I am sure everyone who is following Carnatic music would have by now heard of the various controversies pertaining to Carnatic musicians singing Christian songs and so on. A lot of people have expressed their opinion on this and as usual, people who have no interest in Carnatic music have jumped in as well as they see this as an opportunity to establish their 'liberal' or 'traditional' credentials. There have many unfortunate Carnatic musicians who have become victims of the shrill shouting. In this article, I do not want to talk on these issues (they have already been debated enough) but rather would want to see what sort of challenge we have if we want to expand Carnatic music move beyond Hindu religion and also discuss if such a need exists at all.
Let us ask this question first. "Does Carnatic music belong only to the Hindus?". The answer is obvious: NO. Carnatic music is a musical form and it belongs to the world. Having said that, we also need to answer another question. "Is Carnatic music intricately linked with Hindu religion?". Once again the answer is obvious: YES. It is very difficult to strip Carnatic music of its Hindu nature.
I had once attended what was called a 'Mini MBA' program in which a Professor of Strategy from one of IIMs was talking about 'path advantage' (It has been a while since I attended this course so my terminology may not be exact.) He said that if a company is at a certain position it is because of a certain path it has taken and it is possible that learnings in this path will provide them with an advantage as they move forward. So we also need to look at the path Carnatic music has taken rather than talk of Carnatic music in isolation. As if whatever is good or bad in Carnatic music happened in the last decade. Understanding the history will give us a better grip on the sort of problem we have in hand and can give us some on how to solve it.
Historically, Hindustani music seems to have always had a secular facet to it and we all know of the great Muslim masters who enriched the art and who were in the forefront of various gharanas. The khayal lyrics are generally about love, longing, weather and so on. Carnatic music, on the other hand, has always been closely associated with Hinduism. In Carnatic music itself, we can say there are two types: one, what we hear in the concert halls, the other is the music derived from Pann. Pann is the Tamil name for ragam and Tamil Isai (Tamil Music) has a hoary history having been mentioned in Silappadikaram, an ancient text. Pann, more than the other form, is intricately meshed with the devotional output of the Nayanmars. The artists who sing Devarams and Tiruvasagam, sing them based on Panns. These artists are known as Othuvars. As far as I know, Panns are not used beyond the rendering of Shaivaite hymns.
The other side of Carnatic music, the one we hear nowadays, is also closely linked to Hindu religion and philosophy. The music and religion combination did not happen during the Trinity period but has been so centuries before they composed their immortal krithis. Annamayya of Talapaka, Jayadeva, Bhakta Ramadas and Sangita Pitamaha Purandaradasa have all composed piece using Carnatic ragas. Their krithis were just not about ragas but also about the god they served and the philosophy they followed. So when the great Masters of the Tanjavur delta set out to compose their krithis, they already had their musical ancestors works with them.
I speak about the Trinity here because every art form has its canon. In case of Carnatic music, the works of the Trinity form that canon. Every other major piece is Carnatic music will be judged against the quality of the compositions of the trinity. This is inevitable since these three composers laid the path and took Carnatic music to a different level altogether. Today, the same people trouble you when you want to break the shackles of Hindusim and 'liberate' carnatic music.
Liberation can come in two forms. One, with the complete negation of the past. Second, expanding the art to include newer pieces which break with the past. Let us take a couple of examples from the west and we see that rather than negate and reject the past, western art has expanded the possibilities of the art.
First, let us look at the Western painting. In the earlier times, most paintings had religious themes. All of us know of the 'Last Supper' of Da Vinci. We also know that Michelangelo pained the Sistine Chapel and so on. I saw a small write-up in Tate Museum, London, wherein the works of the English painter, Turner, were being exhibited. The write-up said that there was a lot of criticism of Turner's work during his times since critics felt that paintings should always be of religious themes and only those gave gravitas to the painting. Turner painted landscapes and hence was scorned upon. Later days, western painting moved away from religious themes and we had the Impressionists who painted nature, then we had the Expressionists, who were reacting to the external, the Cubists like Picasso and the abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Rothko. Seeing a painting of say Raphael and Pollock side by side, you can make out how much distance western painting has covered and how it has moved away from being a religious activity to being a form of self-expression.
It was a very similar trajectory in Western Classical music as well. Some of the great counterpoint melodies were composed by Johann Sebastian Bach for the church. There were other great composers like Handel, Haydn and so on who also composed religious. In fact, you can look up the impact of Christianity on Western Classical music on the web and you will that lots of composers had composed religious music. At the same time, there is enough non-religious music in Western Classical Music. Music which is more used for self-expression than for expounding religion.
