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“Carnatic Music as an Art Form Gets Diluted and Deflected in a Time Constrained Performance”- Pappu Venugopala Rao

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Aparna M.Sridhar

(Eminent writer, and orator of Hinduism, Sanskrit and Indian dance and music, Ashtavadhani Dr PAPPU VENUGOPALA RAO, has been the Secretary of the Music Academy, Chennai, for the last decade.Steeped in both traditional learning as well as modern scholarship, he is an institution by himself.

In this interview with Aparna M Sridhar, he urges for greater Budget allocation for the arts, stresses on the urgent need to have an exclusive research methodology for dance and music and for the separation of the Veda from other cultural activities so that it retains its sanctity and divinity).


What are your views about tradition and convention in music?

MahakaviKalidasa(in MalavikaagnimitramNatakam )says Puraanamityevana sadhu sarvam/ Na chaapikaavyamnavamityavadyam (all kaavyas are not necessarily good just because they are old. All kaavyas are not bad because they are new). Anything old is not necessarily good.

Tradition is not a stagnant pool of water. Tradition is a flowing stream. Tradition is that which is time-tested. Tradition is that which caters to the needs and sensibilities of audiences over a period of time. In changing times, aesthetic sensibilities may change. But the core qualities in music or dance, will not change. So I think after 20 years, music will be the same. Music will be more technology based but human beings will still sing with their voice, there will be no tools incorporated in their voice, to enhance their singing capacity.

Nowadays the artistes are younger, and the audiences are older. Look at TM Krishna, Sudha Ragunathan, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Abhishek Raghuram, and (the late) Mandolin Shrinivas. Youngsters have taken over. They have that spark, and they are more professional in their approach than the stalwarts of earlier times. Their way of looking at it, their way of presentation may be different but 20 years from now, Carnatic musicians will still sing the compositions of Mysore Vasudevachar, Muthuswami Dikshitar, Thyagaraja, Shyama Shastri and connoisseurs will appreciate it.

There may be more people who will stay back in their homes and stick to the internet instead of coming to sabhas. All the events may be telecast live, so that they can see it from the comfort of their homes. It will survive and be better.The repertoire will be richer, the performances will technologically and qualitatively much better. We didn’t have proper mikes 30-40 years ago, now we have good acoustics in good auditoriums. Technology may help enhance the quality and there will be nothing to dilute performances.

AryakudiRamanujam, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and others were traditionalists. Then there are today’s youngsters. I wouldn’t like to compare their music, but I would like to compare the essence, the quality and the presentation, all of which is getting better by the day. These youngsters are making what they are singing important to the audience. Rather than the audience dictating the vocalist, the vocalist is dictating the audience. They carry with them a repertoire, a quality, a professionalism that wasnot there earlier. Earlier, there were 10 singers and they were all senior in age. You would respect them for their age, you were awed by them. With the youngsters, you are not awed by their age. You are overwhelmed by their quality and their skills of presentation. And the technology they are using which allows the audience to receive this in a better way. I think professionalism was not there in the previous generations. If the concert was at 6.30 they would come at 7. Now the artiste is ready by 6.15 and by 6.29 the concert starts.

How have the concerts themselves changed and evolved?

There have been several changes. The length of concerts have come down. Once I went with my Guruji (Dr M Balamuralikrishna) to Neyyattinkara in Kerala where he gave a concert for six hours. From 10 atnight to 4 in the morning, with only a half hour break. There were loudspeakers and lights and the entire village was there in front of us. Now they are of one hour or one and half hours. The repertoire presented is less, time is less for the audience, the time is less for the performer himself. The maximum is four hours, there is no concert beyond four hours. Even a four hour concert is seen as something very difficult.

This restricts music to compositions rather than elaborate presentations of a raga.In comparison, look at Hindustani music. It is based on elaboration of raga and one item will take one hour or perhaps one and half hours. Only one raga alapana will take 30-40 minutes. Where is raga alapana in Karnatic music now? If the concert is for one and half hours, when will he give tani-avartanam? When will he even have an RTP? When will he have Manodharma? When will he have Swarakalpana? When will he have Neraval?

