The Allure of Classicism

Musings Jan 9, 2022

We are  people who have inherited enviable gifts from our ancestors. By ancestors, I do not mean people who bear the same societal, religious or congenital label as you. Not everything can be tagged and labelled - for instance, the air we breathe and the water we drink are equally indispensable to each one of our existence, irrespective of where we stand in meaningless man-made hierarchies. Among such things of curious, almost unexplainable importance is music.

Musical heritage is one of those rare things that knows no barriers. One can be the most powerful, wealthiest, influential and privileged human in all of the cosmos, but can never have enough power to prevent someone from enjoying music, or any art form for that matter. Music, in my opinion, is the most palpable form of art ever to have been conceptualised by man. Today, we are blessed to know that for every emotion we feel,  at every instant , we have some form of music to provide solace to us. However, given this justifiable infiltration of music into our lives, we must also take into account how less we pause to reflect over the personality of the music we listen to.

I believe music is a polymorphic entity, much like our idea of God. The concept of God is as diverse as humanity is, yet conveys exactly the same idea across the world. Every human has the liberty to conceive God as they want and hence ‘God’ can look like anything. Much akin to this, owing to the diversity of musical genres one could take interest in, each and every person has a unique musical identity, which I love to call, that person‘s ‘spirit music’. This spirit music has one responsibility and fulfills that unconditionally; it delivers comfort and pure love. In that regard, Carnatic music, my spirit music, occupies a very special position in my persona.

Carnatic music is as much science and mathematics as it is art. Many consider even science and mathematics arts in their own rights. This form of music is unique for its elaborately designed and well-studied systems of melodic structures or ragas, rhythmic structures or talas, melodic ornamentations or gamakas and a plethora of compositional sub-genres like kritis, sankirtanams, varnams, geethams, thillanas, padams, javalis, swarajathis and jathiswarams, all of which were primarily transmitted orally and aurally across centuries. Carnatic music is powerful in the sense that unlike any other form of music, its musicologists and flag bearers have so intensely pursued it that even the emotions we feel while listening to a particular piece of music can be explained. Another reason why Carnatic music stands tall is its style of gamakas which is unlike that of any other musical forms I know of. To my knowledge, in no other form of music have gamakas been so extensively studied and practised. Here, every raga has its own grammar and unique feature set of gamakas; in short, every raga is a living, breathing entity, capable of giving life to the simplest of words.

Carnatic music also has an incomparable scope for improvisation. Termed manodharma, it is a product of deep auditory training and keen observation of how composers have handled various ragas and talas. Manodharma has numerous sub-genres: Kalpanaswaram, Niraval, Alapana, Thani Avarthanam, Virutham, Shloka, and so many more. These bring life to musical performances and provide ample scope for musicians to bring out their acumen on stage.

As is the case with many artforms, Carnatic music struggles to reach a wider audience than it already has, owing to age-old social evils. Carnatic music has always been riddled with religious and casteist accusations. However, as we claim to have progressed as a civilisation, we are expected to be able to respect another individual’s sentiments irrespective of their socio-cultural labels. Thankfully today, Carnatic music is gaining a wider and more responsible audience that understands which truly among music and religion is the means and which one, the end. Having said that, this progression of society has also led to the use of a lot of religion-neutral lyrics in Carnatic music, thus leading to its gradual appeal to more diverse audiences today. Carnatic music has inspired numerous contemporary musicians and hence, has graced countless genres of music from fusions to film music. Composers like MS Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraaja, and AR Rahman are popular due to their experiments with classical music, the latter two more so for fusing components of different music forms. The style itself is so powerfully indicative of the Indian subcontinent that it is so easily recognised everywhere in the world. Carnatic music is seamlessly able to blend with any musical style, and at the same time, retain its individuality.

As you listen to more and more of it, you enter into a blackhole and become irreversibly infected by its beauty.


Tharunkumar Dhanasekaran

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