An exploration through various aspects of music is the focus of the book “A Southern Music: The
Karnatik Story”. TM Krishna, the author goes through various stages, themes, concepts and
perceptions in the music world by holding his beliefs and personal interpretations and criticizes
each of them based on his analysis.
“Reshaping Art”, another book by the same author, came as a continuation to the criticisms he is raising in this book on the four social aspects: religion, language, gender and caste, which he states together constitutes a complex, composite narrative (page number 336). Krishna’s finding in this book is that Carnatic music exists within a social consciousness (page number 335). Therefore, discussing the social structure and their influence on music is elementary in researching music.
The chapter ” The shrine and the song” (page number 294-313) deals with the role of religion in
art music. Here the author defines the meaning of God, divine and religion. The man or artist gets surrendered under God. As a Carnatic musician, Krishna wants to remove the manifestation of religiosity and presence of constructed Godhead. He seeks Bhakti to the aesthetics of the music, not to the names of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Devotion towards the soul of the music is needed, not to the names or images of deities, according to TM Krishna.
Even the sahithya (lyrics) of classical music are full of Gods, Goddesses and their stories. Hindu
mythologies and philosophies are the core of the meanings of the lyrics’ and they work as the basic intention of music classes. Religion always stands as an umbrella so that everything else comes under its shade.
Most of the time singing is considered as devotional offerings, not as the presentation of art music.
The author then poses a relevant question; Is Carnatic music inherently religious?
He provides the answer that Carnatic music is not a single initiative movement or an association, but its journey is purely related to temples only. The musicians are also hailing from conservative families. Therefore, they focus on the deities in the lyrics.
TMK explains that divinity limits the melodic and rhythmic possibilities. When laya comes,
religious content vanishes.
He sees one reason behind the popularity of Saint Thyagaraja’s Harikathas as they were very well known and relatable to the audience. The same reason he finds for the high demand of the Tukkada section in a concert where everyone waits for this particular devotion part to come. Audiences are also up for religious entertainment, more than for musical appreciation. This is a contradiction between devotion and aesthetics.
The chapter “A man’s world” (page no:314-334) deals with gender inequalities in Carnatic music. TMK says, from the early periods itself a male domination is visible in the Karnatic music scenario. The abolition of the Devadasi system in the 20th century has favoured this movement where the highly professional and efficient classical singing Devadasis got erased from the screen. The powerful Brahmin class in Madras took advantage of this new situation. They portrayed it as a duty for them to sanctify the music world. “The brahmin-orchestrated sanctification was considered necessary to rid dance and even music from its devadasi history.”(pg no:316).
The ‘kutcheri’ needed a clean image, therefore devadasis got detained from performing. On the
other hand, brahmins and other high-caste women were also not allowed to perform because this reduced the sanctity of concerts. The result was the complete disappearance of women from the classical music stage.
TMK presents the exceptional women vocalists by appreciating their brave stories such as
of Saraswti Bai, Dhanammal, Bangalore Nagaratnammal, MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattammal how they resisted all these traditional norms and became the face of classical music concerts.
The reluctance of male accompanists to play for female singers is also a major issue of gender
discrimination that Krishna points out. The male instrumentalists have a mindset that if they play for female artists, it is a matter of being second to a woman which is very shameful for their status.
For this, they find excuses to blame the female singers: females have a high sruthi which is not in accordance with their instrumental pitch; females do not have proper tala because they are weak in mathematics etc.
When it comes to the choice of the female singers, they also most of the time prefer males as their accompanists. Another fact is, among the instrumentalists in this field also, there are fewer female instrumentalists mainly because of some of the perceptions such as that mridangam is a male instrument. These kinds of sexist attitudes in the music sphere can be solved to an extent by making the organizers unbiased and equalitarian in conduction of concerts.
The chapter “An unequal music” (page number 335-360) deals with caste and discrimination in
Karnatic music. It says how caste-oriented and dirty is the music system in the earlier as well as in the current period. The removal of Nagaswara vidwans from the concerts, the denial of the
contribution of Isai vellalar community to the music world are strong examples used by Krishna
to emphasize his arguments. A few non-brahmin vocalists other than Devadasis to quote are
Chittur Subrahmanya Pillai (1898-1975) and Maduari Somasundaram(1919-1989).