So what happens is that basically he gets a bundle of songs, one after the other, and in the end of that some tukdas and bhajans and things like that. The concert is over with absolutely no elaboration of raga. No Ragam Tanam Palavi or Swarakalpana. A sad consequence is that the artiste himself will start feeling comfortable with this and will feel laborious if they have to play a Ragam Tanam Pallavi. They will start feeling good saying ‘I have sung 10 compositions.’ So the art form does get diluted and deflected in a time constrained performance, losing the creative elaborations which are the hallmark of creativity, the hallmark of the art. Youngsters should be careful of this.

How is music learning changing, both for performance and for conceptual or theoretical advancement?

If you look at the treatises that we have, they were written at a time when there were no writing, or printing or recording facilities. But they survived because of the inherent strength in those treatises. They survived because of the gurukula system of education. The Natya Shastra has about 6000 verses and it has survived from 2000 BC till now. There is an inherent strength in it and it is relevant even today. It was given from master to student, guru to shishya and subsequently to their shishyas and for generations it has been there in our tradition.

That system may be good but it may not be replicable today. We have to change with the times. There are a few professional musicians, but there are hundreds of people who learn music and perform and they have other professions alongside music. So musicology, performance and teaching, all three have their own different roles. When you learn in an institution there is no individual attention unlike when you learn from a guru. When you don’t have opportunities to learn from a guru, you go to an institution. That is when the concept of understanding musicology, the theory will help you as you are not with the guru 24/7.

However, classes in a university are of a limited period. Give me a list of musicians who have become good performers who have got their MA in Music from any university. You don’t find many. Because a Masters in Music does not produce performers. A PhD in Music may not be able to perform, a musicologist like me may not be able to sing.

Having said that, theory and practice are two sides of the same coin. Without theory, practice does not exist, because today you follow a tradition along with hundreds of people.If there is a young girl who becomes a dancer here and gets married to a Green Card holder in the US, she will go and become a teacher there. When she becomes a teacher and starts an institution, what is her repertoire? Can she choreograph on her own? No. Because she does not have the support of theory with her. She does not have a guru. She has become a guru all of a sudden. She is insecure about learning more from anybody, because people will say she doesn’t know dance. That kind of person will create a very bad image for the art form itself. That is where theory comes. In my recent book ‘Fragrance of Padams’, I emphasise on ‘teaching yourself.’ If you read books, theory, treatises, books on Musicology or books on theory of dance, it will help you understand concepts of choreography, concepts of performance, concepts of composing music, concepts of performing on stage. The knowledge of these things will enhance the quality of the performance.

What is the status of music research today?

Music research and dance research in this country is just 50 years old. People did not do research in music 70 to 100 years ago. It was an unheard off, an unthinkable branch of knowledge at that time. It began only with the advent of institutions starting Masters courses and Bachelor courses. Earlier the guru or teachers did not have PhDs. Senior vidwans would guide a person.

It is a matter of dismay that in the entire world, there is no exclusive research methodology for music and dance. I have been planning to write a book for five years. We have started a research wing at the Music Academy where I’ve been supervising students who are performers too.They are steeped in tradition, and involved with stalwarts, musicians and performers and their research is different. The research of people who come from outside this system and observe, understand and verify this music from their standards or measurement units will be different. A person involved in that subject as a performer and doing research will have a different view. Right now, there are more theoretical researchers than practical researchers. At the Academy we are doing practical research on swarajathis, svarakalpana, tanam, compositions, varnams by different Dikshitar family members. There are so many things that we are trying to do differently. Research is not doing different things. Research is doing things differently.

What is different about your Music Research Methodology?

So far we have been following the Humanities Methodology –Statistics, holograms, histographs, and things like that. These are irrelevant in everyway to research music and dance. Currently, in music and dance there are four types of research – 1) On treatises, 2) On a particular guru, 3) On a particular form, and 4) Comparative study.

