On Carnatic music and manual scavenging

Leftist daily Hindu, controlled by N. Ram a well known Marxist and SFI activist in his younger days, often prints opinion pieces by well known “intellectuals” aka hardcore Marxists and Maoists. We all know the horrible and blood drenched track record of the Marxist demi-gods like Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. But their followers in India have cleverly occupied the “liberal” space. Using classic Goebbelsian tactics and vice like grip over media, history and culture they have succeeded in projecting themselves as champions of the downtrodden and the poor, even patented that right so no one dare encroach on their patch. Most of these “intellectuals” are themselves upper caste and their party Politburos are similarly dominated by upper class and caste elites.

Ananya Vajpayi a famous leftist “intellectual” often writes for Hindu. One such article appears today (24th Dec). You can read it here. The topic of the day is Carnatic music and manual scavenging. The occasion? A talk show with Bejwada Wilson and TM Krishna.

No one can have a quarrel with ending the horrible practice of manual cleaning of toilets, that too performed by the so-called lowest caste. Technology exists. Friends, camp followers and well wishers of the left elite have been ruling us for more than half a century, handing out juicy gigs, titles, awards (none of which were returned until Modi took over), frequent flyer miles and lecture tours to these “progressives”. Fact is, the leftists are not genuinely interested in solving the issue rationally or rapidly. For them it is a useful stick to beat Hinduism with and they would wish to see it continue. They don’t have to discuss equally inhuman instances of discrimination practiced elsewhere but that doesn’t fetch lucrative rewards.

Coming to the issue of Carnatic music, she again makes it appear there is some giant conspiracy by the “Brahmins” to usurp the erotic and esoteric art of the masses and turn it into a devotional, elite art form that they and only they can practice. To support her cause she picks T M Krishna, who has turned Brahmin bashing into a lucrative career and a useful shortcut to actually doing something useful to popularise classical music among the masses. (See link below)

Even rudimentary knowledge of the history of Carnatic music or Indian classic music for that matter, would show this to be patently false.

  1. The present day state of affairs of the Carnatic music scene reflects years of impact by personalities, events and trends far too complex to be controlled by one caste or group. Any conspiracy theory simply ignores this to engage in bashing of a community using classic left tactics.
  2. Devotion has been woven deep into Carnatic music for centuries now and across several states and territories that had very little coordination and certainly no centralised planning to conspire to exclude or snatch away any particular art form from any particular group.
  3. In fact even social ills were brought to light and critiqued using devotional music. We all know about the discrimination Saint Nandanar faced, thanks to Gopalakrishna Bharathi who was himself a Brahmin. If Gopalakrishna Bharathi brought it to the musical mainstream, the task of bringing it to real mainstream through the medium of a movie was left to Film producer S. S. Vasan, another Brahmin.
  4. Thanks to the freedom struggle, poets like Bharathi and other factors, non-devotional compositions have in fact increased their market share, although still quite small. The Hindustani music Khayal singing gives importance to the raw music itself and not the words and has been lucky to escape this bias.
  5. In fact in the Carnatic “Pallavi” singing, which usually involve one line compositions, non-devotional verses have been used for years. As artiste Sanjay Subramaniam rightly pointed out (and sarcastically too!) Alathur Brothers were singing such Pallavis in the 50s instead of writing articles in The Hindu. He cited the pallavi in raga Natakurinji made famous by the Brothers. One may have issues with this domination of religious theme, if but to spin conspiracy yarns is ridiculous, to say the least. In fact agnostic or non-Hindu artistes have been able to treat them as mere musical lines and sing them quite effectively too without resorting to abuse and criticism. One has to only listen to Parveen Sultana singing “Bhavani” to appreciate this.
  6. If Brahmins have come to dominate the profession today it is because numerous artistes have put in the effort to learn, practice and perfect, often for decades. They were humble in seeking knowledge and had huge respect for the “Isai vellalar” community musicians.
    1. For example, Madurai Mani Iyer (1930s-60s) has spoken about walking all night behind temple chariot processions to listen to elaborate recitals by Nadaswaram vidwans who were usually from the non Brahmin community. Needless to say, he had enormous respect for such vidwans and never failed to acknowledge their expertise and talent.
    2. Lalgudi Jayaraman’s biography has an interesting anecdote about his grand father, who was slapped hard by his elder brother for merely uttering the name of a musician who had called at his house in his absence. “Just say Pillaival ( a caste / community honorific like Panditji or Khan saheb) had come, that is enough, why take his name?” Such was the level of respect, untainted by any casteist feelings of superiority.
  7. Similarly due to circumstances of history and various complex factors, some communities come to dominate some professions or trades. The domination of Nadars in trading (mainly provision stores) is also a recent phenomenon and is not a grand conspiracy too. Today they may lose out to dot coms and on-line retailers and not to Brahmin traders.
  8. For professional, financial reasons or mere jealousy and petty mindedness, musicians may not share their ‘secrets’ with others or allow the rise of new talent. This has been a problem for ages in many professions in many countries. This too cannot be blamed entirely on caste. Both victims and perpetrators have been from various castes. Rivalries have not even spared siblings and close relations (The famous Lata-Asha rivalry comes to mind). Again, Brahmin artistes too have struggled to overcome such factors.  One anecdote highlights mridangam player Palghat Mani Iyer breaking one such attempt to deny him visual clue of the beat. (That is usually done in Carnatic music by systematic clapping of fingers on the thigh). This particular artiste who wanted to be clever did so under his dhoti thereby making accompaniment impossible!

