Subbulakshmi and contemporary feminism: Sunil Khilnani on BBC Radio 4 Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

M.S. Subbulakshmi
Born 16 September 1916. Died 11 December 2004

Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (Tamil: மதுரை சண்முகவடிவு சுப்புலட்சுமி, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi ? 16 September 1916 – 11 December 2004), also known as M.S., was a Carnatic vocalist. She was the first musician ever to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour. She is the first Indian musician to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award, often considered Asia’s Nobel Prize, in 1974 with the citation reading “Exacting purists acknowledge Srimati M. S. Subbulakshmi as the leading exponent of classical and semi-classical songs in the carnatic tradition of South India.”

Source: M.S. Subbulakshmi – New Songs, Playlists, Videos & Tours – BBC Music
Address: http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/613361fb-24bd-4bc9-ad63-85ac5bc79156
Date Visited: Mon Apr 11 2016 14:17:14 GMT+0200 (CEST)

Sunil Khilnani explores the life of south Indian singer MS Subbulakshmi

Subbulakshmi’s singing voice, striking from the start, would ultimately range three octaves. A perfectionist, she had the capacity to range across genres but narrowed over the years to what another connoisseur of her music has called a ‘provokingly small’ repertoire. In time, the ambitions of those who loved and profited from her combined with her gift to take her from the concert stage to film to the All-India Radio to near-official status as an icon of independent India.

But, as Professor Khilnani says, “what was required of Subbulakshmi, in moving from South Indian musical celebrity to national cultural symbol, is deeply uncomfortable when considered through the prism of contemporary feminism.”

Source: BBC Radio 4 – Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, Subbulakshmi: Opening Rosebuds
Address: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b073b5cb
Date Visited: Mon Apr 11 2016 14:12:31 GMT+0200 (CEST)

Sampradaya is like a broad river and the bani is a tributary

Umayalpuram Sivaraman on his 75 years of performance >>

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“The tambura is back. But where are the players?” – Interviews in The Hindu

Gaining prominence

Despite the many alternatives available today, fortunately we still get to see the tambura player on stage. In fact, the first thing many musicians do after accepting a concert date is to book their preferred tambura player. As more musicians show a renewed interest in the instrument, the tambura is experiencing a resurgence. Paradoxically, though, the number of dedicated artistes playing it is declining. […]

[Eminent violinist] RK Shriramkumar laments the fact that one needs to refer to the instrument as an acoustic tambura to distinguish it from its electronic version. “It’s a tragedy that musicians have brought upon themselves by settling for electronic versions. Just as instrumentalists are expected to bring their own instruments to concerts, vocalists must be instructed to bring tamburas. Students should be encouraged to play the tambura for their gurus on stage to experience the constant give and take.”

Source: “The tambura is back. But where are the players?” by Lakshmi Anand in The Hindu 2 December 2021

https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/the-tambura-is-back-but-where-are-the-players/article37806267.ece

Date accessed: 29 June 2022

Gandharva-Sangīta: On the origins of Sangīta (vocal, instrumental, and dance music)

The non-sacrificial, musical counterpart to Sāma-Gāna in ancient times was Gandharva-Sangīta, later Sangīta, which has three divisions; vocal, instrumental, and dance. Performed by “Gandharva” musicians in Indra’s heavenly court, earthly Gandharva-Sangīta was a replica of this celestial music. […]

Gandharva-Sangīta was also associated with pūjā, a form of worship with non-Aryan or indigenous roots that eventually replaced the yajña as the cornerstone of Hindu religious life. Instead of oblations into a fire, pūjā involves offerings of flowers, incense, food, water, lamps, and conches directly to deities or symbols on an altar. In pūjā, singing and playing instruments are conceived as offerings that are integrated with the other elements. […]

The association of religion with the production of the arts, while present in Western history, is paramount in India. Currently, the content of artistic production is largely taken from Hindu religious texts, with many performance genres derived from religious rituals. […]

Source: Historian of religions and musicologist Guy L. Beck in Ch. 26, “Hinduism and Music” in The Oxford handbook of religion and the arts
URL: https://www.academia.edu/37849233
Date Visited: 13 November 2021

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All craftsmen in Miraj are musicians – the wonderfully resonant Tanpura (Tambura)

tambura_workshop_miraj_thehindu_1907012
A view of the shop where tanpuras are made. Photo by Lakshmi Sreeram – courtesy The Hindu

Miraj is famous for tanpuras made by its craftsmen, who honed their skills by first becoming trained musicians.

