Is Carnatic music a brahmin art for the consumption of brahmin audiences promoted by brahmin institutions? There are no simple answers to the question. True, there have been and there still are, great non-brahmin practitioners of the art. Many of them are instrumentalists, and in the case of the nagaswaram and the tavil it is unlikely that any brahmin has ever been a performer.
Is the brahmin domination of the art the result of discrimination, an overt conspiracy of exclusion practised by a league of musicians, patrons and the media, or is it a more subtle form of apartheid? Is it just a case of brahmins showing the greatest aptitude for and interest in classical music? Is it merely an accident of history that a number of great non-brahmin musicians do not have non-brahmin disciples to carry their tradition forward? Is the relative scarcity of non-brahmin vocalists a reflection of their inability or refusal to enunciate lyrics in brahmin accents? Are they more at home in the lyrics devoted to the Tamil god Murugan rather than paeans to Rama or Krishna?
Whatever happened to the Tamil Isai movement after the first fine rapture decades ago? Is the south’s relative insulation from war and conflict the reason why the music has remained more tradition-bound, more orthodox, more rooted in grammar than say Hindustani music, which has seen far greater migrations and hence a much wider ethnic range of musicians? Has the emphasis on kalpita or composed music with a preponderance of bhakti been an inhibitor of Carnatic music’s reach beyond a small community? Does western classical music offer a parallel history for study and comparison? How do you democratise an art and yet retain its purity and rigour?
A recent nagaswaram concert succeeded in bringing to the audience “an experience of pristine Carnatic music”—as advertised by the organisers. A magnificent Kambhoji raga alapana followed by a grand O Ranga sayi—and in fact all the ragas and compositions of the evening which were founded on the creations of the great vaggeyakaras and pathantaras of the past—reinforced the belief brahmin musicians of the past were inspired by nagaswaram, but also suggested an equal possibility of reverse osmosis. The music sounded no less ‘brahmin’ than the best vocal music of our time.