On August 15, the Sivaswamy auditorium of the Fine Arts Society in Chembur, Mumbai, was almost packed to capacity. The occasion was a Carnatic music concert held to mark 65 years of India’s independence and 50 years since the society’s formation. Around 75 per cent of the audience might have been over 60 years of age. And while many men turned up in casual cross-striped T-shirts worn over formal trousers, a large number of ladies were attired in silk sarees.
The star attraction was 76-year-old Umayalpuram Sivaraman, one of the most prolific and respected exponents of the south Indian drum mridangam. But a large section had also come to hear 30-year-old Sikkil Gurucharan, a Chennai-based vocalist who’s shown plenty of promise and who’s being labelled as a future great in Carnatic music. With accompaniment from Sivaraman, brilliant violinist S Varadarajan and Giridhar Udupa on the percussion instrument ghatam, Sikkil captivated the audience for nearly four hours with a diverse range of varnams, kritis, bhajans and thillanas.
Being a public holiday and a free concert, one obviously expected a packed house. But even otherwise, on weekdays and in ticketed concerts, Carnatic music attracts a fairly large audience in Mumbai, whenever concerts are held.
While that may make things seem rosy as far as the Mumbai scene is concerned, the truth is that they are not. What are the problems? Three things, actually. One, Mumbai, unlike the major south Indian cities, hosts only a few Carnatic concerts as compared to the north Indian form of Hindustani music. Two, the majority of those who attend these concerts comprises Tamilians who have grown up on the genre. Except for a handful of diehard music lovers, other communities are not adequately represented. And three, musicians performing pure, traditional Carnatic music don’t get as much recognition in Mumbai as those who are involved in fusion or experimental projects.
Let’s take each issue separately. To begin with, the number of shows. In comparison to Chennai or even Bangalore or Kochi, Mumbai hosts relatively fewer Carnatic concerts, and that too, at select venues. Besides the Fine Arts Society, one sees some shows at Shanmukhananda Hall, Karnataka Sangha, Tata Theatre and Nehru Centre. This September, Fine Arts Society is organising a festival featuring vocalists Malladi Brothers, Bombay Sisters and TV Gopalakrishnan, and violinists M Narmadha, Lalgudi GJR Krishnan and Ganesh-Kumaresh.
But compare them with Hindustani music, and the number is quite small. While Mumbai’s Carnatic music calendar has one annual festival called Dakshinayan, organised by Banyan Tree Events, and regular events at Fine Arts Society, there are aso many Hindustani festivals like IMG Janfest, Megh Malhar, Gunidas, Sureshbabu-Hirabai, Vyas Vandana, so on and so forth.
The same holds true for other cities of north, west and east India. While Dakshinayan is also held in Delhi and Pune, the number of Hindustani classical events is much larger. In contrast, Chennai has a Carnatic music season for six weeks every December and January, where numerous ‘sabhas’ host a string of concerts featuring scores of musicians. Bangalore, Kochi and Hyderabad, though much smaller in scale than Chennai, have Carnatic concerts through the year, albeit with smaller crowds.
One reason for this may be the larger demand for Hindustani music in Mumbai, and also the fact that a number of leading and upcoming Hindustani classical musicians are settled in Mumbai. Most of the Carnatic musicians are based in Chennai, and since the average size of a Carnatic ensemble is larger (normally four or more people), transportation and hotel costs become involved. Add to this the fact that corporate sponsors back shows by a select group of star musicians, most of whom belong to the Hindustani genre.
The second factor we mentioned is the audience profile. Among Tamilian families, children get exposed to Carnatic music at an early stage, and they often accompany their parents to ‘kutcheris’ (concerts). As such, the understanding of the nuances and development of a serious taste happens from an early age.
North Indians and Maharashtrians residing in Mumbai don’t get that early exposure to Carnatic music, and thus stay away from the genre for the rest of their lives. Thus, a large proportion of visitors to Carnatic concerts naturally comprises south Indians, who have been brought up on that music.
The third issue relates to the popularity of certain artistes who are involved in experimental and innovative music. Let’s take a few examples here. Violinist L Shankar and ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram are essentially Carnatic musicians, but they attained mass popularity because they were part of the Indo-jazz group Shakti. Similarly, mandolin genius U Shrinivas and kanjira player V Selvaganesh are part of the Remember Shakti ensemble, and are thus known among fusion fans.
L Subramaniam is an excellent Carnatic violinist, but his recordings with western artistes like Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin, or his ‘global fusion’ projects, sell more than his pure Carnatic recordings. Similarly, among Mumbai listeners, path-breaking saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath is known more for his international collaborations than for his pure Carnatic renditions, which are a rage in the south. The violinist brothers’ duo of Ganesh and Kumaresh are known in Mumbai, because they are often accompanied by the great Zakir Hussain, who adapts south Indian rhythmic patterns to his tabla. The great Balamuralikrishna and talented Bombay Jayashree are extremely popular as Carnatic vocalists in the south, but a large chunk of Mumbai’s audience knows them more for ‘jugalbandis’ (duets) with Hindustani classical musicians. Hariharan and Shankar Mahadevan have their roots in Carnatic music, but the world knows them for other styles.
While all these musicians are game changers in their own way, the sad truth is that many other talented Carnatic musicians don’t get equal kudos in a place like Mumbai, or rather get it only among a select few. Brilliant vocalists like Aruna Sairam, Sudha Raghunathan, Sikkil Gurucharan and OS Arun, to take only four examples, are all stars across audiences of all age groups in Chennai. They are stars in Mumbai too, but only among a select audience, that too as and when they perform.
The same could be true of violinists Lalgudi GJR Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi (children of the legendary Lalgudi Jayaraman) or Viji Krishnan and Sriram Krishnan (children of the brilliant T N Krishnan). Or veena players E Gayathri and Jayanthi Kumaresh, and gotuvadyam player N Ravikiran. All of them are established in the south, and get adequate opportunities across India, but ask the hip Mumbai concertgoer and page 3 follower about youngsters in Indian music, and chances are that he’ll drop names like Anoushka Shankar, Rahul Sharma and Niladri Kumar easily, and not even know of Gayathri, Ravikiran or Sikkil Gurucharan.
All this is not to start any debate on which of the two forms — Hindustani or Carnatic — is superior or more popular. Both are steeped in traditional and have a long musical history. Moreover, there may be some would will rightfully say that barring a few top names, Hindustani musicians don’t have the same popularity as Carnatic musicians in Chennai as they have in Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata.
But in a place like Mumbai, cosmopolitan by nature, one would love to see a serious and continuing effort on the part of musicians, musical organisations and sponsors to expose and educate more non-Tamilians about the intricacies of Carnatic music. This could be done through regular workshops, lecture-demonstrations and listening sessions, and will greatly help increase the overall appreciation levels manifold. Otherwise, a whole section of musically-inclined society will miss out on the magic of the Carnatic form.