How did it ever strike someone to stick a piece of wood on a dried pumpkin, build this bridge and that and twist some strings on it, to make this wonderfully resonant thing one calls the tanpura? […]

“Musical training is the basic foundation for an expert tanpura maker. There are about 500 craftsmen in Miraj and all are musicians.” […]

As much as Miraj is associated with the tanpura, it is also associated with Ustad Abdul Karim Khan saheb, the founder of the Kirana gharana of Khayal. It was after listening to his record, playing in a shop, that Bhimsen Joshi decided at the age of 11 to run away from home to learn music. Music can become as obsessive as that.  […]

All great musicians of the Kairana gharana have sung at this festival such as Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Roshanara Begum, Hirabai Badodekar and Suresh Bhau Mane. “We have a tradition of ending the three-night musical offering with a concert by a Kairana gharana vocalist. This year it was Ganapati Bhat,” said Mirajkar.

Abdul Karim Khan saheb’s music was uncluttered and deeply moving. He could tug at hearts with his plaintive and sharply etched swaras, and the power of his music lay mostly in that. Sheer mastery over swaras, what Bhimsen Joshi once spoke of as ‘swara siddhi.’ Veena Dhanam, who was hard to please, had great regard for his music. He was probably the first Hindustani musician to seriously study the Carnatic system and the first to be invited to sing all over the south. He even recorded a Tyagaraja kriti.

Source: The Hindu : Arts / Music : Strings of purity by Lakshmi Sreeram, The Hindu, July 19, 2012
Address : http://www.thehindu.com/arts/music/article3657463.ece

“Tambura is my constant companion – a bridge to my past, keeping the memories of my childhood alive.” – Bombay Jayashri >>
Learn more about the tambura (tanpura) >>

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Appreciating the beauty and importance of the nagasvaram: “Carnatic music grew because of the nagaswaram” – S. Rajam

In this part, I quote from my recording with S. Rajam on T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai, done in early 2007 [brief excerpts]

“Carnatic music grew because of the nagaswaram. Our art originated in the temples — especially, dance and nagaswaram. During the daily three-time worship at temples, the nagaswaram would be played all the times.

Source: “Tribute to the genius T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai, whose nagaswaram melodies are timeless” by Rupa Gopal The Hindu, December 27, 2013
URL: https://thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-fridayreview/our-own-pied-piper/article5505258.ece

Related information

Mallari played by ‪Sheik Mahaboob Subhani & Kalisha Bee‬ Mahaboob

With the disintegration of feudalism, Carnatic music, once confined to the precincts of temples and royal durbar halls, stepped out and started filling concert halls. While some music forms such as Mallari, inextricably linked with the rituals of temples and festivals, are still in vogue, others such as OdamYecharikkai and Odakkuru have more or less disappeared. […]

Yecharikkai is also played in Vishnu temples when the deity is taken inside the sanctorum after the procession. In earlier times, the devadasis of the temple would perform the ritual of warding off the evil eye after which the nagaswaram player would play this musical form.

Yecharikkai is played in Saveri set to tisra nadai,” said Mr. Subramaniam. Mr. Chinnathambia Pillai said it could also be played in Yadukula Kambhoji and Ahiri. […]

But in many temples, these rituals are no longer followed,” said Mr. Subramaniam.

Source: “Ancient sounds of temple music fade” by B. Kolappan, The Hindu, 22 December 2013
URL: http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/ancient-sounds-of-temple-music-fade/article5487577.ece
Date Visited: 1 February 2014

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Audio |  Vidya Shankar on teaching Carnatic music to children

vidyashankar_vina2000_web_thu
Vidya Shankar (1919-2010)
Listen to an interview with
Vidya Shankar on teaching Carnatic music to children
held at her Chennai home by Ludwig Pesch (24 February 2005)

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Pallavi | A musical tribute to Dr Pia & Prof SA Srinivasan – Sannidi Academy of Music and Arts

Pallavi
Srīnivāsa Pia Priyāya Namaste
Sangīta Sāhitya Rasika


Catusra Jāti Triputa Tāla
Hamsānandi Rāga

This concise vocal composition (pallavi) by Vidvan TR Sundaresan pays tribute (namaste) two outstanding personalities in this field:
Dr. Pia Srinivasan & Prof. SA Srinivasan
whose affection (priya) and discerning patronage (rasika) of the language of music (sangīta sāhitya) could hardly be expressed better than through music itself

Raga Sri | A musical tribute to Dr. Pia Buonomo Srinivasan – Brhaddhvani

Dr. Karaikudi Subramanian and Dr. Meenakshi Subramanian salute Dr. Pia Buonomo Srinivasan (May 15, 1931 – April 8, 2022)1 for her respect and selfless contribution to vina and its tradition. […] We dedicate the raga Sri she loved particularly in her memory. | Read the full tribute posted on the video channel of Brhaddhvani – Research and Training Centre for Musics of the World >>

Karaikudi style is not a family style.
It is a veena style.