When you do research in music and dance it enhances our understanding and ability to appreciate music and dance better. Or know things which we have not taken into account earlier. For instance, if I’m doing research on dancer Balasaraswathi, how can I use a research methodology used in a physics laboratory. I amnot talking about methodology alone. I am also talking about the art and craft of writing a thesis.

My research methodology compares the unique practical aspects of our arts and the theoretical aspects. I have already taught this to 10-15 groups of students. There are almost 200-300 students who have learnt research methodology from me.

I’m not saying I’m the last word on this, it can be improved upon by people. I’m not saying that I’m the final authority on whatever entails research methodology. I’m saying that there should be something which will give them some direction and there maybe improvements over a period of time.

What role should the Government play in promoting art and culture?

The Government should confine itself to funding projects on merit basis, rather than getting directly involved in culture. In a country like India, for example, the so-called secular constraints can take away the core content of our tradition. This core content is related to Natya Shastra of Bharata Muni and there are some people who will say this is a Hindu text. I think the best situation for the growth and for keeping our culture intact would be for social and cultural organisations to be funded on a merit basis by the Government.

Has the Indian Government given due priority to culture?

Culture, education etc. are 1 per cent, 2 per cent, 0.15 per cent of the National Budget every year.* Politicians don’t understand that a nation survives on its tradition and culture and not on infrastructure or software. Those things are absolutely necessary for development but the core or the heart of any country lies in its culture and heritage. The government’s priority should change and organisations and individuals who are associated with culture should influence this and put pressure on the government so that the Budget allotment is higher for culture. Corporates can and are doing a lot through CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). For instance, the Music Academy gets a lot of funds. We are not dependent on the Government. We have not taken one rupee from the Government in the last so many years.

I have been secretary for the last nine years and in this period we have received as much as Rs 30 crore. Out of this Rs 15 crore goes towards infrastructure development, endowments. There are organisations with tested adherence to principals and tradition and there are people who are willing to give money. Sometimes problems arise when a few individuals ororganisations are not reliable and will not follow the rules. Karnataka is doing a good job compared to a lot of the other states. You have the Sangeet Natak Akademi there and some other organisations working under the guidance of the Government.
Why is there is an imbalance across different states in terms of cultural activity?

India has never been a single entity and never had a National Cultural policy. And the British never promoted our culture or the legacy that we have had from the scriptures. And our people who have taken over after Independence, continue to work along those lines. There was no National policy then,there is no National policy now. You do something when your priorities are in the right direction. And no government has had as its priority the development of culture, of upholding tradition and promoting and preserving it.

What do you think is the role of Vedic studies in music and art?

I sincerely believe that there is no need for Vedic studies to be a part of music organisations. Because you arenot doing justice to either Vedic studies, nor to music. They are two good things, let the two good things exist independently.

You cannot live a modern life with Vedic studies. Except for people like me. My father taught me when I was 6-7 years old. The relevance of Vedic studies is there and there are organisationslike Tirupathi Devasthanam which are promoting Vedic studies. However, I don’t think there is aneed for Vedic studies everywhere in the world. The very nature of Vedic studies is that is restricted to a group of people.

I don’t want to “popularise” Vedic studies. There is no need to popularise them as their place is not to be popularised. They had their own place, they continue to have their own place, there are scholars and students who are studying. Their numbers may be less because even if scholars are willing to come and chant in your house, you don’t have time. So let us understand them and encourage them where necessary.

(* For the 2016-17 financial year, the ministry for culture was assigned Rs 2,500 cr, just 0.14% of the Government of India’s total expense outlay of Rs1,729,508.5 cr).

( This interview with Dr.Pappu Venugopala Rao by Aparna M.Sridhar appears as the cover story in the March 2017 issue of “Saamagaana-The First Melody” a magazine devoted to music being published in Bengaluru,India)

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