"I have never heard this song before,” an elderly audience member told me right after my recent concert in Bengaluru. The song he was referring to was Athi Saavadana, composed by the 17th century Thanjavur Maratha king Shahaji I. While the raga (Paras) in which the song has been composed is not uncommon, the composition itself is rarely heard on stage.
In a typical Carnatic concert, or kutcheri as it is known in Tamil, one usually hears songs composed by the musicians referred to as the Carnatic trinity—Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Shastry, all of whom created most of their work in the 18th century. Beyond the trinity, the preponderance of composers whose work is heard in Carnatic concerts lived in the 19th century. It is rare to hear a contemporary composer’s song in a Carnatic music concert. The recently concluded Chennai music “season” 2023 paid tribute to a similar line-up of familiar compositions.
Even dedicated Carnatic concert-goers can’t be blamed if they assume much of the Carnatic repertoire is more than 150 years old because they rarely hear anything else. The good news is that they’d be wrong. Throughout the 20th century, Carnatic composers and performers have continued creating innovative and traditional pieces for vocal and instrumental performance. This begs the question why the works of modern composers don’t see more airplay.
We could begin with what drives audience acceptance of a new composition in order to understand why we don’t hear more of them in concerts. “(The audience) love a composition that triggers a memory or stirs an emotion. Oftentimes, they look for a sense of relatability; if they understand the meaning and implication of the composition, they enjoy it that much more,” says popular Carnatic vocalist Aishwarya Vidya Raghunath. The Bengaluru-based musician, who is in her early 30s, has sung the compositions of early 20th century composers such as Papanasam Sivan and Periyasaamy Thooran, as well as those of present-day composers like Spencer Venugopal, in her concerts around the world. She says it takes audiences time to accept the works of new composers. “(The new composition) will have to marinate over time and the listener or performer will have to be open to accepting the novelty in it,” says Raghunath.
Performers prefer to sing pre-20th century compositions primarily because they are well-known and resonate with the audience immediately. The typical vocal concert features no more than 10-12 songs anchored around a main piece with a couple of “sub-mains” and a variety of thukkadas (“lighter” songs sung after the main song of the concert). This is a format that hasn’t changed much since the 1920s, when it was introduced. The large repertoire of well-known compositions from pre-20th century composers leaves little room in the main section of the concert for the compositions of contemporary composers. Audience expectations of the familiar, combined with the large choice of old favourites, is a key stumbling block to including newer compositions in concert line-ups.
“While audiences may enjoy a song or two by new composers in a concert, how would they respond to many songs by an unfamiliar composer,” Arkay Ramakrishnan, art connoisseur and concert organiser, asks rhetorically. “There are many compositions of even the trinity that we have not heard enough on stage.” Madhuradhwani, a sabha in Chennai which Ramakrishnan founded in 2010, offers a platform for upcoming and senior artists who find a shortage of opportunities within the established commercial circuit.
“We just had a concert series on the works of contemporary composers such as Madurai G.S. Mani, T.V. Gopalakrishnan and Ashok Madhav,” says Ramakrishnan. Upcoming singer Kruthi Bhat gave a concert solely featuring US-based composer Madhav’s varnams, kritis and thillana. Not all organisers are as open as they feel audiences will not support it—especially in these post-covid days when concert organisers are in direct competition with streaming services.
Ramakrishnan makes the point that when popular performers who draw large audiences choose to feature compositions of newer composers, it has greater audience impact. But in the conservative world of Carnatic music, straying from the familiar is a risk most performers hesitate to take.
“How we talk about composers is important,” says Shruthi Rajasekar, 27, an Indian-American musician who is trained in both Western classical and Carnatic music. She has been composing for Western classical ensembles and for joint performances by Indian and Western classical musicians for the last 12 years. Rajasekar’s comment arises from the implicit question of who a composer is. Most Carnatic connoisseurs and musicians consider only those who both write the lyrics and set it to music as composers or vaggeyakaras.
“We have a lot of Carnatic musicians who are creative artists, (who) are creating and performing an existing text known to many. Sometimes they (listeners) attribute the composition to just the lyricist. And the work of the composer has been unacknowledged,” says Rajasekar. “I do think that’s something that our field could do a little better.”
The guru-shishya tradition, by which Carnatic music has historically been taught, remains the primary method of making new compositions familiar to audiences. Starting from the time of the Carnatic trinity, disciples have performed and popularised the compositions of their gurus in their concerts. Such a method of propagation requires either a large number of disciples or a few extremely successful ones over a long period of time.
This results in new compositions being sung over multiple generations, as is evident in the success of early 20th century male composers such as G.N. Balasubramaniam (GNB), Muthiah Bhagavathar and Papanasam Sivan. For instance, GNB’s disciples M.L. Vasanthakumari, Tanjore S. Kalyanaraman, and Trichur V. Ramachandran were all well-known vocalists who helped propagate their guru’s compositions as was Madurai Mani Iyer, arguably the most famous disciple of Muthiah Bhagavathar.
The exception to this rule has been the adoption of 20th century thillanas, a musical form that is less than 200 years old. While many thillanas have been composed for dance performances, on the Carnatic stage, thillanas are heard at the end of the concert. The thillanas of late 20th century composers such as violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman and vocalist M. Balamuralikrishna have seen widespread adoption in their own lifetimes. One reason is that thillanas are more easily accepted by audiences as thukkadas.
Then there is the question of the gender of the composer. Prior to the 20th century, despite the compositions of Haridasa mystics such as Helevanakatte Giriyamma and Ambabai, women’s contribution to music was perceived to be primarily as poets and lyricists. In the modern era, male composers have continued to dominate, though more women composers such as K.M. Soundaryavalli, Ambujam Krishna and D. Pattammal have emerged through the 1950s. While their kritis have been presented in concerts, hearing them is more the exception than the rule. Classical composition remains very much a male domain.
Carnatic music, like every other form of music, thrives through continuous innovation. This innovation typically takes one of two forms—interpretation of traditional compositions using their manodharma (creative improvisation) and creation of new compositions.
Some seasoned musicians have argued that there is no need for new compositions as a great deal of the existing oeuvre has not been explored adequately. Despite this, in every generation, Carnatic composers have continued to create new music without being discouraged by the challenges their work faces.
Well-known performers are in a unique position to popularise modern composers given the large audiences they draw. And they have good reasons to do so—including surprising their audiences, innovating musically, or carving a niche for themselves.
An illustration of this has been the widespread acceptance of Marathi abhangs, or Marathi devotional poetry, on the Carnatic stage. Popular vocalists such as Aruna Sairam and sisters Ranjani and Gayathri have created listeners for what was once unfamiliar with their consistent renditions of abhangs. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, too, has made it a point to sing rare ragas such as Rojapoo and Dravida Kalavati.
Carnatic kritis have always allowed adequate flexibility and freedom for the performer to interpret and render the music within the constraints of a raga and tala. As a community, Carnatic musicians have learned to make the familiar novel through innovation. We now need to learn to make the unfamiliar popular to delight, maintain and grow audiences.
Kriti: A song in Carnatic music, usually in three parts, set to a specific tala and raga
Varnam: A musical form with both lyrics and specified musical notes, sung at multiple speeds. Typically performed at the beginning of a concert
Ragamalika: A kriti composed in multiple ragas
Thillana: A composition with a few lines of lyrics and rhythmic syllables (like ta-ka-dhi-mi), rendered at the end of a performance
Chitra Srikrishna is a Carnatic vocalist based in Bengaluru.