Unruly notes in the Carnatic world

Garimella Subramaniam | Updated on July 19, 2019

Music knows no barriers? Carnatic vocalist Sudha Raghunathan was viciously attacked on social media over her daughter’s wedding   -  R RAGU

The attack on Sudha Raghunathan and family bares the underlying bigotry of the Carnatic music scene. It is time to rediscover the music’s origins in the radical and democratic bhakti movement

For some years now, Carnatic classical musicians have been targets of a moral police that wants to arrogate to itself the authority to define the social and cultural contours of this art form. Ramon Magsaysay Award-winner TM Krishna has been routinely pilloried for raising uncomfortable questions about the stranglehold of dominant caste artistes.

Krishna’s claim may be countered for various reasons, but the zealotry was unmistakable when notable vocalists were denounced last year for performing songs on Jesus Christ. That ugly episode forced the musical fraternity to examine whether its business-as-usual attitude could any longer save it from these vigilantes. But the recent storm over a wedding in renowned vocalist Sudha Raghunathan’s family gives pause for thought that mere silence or plain indifference on the part of patrons of music — individuals and institutions alike — can any longer suffice.

The social media bigotry around the marriage of Raghunathan’s daughter to an African-American demonstrably falls in a class of its own.

The online khap panchayats have been accusing the family of defiling the Hindu religion and insinuating that its members have undergone religious conversion. Some have sought to “ostracise” the Raghunathans, warning music ‘sabhas’ not to slot Raghunathan’s performances during the annual December music season.

Some have bemoaned the fact that the family solemnised the union in the Vaishnavite tradition. Others have blamed the family’s “failure” to inculcate in their children the values of traditional Hinduism, its “superiority” over Judaeo-Christian religions.

A celebration of a family wedding has thus been turned into a public and sordid spectacle. Aside from the obvious fact that it is nobody’s business who marries whom, the attacks on Raghunathan have nothing whatsoever to do with the profession she has practised with distinction for decades; still less with the exercise of artistic freedom.

It may have been unthinkable some decades ago that people would so brazenly and openly air their reservations on other people’s personal lives.

But basic human decency and decorum have no place in today’s sharply polarised polity. One merely has to turn on any TV news channel during prime time to hear party spokespersons and even elected representatives hurl abuse against anybody who dares to contradict their viewpoint.

Rising intolerance has led to the violent questioning of people’s food habits, clothing, the professing and practice of one’s faith and political affiliations. The arena of Carnatic classical music has been relatively insulated from such abuse and intolerance.

But the individuals and groups behind the recent attacks on Raghunathan, or the earlier instances, now feel emboldened to purvey hate freely without fear of either social sanction or legal culpability.

Whether it is the attacks against musicians singing Christian hymns in classical ragas, or the taunts and threats aimed at Raghunathan, they are all inimical to the spirit of the Carnatic and Hindustani musical traditions. A living cultural heritage, their timeless music is marked by an improvisational style of singing, accent on individual differentiation and aesthetic refinement. These qualities, in turn, are rooted in the radical sense of freedom engendered by the centuries-old Bhakti movement that held sway over every aspect of life. Of direct relevance to the controversies of our times is how religious worship was revolutionised, by an emphasis on establishing a direct communication between devotees and their deity.

One among umpteen instances of how the Bhakti saints levelled the field comes from Nammalvar, foremost among the 12 Vaishnavite minstrels of the 6th century. “What though a person be of lowly birth — even a Chandala of the lowly Chandalas — if he is a devotee of my discus-bearing gem-Lord, his servant’s servant shall be my master, just see,” he says in the Tiruvay mozhi (the translation is taken from

Indeed, India’s musical trajectory has evolved over the centuries, transformed through temple recitations, court performances, bhajan sampraday, adaptations on the silver screen and commercial patronage in our time.

But an undercurrent through these innumerable transmutations is the stamp of individuality and authority that artistes bestow on their performances; challenging convention for its own sake and repudiation of dogma. Qualities that made Ravi Shankar, Bhimsen Joshi and Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna who they were.

Published on July 19, 2019

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