Monday, November 2, 2015

How Muthuswamy Dikshitar invented fusion music -- and bhakti's gain became Indian Army's loss

In Carnatic music, Tyagaraja's position is so exalted that only specialists spend time studying the other luminaries of the Trinity. But Muthuswamy Dikshitar demands attention at the popular level for he did unconventional things in a conventional world. His living for a while in Varanasi absorbing North Indian culture and his composing in Sanskrit when Tyagaraja and Shama Sastri stuck largely to Telugu might have been no more than pursuit of personal preferences. But there was daring in his invention of a new genre, Fusion Music, more than a century before it became fashionable.

Ever the traveller, the innovator, the experimenter, Dikshitar was attracted by the unfamiliar but attention-grabbing music played by military bands in the garrisons near his residence and in Fort St. George, the seat of the colonial government which he often visited. The bands played marching songs and folk beats from Ireland and Scotland and Wales. They had the power of all folk and military music -- to make the listener keep pace with the beat, humming and tapping.

Dikshitar liked the lilting rhythm, the compelling beat and the sheer simplicity of the music. He kept the tunes exactly as they were, discarded the English and fitted Sanskrit lyrics into the tunes. This was towards the closing phases of his life (1775-1835). The Carnatic world of the time paid no attention of course. Traditional to a fault, orthodox to a fault, it could only look at "Indo-colonial" music as a travesty.

In less capable hands it might indeed have been a travesty. But Muthuswamy Dikshitar turned it into something of a musical phenomenon. Not only did his lyrics fit the tunes perfectly, they retained the integrity of the Carnatic tradition by adhering to such intricate details as correctly placed pauses and precise syllable lengths. This made the nottuswara (a delightful fusion word, nottu being Tamil for English musical notes) worthy of scholarly attention. Vidwan T. M. Krishna, scholar as well as vocalist, has done extensive research into the history and significance of nottuswara sahitya. Last week he released a CD containing 36 of Diskhitar's "beat music" songs.

He did it with elan, heading a chorus of a few dozen children and singing the numbers with them. The children outperformed him, though. He needed written scripts in hand to be able to recite the lines.With no such aid, the children belted out the lines from memory, song after song after song -- and with the precision in enunciation that Sanskrit demanded.

There is poetic justice in a daring composer of the past getting as interpreter and promoter a daring musician of the present. T. M. Krishna is a ranking classical singer of the new generation. That has not prevented him from criticising the newfound tendency to turn music into a trade. He opted out of the Chennai "season" (performing during the season is the ultimate stamp of recognition in the Carnatic universe), saying the music had disappeared from the festival, that money and middlemen now decided who should perform and who should not. Many aficionados had already been saying that at many venues the idli-vada was the real attraction.

Small wonder if Krishna feels an affinity with Muthuswamy Dikshitar who, two centuries ago, walked into areas where others feared to tread. Apart from the nottuswara CD, Krishna has also brought out a series of three CDs (one more due soon) of what are called Audio Books. This is part of a project to produce a full archival repertoire of Dikshitar's kritis. Projects as ambitious as this require commitment of a special kind.

One aspect of nottuswara music, however, limits its appeal. In keeping with Carnatic music's unwavering thematic uniformity, Dikshitar's Sanskrit lyrics have bhakti as their solitary subject. Military/folk tunes do not quite jell with bhakti and vice versa. Irish "snaps" for example inspired Dikshitar with their lilt, speed and contagious rhythm. Those qualities serve the purpose of snaps very well, because the purpose is to enliven drinking sessions at popular gatherings. But Dikshitar's purpose, as the purpose of all Carnatic composers, was to liven up bhakti.

This can lead to embarrassing dichotomies. The Rakes of Mallow, for example, is a famous Irish pub song with lyrics that are delightfully subversive. But in Diskhitar's hands dancing, drinking/Breaking windows, cursing, sinking became Vande Meenakshi tvam sarasija. If Dikshitar had switched from bhakti to patriotism for a moment, the Indian Army would have been marching to a nottuswara version of kadam, kadam budhaye ja. Well, we can't have everything, can we?