THE JOURNAL of THE MUSIC ACADEMY MADRAS
Devoted to the Advancement of the Science and Art of Music
Vol. LXXVII 2006, pp. 28-31

The Karaikudi Style

“Bhani” from “bhanihi” in Sanskrit which is from the root word “bhan” meaning “sound”. “Bhanihi” also has another meaning, “weaving”. Literally it is “weaving with sound”. But when one talks about style, a “bhani” in Carnatic [music], first and foremost is that one recognizes the total personality of the performer speaking through the music performed. The personality encompasses the way in which the performer has lived, the number of years staying with the master, the values held, the music listened to, the aesthetics developed, the right and wrong integrated unto oneself due to lineage or as disciples of the master, and finally the individual limitations and strength. “Bhani” is generally translated as “style” in English.2 […]

Describing a musical style of a parampara3 going back to several generations in the contemporary context becomes even more difficult, especially in an oral tradition such as Indian music.4 The Karaikudi style of veena playing started from Karaikudi veena brothers, Subbarama Iyer, Sambasiva Iyer’s son’s generation veena players in their family.5 No recordings are available of the music of Subbarama Iyer. […]

Karaikudi style is not a family style. It is a veena style. The lecture was presented by live demonstration at the different places to understand the Karaikudi style by Dr K S Subramanian.

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References
  1. Date as per official records, corrected from May 14 preferred and shared for personal reasons[]
  2. Tamil பாணி pāṇi , n. U. bānī. Style, manner, peculiarity – University of Madras Tamil Lexicon[]
  3. Sanskrit sishya paramparā, a series or succession of pupils – Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary[]
  4. “The Karaikudi Bani is characterized by Swaras that stand out, alternating Meetu and firmness with clarity one can feel it only when one listens to it. It is just like saying sugar is sweet. You can understand it only by tasting it.” – Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, quoted in Analytical study of the different banis and techniques of playing the saraswathi veena, PhD thesis by R. Jayanthi, University of Mysore 2006, Ch. 9[]
  5. “I was twelve when my parents, Veenai Lakshmi Ammal and Narayana Iyer, decided to give me in adoption to her uncle Sambasiva Iyer, who was concerned about the continuity of our tradition.” – Reminiscences: K Sambasiva Iyer and Mysore Vasudevachar, Narthaki Profiles, March 18, 2008[]

Indian music studied from a social and intercultural perspective

Ethnomusicology can be considered as the holistic and cultural study of music existing in various folk, tribal and other ethnic societies. The discipline ethnomusicology deals with the study of music from a social and cultural perspective and aims to survey and analyze the music traditions of various cultures. Ethnomusicology also emphasizes the study of music of one’s own and other cultures which promotes the intercultural perspective of music. Initially, the Indo-British interrelationship paved the way for intercultural communication through musical works and set the foundation for ethno musicological study in India. Ethnomusicology emerged in India during the British period when western authors started to write about Indian music in English language mainly for western readerships. Intercultural aspects can be found in all styles of music because of the cultural changes in societies that are induced by the changing reigns of rulers in the different ages of a nation‟s history. […]

After the 1980s, concepts of anthropology and musicology merged and more emphasis was placed on the observation of the process of musical creation, as seen in improvisations and performances. The focus of the study has shifted towards making critical examinations, rather than collecting abstract information. […]

Source: “Emergence of Ethnomusicology As Traced in Indian Perspectives” by Bisakha Goswami (Assistant Professor in Musicology, Rabindra Bharati University)
URL: https://www.academia.edu/10205543/Eemergence_of_Ethnomusicology_As_Traced_in_Indian_Perspectives
Date Visited: 19 March 2022

Classical music is the most refined and sophisticated music to be found in the subcontinent of India. There are many other forms, however, which have a specific function in the society, and these are by no means devoid of artistic expression. The great diversity of music in India is a direct manifestation of the diversity and fragmentation of the population in terms of race, religion, language, and other aspects of culture. The process of acculturation, so accelerated in modern times, is still not a very significant factor in many areas of the country. There remain remote pockets where tribal societies continue to live much as they have done for centuries.