The modern masters, who did not paint religious themes or compose religious works, did not really reject the past masters. We need to ask the question, "Will removing the works of the past masters, works which were religious in nature, enhance the art and make it grow?". The answer would be that when such pieces of art are removed, it diminishes the art rather than enhancing it. That is the problem Carnatic music would also face if we want to eliminate the past.
The problem of Carnatic music is that even though its primary concern is about the possibilities of sound, which we call raga, these possibilities cannot be explored without learning the krithis. The krithis happen to be religious in nature. The great S.Ramanathan in one of his lec dem speaks about Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer singing an elaborate Atana. Madurai Mani Iyer, who was in the audience, walks upto Vishwanatha Iyer after the concert and asks him, "Anna, how is it possible for you to sing such an elaborate Atana?". Vishwanatha Iyer asks Mani Iyer, "How many krithis do you know in Atana?". MMI replies, "Only one, 'anupama gunambudhim'. MVI replies, "I know 30 pieces in Atana. So think of how much of Atana I would have imbibed. Learn a lot of krithis in the ragam. It will help your imagination". Semmangudi Srinivas Iyer, in an interview (available in youtube) says that he gets lots of Bhairavi when he sings the Syama Sastry's masterpiece Swarajathi, 'Kamakshi'. He sings the phrase 'baktha jana kalpa lathika' and then starts singing swaras there. He ends the swaras and says, 'See how much Bhairavi you can get'. This is in contrast with Hindustani where the lines of the khayal probably give you only a starting point and then it is upto the musician to discover the raga. In Carnatic music, every music discovers the raga when he sings the varnams and the krithis.
So how do we expand Carnatic Music beyond its Hindu roots? For the time being, let us not debate on whether we should compose on Jesus and Allah or some other non-Hindu God. Rather let us look at the proposition of using Carnatic music for self-expression, wherein the lyrics of a particular krithi reveal the state of mind of the composer. A state of mind which is not religious. It is said that a lot of great Western Music symphonies were created by the masters to express their state of mind: the joy and sorrow they felt, the pain they had to undergo before a final resolution and so on. Can such a work exist in Carnatic music? Here is where the canon comes into play. If you compose such a piece and want to sing it as a central piece in a concert, then that piece should match up to the canonical works of carnatic music. Otherwise, the audience would reject it. So a Kambhoji krithi which speaks about the emotions of the composer or maybe speaks about the wonders of nature must measure up to the Kambhoji that an 'O Ranga Sayee' or 'Sri Subramanyaya Namaste' or 'Evari Mata' is able to conjure. Only then will it slowly enter the canon.
How some works of art become standard work of that art is a complicated process. It has something to do with the inherent quality in itself, how the public views it and how the critics view it and how it survives over a period of time. So composing a piece and getting it to become a standard in Carnatic music concert is not an easy job. Semmangudi sang and popularized a lot of Swathi Tirunal songs. Yet today, the number of Swati Tirunal songs you hear in concerts is limited. Many artists including Chitravina Ravikiran have been singing and trying to popularize Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyer songs. Again the numbers you hear in concerts are very limited. In both cases, the efforts put in have been high and yet the acceptance has not been high. (On the other hand, I see more Dikshitar krithis slowly making their way into concert platform, krithis which were not heard earlier.) This will give you an idea of the challenge one would face when they introduce a new non-religious piece into the concert. I can understand why many artists would balk at the suggestion of singing non-religious and unheard of pieces. As it is, for most carnatic musicians, getting an audience in tough. They would obviously fear that they would alienate the meagre crowd if they start singing non-standard piece. I can't blame them.
Another way of getting pieces into Carnatic music would be to expand the audience and pull in new folks to listen to this art form. T M Krishna has been trying to take the art to places it has not gone till now. While the intent is good, whether it has expanded the listeners base may be still early to tell. When the new audience comes in the expectation would be that they would come with the baggage that the standard audience carries. While theoretically, it may be true, in practice any new audience will look up to the standard audience for guidance and slowly the prejudices get transferred. (Finding newer audience has always been a problem for Carnatic music. In fact, some of the second rung artists would say that finding an audience itself is a problem)
So is Carnatic music destined to be stuck to its Hindu roots? Can't we break the shackles? The answer lies in the dedication and the vision of the artists. This can only be achieved by artists and composers. You cannot dictate the audience and ask them to listen to all piece and prove that they are 'liberal'. Instead, the composers must come up with compositions of great quality and the artists must regularly sing these compositions so that the audience slowly starts identifying the composition and then accept the composition as a genuine Carnatic composition.
As I said earlier, the Trinity has given us innumerable gems. They have set the standard. They are to be revered. At the same time, their works are the high barrier which any modern non-religious composition has to cross in order to be successful.