First published in The Bengal Post
“There are good listeners,” the late Gangubai Hangal said to Shrinkhla Sahai, a young journalist, during the course of one of her last interviews, “but where are the performers?” She was speaking of the dearth of young musicians she believed existed in present day Hindustani music. In Carnatic music of the South, quite the reverse scenario exists. Plenty of young talent is visible on stages big and small, in cities and small towns, in India and abroad, but drawing young audiences is increasingly challenging, with the plethora of choices before a tech-savvy younger generation.
Happily for Carnatic music, its young practitioners have been proactive about sustaining their listener-base and building a future constituency of followers. True, without the tremendous support they have been enjoying for nearly two decades now from the subcontinental diaspora—and that includes a prominent proportion of Sri Lankan Tamils—the purveyors of south Indian classical music and dance would have been reduced to relatively small numbers, but their own efforts to take their art far and wide have been commendable.
Some of the leading musicians of today—a revealingly youthful brigade of under fifties—came together 25 years ago in a brilliant instance of intuition and foresight to form the Youth Association for Classical Music, “for the purpose of promoting Carnatic music amongst the youth, and providing a platform for talented youngsters.“ Over the years, YACM has conducted a successful slew of activities towards ensuring the continuance of the tradition and practice of Carnatic music. Its silver jubilee celebrations this month have been an unqualified success.
Other initiatives include Svanubhava—a big annual draw with young music students at the school and college levels involving concerts, lec-dems, quizzes and discourses by senior as well as current artists—and Sampradaya, an archival institution that has been organising monthly public interactions—which it calls Samvada—between old masters and young musicians, at once keeping the oral tradition alive and documenting these valuable exchanges for researchers and the general public.
One of the architects of such efforts has been the articulate and urbane vocalist TM Krishna, whose interests are wide and varied (he recently wrote a provocative article on the death penalty and did a spot of bungee jumping in New Zealand). The charismatic Bombay Jayashri Ramnath has been another. With her appeal to young listeners enhanced by a superb voice, complete absorption in her music and occasional forays into genres other than the purely classical as in film songs, jugalbandi and musicals, she has been a successful champion of Carnatic music among both the public and corporate audiences.
Chitravina Ravikiran has been a veritable global ambassador of Carnatic music and his fretless veena, creating a cerebral following not only among NRIs but also discerning westerners in the US, Europe and Australia. Festivals to commemorate the famed Trinity of Carnatic music, Tyagaraja, Muttuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri are now celebrated in all the continents.
Naturally, such widespread interest has created lucrative career paths in south Indian music and dance, but an even more exciting development has been the growing number of artists born and brought up outside India. It is not uncommon for youngsters who speak English with genuine American or Australian accents and very little Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, or indeed any Indian language, to master the enunciation of lyrics steeped in bhakti and complex metaphysics, in all these languages—and Sanskrit to boot. The total dedication of these youngsters and their parents may be a measure of their western upbringing but their reverence for the old masters and their guru bhakti can put the most devout traditionalist to shame.
Perhaps Gangubai Hangal’s lament over the current state of Hinustani music was overly pessimistic, but at its best, Hindustani music may struggle to match its southern counterpart in continuing to attract young professionals into its fold. The continuous fertilisation of the mainstream by a healthy inter-migration of people and ideas across continents has been responsible for this happy state of affairs.
The one downside of such churning has been the inevitable burgeoning of a variety of half-baked efforts at fusion. Here too, some of the leading musicians of today play a vital role in maintaining aesthetic values—by insisting on constantly offering the most authentic fare in their concerts and weaning young audiences away from cheap substitutes. The future of south Indian classical arts seems to be secure.