Sachi R

Obiter dicta on music, men and matters

Karnaranjani – genetic engineering in Carnatic music

Posted by rsachi on September 10, 2009

(12 Century AD sculpture in Belur, Karnataka)
At the outset, let me assure you I know my ignorance of the intricacies of Carnatic music. I am only an avid listener and somewhat reckless in airing my opinions.
Recently I came across twice the word “sophistication” in the context of Carnatic music. And I heard just the other day on a lovely tillana by Ganesh Kumaresh in Karnaranjani.  It quite surprised my untutored ears. Last night I was surfing to find out more and saw that there are many interested in popularizing this raaga. It happens to be, like a grafted rose, based on Kharaharapriya. I then also heard a Balamurali exposition starting with the word Omkaarakaarini in a just four note raaga called Lavangi. All this has set me thinking. What is the role of sophistication in Carnatic music, and is our music becoming genetically engineered?
Living in Australia, I see much discussion how agri-produce here is not genetically engineered and therefore safer. I also saw on BBC that in the UK, genetically engineered produce is banned. We are anxious to avoid the unknown harm of genetic engineering  in foods and other things, but if medicine benefits from it, we welcome it. Of course scientists will have their way if there is a cost benefit. And safety is a much debated but quite uncertain subject, as we can see in the context of radiation effects of mobile phones.
So coming to Carnatic music, are we driving sophistication these days? Undoubtedly. I am quite sure that Carnatic music and compositions did not sound the way they are rendered now, about 75 years ago. And since the 50’s, there is evidence that musicians are so much into perfecting techniques and presentations in every sphere that we can be sure that what we hear today is a much more developed or sophisticated product than before. And the invasion of electronics, which I would like to describe as ” the Rahman Effect”, is as big in music as the Raman effect was in Physics. So you have tamburas losing out to CDs and synthesizers, and almost everything has a contact mike. I am sure someone will finally invent a chip that morphs one’s voice into your chosen one just as we saw in Mission Impossible movies!
That leaves two questions I wish to address.  Raaga means colour in Sanskrit. From the 7 primary colours, today you have 16.7 million colours on your computer. Similarly, we have been propagating raagas almost like scientists discovered elements as possibilities based on the periodic table. That surely enhances the variety. But is it Karna-ranjani, which means in Sanskrit pleasing to the ear? Since the Primordeal One made man ( like the goddess made Om!) , and man is making these raagas, are they divine? A bit like calling a tiger a vegeratian, but seriously, should we feel good about all this?
The first test of music is that it should be pleasant to the ear. The second, when it comes to classical music, we expect it to have some enduring impact, which is derived from structure, dimensions of rhythm, lyricism and evocative depth. The structure also helps in reproducibility. Finally, some raagas and songs will be repeated and requested by audiences more and more. There may indeed be a neurolinguistic aspect to why a raaga or song becomes popular. On the other hand, musicians are also increasingly “showing” off  their sophistication with new raagas and rare compositions.
There is surely a place for perfecting one’s presentation, appearance, mannerisms, concert etiquette and so on. This kind of sophistication is welcome. But Carnatic music has such a delectable balance between Lakshya and Lakshana (loosely translatable as musicality and technicality) that we need to find the golden mean between old and new, innovation and tradition, electronics and natural acoustics. That would be the ideal sophistication!

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