“Tribal, Folk and Devotional Music” by NA [Nazir Ali] Jairazbhoy in AL Basham (ed.). A Cultural History of India. London: Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 234-237. 

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

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What’s the difference between Hindustani and Carnatic music?

At first, this question seems easy to answer: just watch performers from either strand of Indian music and you’ll know Which is Which, merely going by the instruments in use, or how they dress and watching the body language involved: harmonium or sarangi vs. violin for melodic accompaniment for most vocal recitals, and tabla drums rather than a double-faced mridangam.

M.S. Subbulakshmi © Dhvani Ohio
“Even at the peak of her career M.S.Subbulakshmi continued to learn from other musicians”
R.K. Shriram Kumar >>
Young Maestros 2018 © Sangeet Research Academy >>

Even in the absence of other clues, experienced listeners know what distinguishes one concert item from another, in order to immerse themselves in that which endows “classically trained” musicians across South Asia with a deeply felt sense of unity: raga, aptly defined as a “tonal framework for composition and improvisation” by Joep Bor in The Raga Guide.

What binds Hindustani and Carnatic music lovers together is the experience of raga which, given its roots (lit. colour, beauty, pleasure, passion), denotes a cultural phenomenon rather than just a particular combination of notes. This means that raga-based music is more widely shared than one would expect in the modern world due to its capacity to transcend linguistic boundaries. In short, both strands of Indian music, Hindustani and Carnatic music, have absorbed a wide range of regional traditions throughout history. At the same time, “raga music” continues to serve as a vehicle for meaningful lyrics in any conceivable genre in addition to “classical” or “devotional” music. Even when rendered by an instrumentalist or sung without lyrics (as customarily done within both Hindustani and Carnatic recitals) each raga constitutes “a dynamic musical entity with a unique form, embodying a unique musical idea”. […] As regards Hindustani ragas, they “are known to musicians primarily through traditional compositions in genres such as dhrupad, dhamar, kyal, tappa, tarana and thumri. Good compositions possess a grandeur that unmistakably unveil the distinctive features and beauty of the raga as the composer conceived it.” (Joep Bor).

The Carnatic Trinity hailing from Tiruvarur (Tamil Nadu, 18th-19th c.):
the composers most revered and performed by Carnatic musicians
Muttusvami Dikshitar
Sri Tyagaraja
Syama Sastri

Painting by S. Rajam © Sruti Magazine >>
Composers on DhvaniOhio >>

A comparable range of genres is available to Carnatic musicians, including varnam, kirtana, kriti, ragam-tanam-pallavi, padam, javali, tillana with a notable difference: since the 16th century, Carnatic compositions take up more time in order to render the lyrics faithfully, as intended by their composers and jealously guarded by teachers, discerning listeners and critics alike.

It is hard to imagine how such ideas would have worked before the advent of the tambura or tanpura – another feature of Indian music which may explain why older scales and theories have fallen into oblivion ever since – in spite of frequent mentions in text books.

But it’s harder to explain the musical differences in plain language while listening attentively as their respective performances unfold: differences begin to multiply, mostly in ways too subtle for words. Such differences call for probing into the depths of Indian “classical” music in the sense of a particular branch of music that is governed by clearly defined rules as well as unwritten conventions valued by professionals and connoisseurs.

For Indian listeners, such distinctions are mostly associated with a particular region, like the northern Hindustani and southern Carnatic music even if deceptive when it comes to the birth places of noted Hindustani exponents: many famous musicians were born or trained in Bengal in the east, and Dharwad in the south, also known as “Hindustani music’s southern home“. Being associated with a famous regional tradition or lineage is mentioned in most programme notes, like the vocal gharana known as the “Dharwad Gharana” or “Gwalior Gharana” in Hindustani music; and likewise, southern musicians pride themselves for having learned their arts within a bani (“family tradition”) designated by a particular town, for instance Tanjavur (vocal), Lalgudi (violin) and Karaikudi (vina or veena).