Clearly it is not desirable to have a particular art form exclusive monopoly of one caste and something needs to be done. It is a challenge to get youngsters even of upper caste interested in classical music. It is going to be a much steeper climb to get others who have traditionally never partonised the art to do so.

Another sad fact is the profession has never been lucrative or cash rich except for very few at the very top. In other words there was never a huge pot of gold to usurp and monopolise. Even at the very top the rewards were peanuts in comparison to the movie world.  The famous tamil phrase “half-coconut Kutcheri” where the artiste merely gets the coconut broken by devotees at the end of the concert as reward, illustrates this.

Which is also why growing the base was not easy. Many top artistes (including Brahmin ones) have died in penury unable to afford even decent medical treatment.  The increase in affordability, economic growth, online music sales, systematic recording of revenue and royalties, clout of NRI crowd etc is changing the picture albeit slowly.

But the way T M Krishna is going about it, mostly scolding and sometimes abusing the dominant group is certainly not the way. But then doing useful work takes years and doesn’t fetch you Magasaysay awards unlike routine rants against Hinduism, Modi, Brahminism for “progressive” Marxist media that dovetails nicely into evangelist propaganda objectives.

Even if the objective is to find the reasons behind the decline of non-Brahmin communities’ interest in Carnatic music, this should be done in a scientific manner and not by coming out with conspiracy theories that are floated merely as part of Stalinist pogrom against the community and Hindu religion itself. For example, the artiste we mentioned earlier, Madurai Mani Iyer, routinely had a violin accompanist from the Naicker caste in the 50s and early 60s (again this goes to show talent was sought regardless of caste provided it shines through). Today it is practically impossible to find one. Why? Was it a giant conspiracy? Obviously not. The real reasons may be more prosaic or complex. It is worth finding them with open mind.

Similarly the case of violinist Mysore T. Chowdiah (from the Gowda community of Karnataka) breaking the barriers of discrimination by upper caste and subsequently benefiting enormously from their respect patronage, as he himself has narrated, was a mere flash in the pan. There has been no other violinist of talent anywhere in that class from that community after that.  Who can be blamed?

The efforts to promote Tamil compositions (aka Tamil Isai movement) offers clue. Frustrated by domination of Telugu compositions, Tamil lovers initially tried various techniques to popularise Tamil. Obviously some of it included abuse and rabid criticism, of the sort Krishna resorts to. Such negative approach thankfully gave way to more positive and useful efforts. This includes rewarding musicians that promote Tamil, encouraging concerts full of Tamil compositions and so on. This was done in a caste neutral way as well. This produced rich dividends and today, many artistes routinely include Tamil songs in their repertoire, even if they are not from Tamilnadu!

To be fair, it can be said that discrimination does exist in Carnatic music. For that matter everywhere in every nation in various forms. But there are also lots of cases of genuine appreciation for genuine talent. I remember watching a TV episode of a music talent hunt show where a young boy of rural (non Brahmin) background sings a famous tragic movie song from “Karnan” bringing the audience as well as the judges to tears. The judges, almost all of them senior Carnatic musicians, needless to say from the Brahmin community, were not only in tears of joy, but also praised and blessed the boy profusely and in turn were praised with enormous respect by the boy’s father who, in a traditional show of respect, fell at their feet. I am pretty sure anyone watching the entire episode would be moved deeply as well. There was also a recent case of a conservancy worker from Madurai, who learnt and plays Nadaswaram in his spare time. He has been honored too, by one and all.

Carnatic music is obviously poorer for missing out on enormous talent from a much larger social base. But getting there is a long hard grind and the best way to go about it is to stop abuse, conspiracy theories and demonisation of a numerically small community however tempting and rewarding it may be to do so.


Writer Jeyamohan wrote an interesting article in his blog when T M Krishna was conferred with the “Magasaysay” award. It provoked a lot of interesting discussion and one such link is here. If you know Tamil, read and enjoy. http://www.jeyamohan.in/89353#.WF5nwIVOLIU

Jeyamohan in his own humorous and sarcastic way says if such awards are to be given for mere speeches and articles in The Hindu, thousands have to be printed and handed out each week in Tamilnadu!