Should Carnatic Music be irreligious?
“Music knows no barriers and has no language” – is a celebrated reality. Just as the Vedas proclaim “EkaM sad viprA bahudhA vadaMti”, music is one, but its forms are many and Carnatic Music is one of them. All forms of music are forms of entertainment based on melody and rhythm, having seven notes, and Carnatic Music is no exception. Notwithstanding the fact that Carnatic Music is undoubtedly one of the most advanced, scientific, absolute, complex and unique systems of music which has given it an illustrious position among the different musical systems of the world, it poses certain challenges in the current scenario.
Some argue that Carnatic classical music is not able to reach out to world-wide audiences and attract listeners since it is “religious”. Our music is predominantly composition based which makes it Sahitya oriented; and sahitya in Carnatic music essentially means praising Hindu deities like Rama, Krishna, Shiva, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Kamakshi, Muruga and so on. This prevents Carnatic Music from becoming global and to bring about the same experience to a foreigner, as to an Indian who has strong roots in our culture and is reasonably aware of our history, scriptures, literature, mythology, socio-religious practices and customs. Thus, the argument is that if the Bhakti or the religion element in Carnatic Music can be completely done away with, we can take our music to wider audiences and make it more popular.
Before we debate on this any further, there is a certain historical and conceptual background to it which is important to understand. India is a spiritual land, known for its richness in philosophy, culture, religion, civilization, knowledge and education. It is undeniably here that we can trace the origin of human culture and civilization. History has put on record that when the other countries of the world were either unknown or steeped in the darkness of ignorance and primitiveness, it was our great Bharatavarsha which had seen the light of knowledge and enlightenment several thousands of years ago.
These is a reference in the Vayu Purana, which says
uttaram yat samudrasya himavad dakShinaM cha yat |
varSham tad bhArataM nAma bhAratI tatra santatiH ||
Meaning “that country which is to the north of the ocean and to the south of the Himalayas is called bharata and its people bharatiyas.” Thus, ours is fundamentally Bharatiya Samskriti more aptly termed as ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (the universal way of life), which was only later termed as Hinduism and called a ‘religion’, particularly after the advent of Islam and Christianity.
Besides, it is the only country which has always visualized knowledge as a means to reach the supreme truth (sA vidyA yA vimuktayE) The ancient Indians have called all the branches of knowledge as Arts and have classified sixty four arts (chatuShShaShTi kalAH) which can be Fine arts, Creative arts, Scientific arts or Commercial arts. Be it astronomy or medicine, arts or literature, chemistry or architecture, agriculture or economics, philosophy or morality; all vidyas had flourished to their most evolved and developed forms in India several centuries ago, the basis of all of them being the Vedas. Of the various vidyas that originated in ancient India, Adhyatma vidya and Sangeeta vidya are quite prominent. Since time immemorial, spirituality and music in India have grown hand in hand. Sangeeta Vidya also called as Gandharva veda is an Upa-veda of Samaveda (the root of which is nothing but ‘OM’-the primordial sound) is not mundane; it’s the only vidya that facilitates the four purusharthas, namely dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Carnatic classical music, the present evolved form of the ancient music system of India, is known for its sublimity and uniqueness, and stands apart when compared to other forms of music across the globe. Being one of the most aesthetic and beautiful forms of music, it is both vibrant as well as soothing. If other music forms are sensual, Carnatic music, which is both devotional music as well as art music, is sensuous and is capable of bringing about the experience of divine bliss (sat-chit-ananda).