Then there are the preferred languages used in song lyrics in the case of vocal music; and certain rhythmic patterns local listeners would instantly feel familiar with or, conversely, associate with “novelty” when first employed beyond their place of origin. The latter is eagerly anticipated toward the end of a recital. In the opening and main parts of a recital, the most obvious differences between Hindustani and Carnatic music include the following traits:

  1. Hindustani musicians prefer “accelerating” almost imperceptibly – from slow to fast tempo – during an alap (raga alapana, the melodic improvisation preceding a composed theme); this preference entails presenting fewer items compared to their Carnatic peers;
  2. by contrast, a typical Carnatic or Karnatak concert opens with two or three items in a brisk tempo, including sections in “double tempo”, before elaborating a particular raga in a slow-to-fast format akin to the Hindustani format known as “imagination” (khyal or khayal) traceable to 18th c. court music;
  3. Carnatic recitals are enriched by arithmetic elements derived from the repertoires of temple and dance musicians, and coordinated by visible gestures (something listeners love to emulate for the sake of self-immersion or as a sign of appreciation); and not surprisingly, rhythmic intricacies were successfully adopted and refined as part of Hindustani tihai patterns, most successfully by Ravi Shankar in the course of collaborations with southern instrumentalists (duly acknowledged in Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar); be it for his solo sitar recitals or novel, mostly temporary jugalbandi ensembles like the one documented on video: recorded in 1974 at the Royal Albert Hall in London: “As far back as 1945, I was absorbing the essence of these from the fixed calculative systems of the Carnatic system.” (To understand their application, watch a tarana on YouTube repeatedly, starting from 3:27) Unsurprisingly this process of give-and-take, once proven successful, has become too common to bother crediting it to any particular source, other than declaring it a “shared heritage” cherished by musicians and audiences all over the world: Unity in Diversity at its very best!

To appreciate some of the aforementioned characteristics in the context of South Indian music, listen to recitals by two of its most beloved exponents:

From the above mentioned differences follows the most important one, namely the amount of time assigned to compositions based on elaborate lyrics: the concise bandish in a Hindustani recital vs. the tripartite kriti several of which occupy pride of place in Carnatic music.

The standard syllabus for South Indian “classical” music is ascribed to 16th c. composer Purandara Dasa of Vijayanagar (modern Hampi in northern Karnataka as indicated on the music map seen below). His method proved so efficient as to provide a common ground for aspiring singers or instrumentalists from many regions and linguistic backgrounds. This may explain how such music invites the convergence of several voices or instruments into one (unison): a soloist accompanied by violin just as two vocalists (popular duos known as “Brothers” and “Sisters”), or pairs of flutes, lutes (vina) and violinists, all capable of achieving perfect alignment at any given moment during a recital; and this not merely for evenly paced motifs but with equal ease in richly embellished passages. For good measure, such feats require neither notation nor lengthy rehearsals but instead combine musical memory with considerable freedom to enrich predictable patterns with one’s own flights of imagination.

As regards inevitable specialization such as a particular vocal or instrumental style, required for mastering certain melodic and rhythmic intricacies and compositions, there is an infinite variety to delve into: variety that explains the evolution of two great music “systems” that kept evolving and intersecting ever since musicologists became obsessed with classifying and validating certain features in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For non-Indian music lovers and students, Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscences titled “Unfinished Journey” may be a good starting point: the violin virtuoso was among the first to appreciate fact that “Indian musicians are sensitive to the smallest microtonal deviations, subdivisions of tones which the violin can find but which are outside the crude simplifications of the piano (or harmonium)”. His interest in Indian violin music motivated Menuhin to invite the South Indian violin virtuoso Lalgudi Jayaraman to tour the UK and participate in the 1965 Edinburgh music festival.

For a better understanding of what Yehudi Menuhin meant by “smallest microtonal deviations”, listen to the very first composition most learners of Carnatic music have learned – a gitam (didactic song) by Purandara Dasa – in: A brief introduction to Carnatic music >>

Internet search screenshots for Indian music jazz fusion
“The classical music of the West has influenced
our musical culture” – Manohar Parnerkar in
Sruti Magazine August 2019 >>

Since then, musicians from various backgrounds have never ceased to contribute to an unprecedented intercultural dialogue: exponents of western classical, ecclesiastical and minimal music just as jazz, pop and film music, all set to explore new horizons together with their Indian peers.

Tips

  1. to explore the above topics on your own, refer the Indian sources recommended here >>
  2. in order to get a clear idea what this means in practice, listen closely to audio and video contents featuring two prominent families of violinists whose roots lie in South India: one known as the Parur bani (brothers M.S. Gopalakrishnan & M.S. Anantharaman), and the other brought into prominence by N. Rajam (Hindustani violin) and her brother T.N. Krishnan (Carnatic violin)

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Michael Zarky (Tuning Meister) for providing valuable tips and corrections for this post and previous Carnaticstudent courses including those offered in conjunction with university eLearning programmes.

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“There is music of mind, of the senses and of the heart” – Mahatma Gandhi >>
Photo © Ludwig Pesch

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