must be in concordance with the requirement of the movie. So you get songs which tell a short story, a song which accentuates the situation, a BGM which fills the silence and keeps the interest intact and so on. Then there are songs which are mainly designed to be marketing material for the movie. Film music takes in all genres and creates a genre of its own to serve the needs of the movie.
Here is an excellent example of how the song explains the situation effectively. 'nilave ennidam mayangadhe' from 'Ramu'. PB Srinivas the singer, Kannadasan the lyricist and M S Vishwanathan the music director.
This song very effectively conveys the love between the hero and heroine. 'valaiyosai' from 'Satya'. Vaali the lyricist. Raja's music. Sung by Lata Mangeshkar and SPB
Ofcourse, movie songs take a life of their own later. Initially they are designed with the primary purpose of servicing the needs of a movie.
After this fairly long preamble, we now get to the central question, "Why Classical Music?". In order to answer this, we need to answer the question, "What is the central concern of Classical Music?". If we answer this, we will get the answer to our main question.
The central concern of Carnatic and Hindustani classical music is to explore the possibilities of sound. Whatever we call raaga is nothing but structured sound. How can we put restrictions on sound to get a melody, a mood or a color? This has been the major themes that all classical composers have been dealing with. The exploration of sound with certain structural limitation is the raaga.
It is important to note that raaga per se has no real 'usefulness' just like mathematics. Before you outrage, let me try and explain this. Let us take the case of twin primes. These are two prime numbers separated by a number in between, i.e. the difference between these two primes is 2. (5,7), (11,13), (41,43) are some examples of twin primes. Mathematicians are still researching if there infinite twin primes or there is some limit in the number line after which no twin prime appears. In case there are finite twin primes, which is the largest twin prime? These questions have not yet been answered.
Is there some major use finding the answer to the question whether there are infinite twin primes? Is it needed to solve some real world problem? The honest truth according to a mathematician would be, "I don't care". A mathematician just wants to understand the structure of the number line, distribution of primes and other solve other such problems without thinking on the need for such a solution. The only purpose that a mathematician would solve such problems is that the problem exists and her only objective is to understand why it is so. If it turns out that the solution later has a real world application, that is incidental. All said and done, the world as we know today is indebted to all these mathematician who worked on abstract problems and didn't ask, "Will this be useful to the society?". A scientifically developed society is the one which understands the 'uselessness' of science and mathematics and encourages it.
Classical music is similar. It starts with an abstraction called the raga. (In our system that is). Raga does not have a purpose. It is not designed in order to communicate an emotion. It is designed mainly as an abstract intellectual exercise. In some cases, the raga would have been born in the imagination of a folk artist. It may a certain structure. This can then developed further and slowly we can experiment with the structure and understanding why the raga sounds the way it does. What constraints work, what doesn't. What exactly is the structure? How do you keep the structure intact and how do exceptions work? What combination of notes give beauty to the structure? Landing on which note enhances the beauty and so on.
For a composer in Carnatic music, developing the raga through the krithi is the main aim. Tyagaraja does this by adding sangatis. You can see the raga getting expanded and the possibilities emerging in front of your eyes as sangathi after sangathi is added. Slowly the shape of the raga evolves. Yet, a krithi is not the complete raga and that is what makes classic music such a fascinating subject. The abstractness of the music ensures that with just some minor changes you get to see various facets of a raga. It is the abstractness that gives great power to Classical music.
Given that we have twelve swarasthanas, we find that permutation and combinations of these notes is huge and when you add what we call vakra sancharas, the number of ragas explodes. The soundscape and the grammar allow for newer ragas to be developed. This mental challenge is what draws some people to classical music. There is a scope to dwell on the abstract. You can experiment any which way you want to without really having to service anything except the ears of the listener.
For a performer, classical music offers the 'manodharma'. The performer before her has the abstract notion of a raga. What sort of edifice she builds is fully upto her. She can go and build something grand or something stunningly modern or build something cliched. Slowly the performer understands the relationship between notes, how stressing on a note changes the mood, how linger on a note changes the color and so on. This is very different from other kinds of composed singing where you need to perfect a composition.
From a listener's perspective, the abstractness gives her joy. She doesn't know what the artist sort of structure the artist would build today. Every new phrase brings joy. Any unanticipated phrase sends a thrill down the spine. Well established phrase give comfort. The keen attentiveness needed to listen to classical music is what gives the learned rasikas her joy. (I must put a caveat here. I am only referring to the rasika who enjoys raga music. Rasikas attend a concert for various reasons and my argument may not be applicable to all rasikas)
Ofcourse the amount of abstraction in the performative aspect of Carnatic and Hindustani music differs a lot. Hindustani concert has much more abstraction in its performance. Carnatic concerts on the other hand are a combination of structure music and abstract music.
To summarize, raaga music is abstract music. We concertize this in many ways. By using the ragas in various genres, we try and give a certain shape to the raga. We compose in such a way as to make you feel certain emotions using a raga. Raga though is not about emotion, it is not about a certain kind of structure, it is much more abstract. When you take the case of mathematics, you realize that the abstract forms the foundation for the real. It is the same with classical music.
(In a similar way, we find that in carnatic music, we can experiment a lot with rhythm. I abstain from writing much about it since my knowledge of rhythm is very limited.)
Since we have discussed a lot on the abstract nature of the raga, let me give you some example before I close. Enjoy these clips.
Sri.Pillappan playing an amazing Sahana, the very first phrase of which brings me joy every time.
'O Rangasayi' by M S Subbulakshmi. Check how Tyagaraja makes the abstract Kambhoji by adding sangathi after sangathi.
Mallikarjun Mansur singing 'Deva Deva satsang' in raag Sawani. Observe the audience interaction in this audio.
Amir Khan singing Ramdasi Malhar. Any Malhar, maybe every raga, sounds so wonderful in his voice
Kishori Amonkar with an outstanding rendition of Bhoop.