Not just that, ours was the richest nation of the world which was the reason why it was subjected to the maximum number of foreign invasions by the Shaks, Hoonas, Mongols, Turkish, Portugal, Greeks, Persians, French and the British. These foreign invaders, particularly the British who ruled us for nearly two centuries, tried in different ways to not just loot the wealth of our country but also to destroy our rich cultural heritage. It was highly unfortunate that we yielded to them and allowed them to do it. Thanks to the struggle and sacrifice of great freedom fighters that we somehow managed to make them quit our country. But, are we really independent? On being asked this question, the great sage Kanchi Paramacharyal said “We have surely attained freedom, but not independence”. So true is this statement even today. In the wake of Globalisation and Liberalisation which is fast changing our mindsets and lifestyles, we need to realise that it is nothing but Westernisation (or Americanisation to be more precise) in disguise. We have gone to a state where we neither know our roots nor do we believe in anything that is traditionally ours. In the past two or three centuries, and more so since independence, we have been gradually and tactfully conditioned to believe that anything that is from the West is great and superior, and this has made us lose faith in the tenets of our Sanatana Dharma. Ideas, inventions, discoveries, models, formulae have all been very cunningly “stolen” from us and given back to us as those of Western origin. Our own history that we study particularly in schools and colleges is completely distorted including the Aryan Invasion theory which has been disproved only recently. There are rampant religious conversions which, like slow-poison, are aimed at gradually eliminating Sanatana Dharma and all its wings. In short, all that is purely Bharatiya in its source and essence, be it philosophies, sciences or art forms are massively targeted in various ways. I feel somewhere, in some way, Carnatic Music is also indirectly affected; and the practitioners and connoisseurs of this great, purely Indian art form have been made to believe (given the present Indian state of mind) that our system fails to cater to universal needs.
In response to the argument that Carnatic music should be made secular, it is worth mentioning that Carnatic music doesn’t depend on Sahitya alone. Those who look at Carnatic Music only from the Sahitya point-of-view seem to have failed to recognise its other great dimensions. The most advanced, technically precise and intricate Raga and Tala Paddatis, the idea of absolute music or Manodharma Sangeetham, ample scope for creativity within the frame of tradition, the variety and richness of compositional forms, the happy co-existence of classical and popular forms and above all, its therapeutic and educative value have rendered it a completeness and given it an exalted place among the different musical systems of the world. Moreover, sahitya in Carnatic Music compositions are not mere devotional expressions of particular composers towards their Ishtadaivam, but much more than that. They bring out lofty tatvas propounded in the Vedas and Upanishads, which form the basis of Sanatana Dharma. It is necessary for us to understand here that these ideologies are not relevant to just Bharatiyas or Hindus, but to the whole of humanity.
Given the fact that Carnatic music is art music, whether you sing of Rama-Krishna-Ganesha or use secular, modern and contemporary themes should not make a difference as far as the experience of music is concerned.
Also, if the sahitya in Carnatic Music is to be changed for good, what can it be changed to? What language will be used? Since the argument holds that our languages are regional and local, and hence lack global relevance, is it possible to sing Carnatic Music in English? (Moreover it is to be noted that English is unreasonably termed as International language, when hardly few countries in the world speak English officially and the percentage of world population speaking it is not more than 25%.) On the other hand, if our languages are to be retained as they are, but only the theme is to be changed, still the world would not understand our music. This means the argument is totally unsubstantiated.
Furthermore, there is no reason to look at antiquity, spiritual and religious preponderance, and bhakti orientation as hindrances to the popularity and global acceptance of Carnatic Music. Instead,
Why can’t we consider these as the special and unique features of our music?
Will Carnatic music retain its identity and status if the aspect of devotion is removed? Rather, why can’t we create a brand value for our music by saying that ours is the only system of music in world which provides not mere entertainment but also refines the human mind and soul, finally leading towards enlightenment and self-expansion of both the performer (sadhaka) as well as the listener (rasika)?
Why do we so easily lend ourselves to believe that there is something wrong in our system which needs to be changed for the sake of the world which is actually incapable of understanding its greatness?
Can the Yoga sutras of Patanjali, Vyakarana of Panani, Artha Shastra of Kautilya, Ayurveda of Charaka or the Kavyas of Kalidasa be changed or diluted so that a foreigner understands them better?
Is it not better and more sensible to educate and create awareness and to bring about meaningful and constructive innovations to help audiences appreciate Carnatic Music better and realise its greatness as an instrument to reach out to divinity, rather than changing or diluting it?
Are we not doing more harm than good by trying to make music irreligious with an object of popularising it?
Can we not use Carnatic Music in all its glory (which includes its bhakti-oriented sahitya) as an instrument to preserve and propagate the glorious heritage of this country for ourselves and for our next generation?
Is there a real, genuine and practical need to make Carnatic Music irreligious?
- K. Vrinda Acharya
Carnatic Classical Vocalist