Indian Music Revisited [i]


                                                                    Ludwig Pesch


Every old poem is not good simply because it is old; nor is a poem without charm, because it is new; sound critics favour the one or the other, after (proper) examination; while a blockhead is guided by another's judgment.

                                                                                                                   Kalidasa [ii]

Carnatic music has succeeded in reaching out beyond its traditional sphere: the homes and palaces of a cultural elite, the temples, marriage halls and the salons of prosperous courtesans where music, dance and literature are believed to have flourished for two millennia or more. As Indian society has changed, so has the image of Carnatic music portrayed in publications and periodicals. If it is hard enough even for seasoned writers to define what constitutes ‘music’ in the English language, it seems to be impossible to define ‘Carnatic Music’ even after consulting a number of specialists on the subject. I would not venture into proposing a definition of my own but rather challenge my readers to propose their views after perusing the following observations and share them with me.

I raise this issue of identity for two reasons. On the one hand, there is hardly a Hindustani musician worth mentioning who has not expressed his interest in the Carnatic system of music and even attempted to profit from its scope for innovation and imagination; and secondly, because Carnatic musicians have rarely succeeded in accounting for the riches (of which some claim to be the sole guardians) outside their own circle of domestic connoisseurs. Having been involved in this field for a number of years, I trust it will be in order to take a critical view rather than merely reiterating my fascination with Carnatic music in a flattering tone.

As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man in reference to his ordinary habits of life, they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed ... we have every reason to believe that man possessed these faculties at a very remote period, for singing and music are extremely ancient arts.

Charles Darwin [iii]

Antiquity and ‘purity’ are the features often invoked by practitioners of Carnatic music. It is even claimed, at times, that these constitute distinctions that set it apart from non-Carnatic and particularly Hindustani music. Yet neither Kalidasa, Darwin nor modern critics will agree that antiquity has any value in itself as far as the arts are concerned. Even the notion of ‘purity’ tends to melt away like ice under our very eyes when scrutinized in the light of objective (music) history as far as it can be ascertained.

For that matter, too little is known about the performing and teaching conventions prevailing prior to the last two to three centuries to imagine how Carnatic music would have sounded then. Far from being productive or enlightening, harping on the alleged ‘antiquity’ and ‘purity’ of Carnatic music has caused much confusion if not exasperation. Yet neither globetrotting Carnatic musicians nor their Indian patrons in various countries seem to tire of it sufficiently to turn their attention to more important tasks once and for all. Indian music students are yet to be confronted with the simple truth that all manifestations of culture, not just those of India, have ancient roots and can even be said to be inherent in human nature. Depending on a given place and time, the arts are coloured and stimulated by a succession of collective experiences and personalized adaptations of a particular medium and thus provide a truly human response to external factors. And it is beyond doubt that Carnatic music, too, has features that are unique and worth exploring in their own right.

Traditional norms

There are some obvious dangers in all ‘innovations’, the conscious departure from ‘traditional norms’ that are widely considered to be the hallmark of Carnatic music. In the face of the opportunism sometimes displayed by some exponents of Carnatic music, other musicians, promoters and teachers are justified in looking for the common denominators that define ‘classical’ Carnatic music (Karnâtaka sangitam). Their dilemma, however, consists in finding ways of accounting for the relentless stream of innovative energy from the very beginning of the ‘Carnatic tradition’ some five centuries ago while seeking to experience the ‘real item’ today.

The younger and middle generations of Carnatic musicians have benefited from a prolific stream of recorded music and publications which have enabled them to choose from a variety of performing styles and to enlarge their repertoire in a manner barely conceivable before the last quarter of the 20th century. As the ‘fusion’ of various styles (‘bani’) was increasingly perceived as ‘confusion’ among native audiences and critics, even the gurukula-system of apprenticeship has gained new prestige. The key to a successful career is now again a good (or fictitious) musical pedigree, often combined with academic credentials and PR skills of which past generations were largely ignorant.


World music

Fame and success are not everything, although in this regard, Carnatic musicians differ conspicuously little from their colleagues and rivals anywhere in the realm of ‘world music’. How and why should they anyhow? Or is there a deeper source of musical inspiration which deserves to be preserved in its purity?

The realm of ‘world music’, including international festivals and collaborations with media-oriented ‘fusion’ formations, has become the prime arena where Carnatic music has been noticed, if at all, beyond an elite devoted to it at home. Yet it is striking how little an impact has been made beyond the thrill of the moment when fans have enjoyed the incredible displays of virtuosity and (largely rhythmic) complexity Carnatic musicians are capable of displaying with complete ease at any given moment. Having enjoyed the spontaneous burst of appreciation, Carnatic musicians tend to move on to other pastures, hardly aware that they are as rapidly forgotten as they were awarded ‘star status’, at least temporarily.

There are, of course, the proverbial exceptions to the rule though I prefer not to name any musicians in order to avoid the impression of partiality. Their music has conveyed a sense of subtle communication with another dimension of human existence if not divinity. I need not reiterate the philosophical and spiritual concepts underlying the best of Carnatic music. Yet I feel compelled to mention here that, contrary to a common belief among tradition-oriented Indians, such concepts are far from alien in the realm of European medieval and classical music, lay and church music alike. Most importantly, we should realize that there is indeed a common denominator which connects generations and cultures, and that Carnatic music can indeed tap into a deeper source of inspiration by purely musical means. There is a dimension which cannot be appropriated by way of imitation and deliberate effort but has to do with integrity of thought, purpose and feeling in any kind of music making, Carnatic music included. If the latter is particularly apt (in my personal opinion) at making listeners share a feeling of wholesome musical fare, it can at least be circumscribed if not defined in conventional terms.

Even when parents (fathers as well as mothers) attempt to reproduce or simulate their usual performance to infants, but with no infant present, listeners can still distinguish the genuine or contextually appropriate version from simulation ... Vocal adjustments such as these [pitch, tempo] do not depend on the singer's parental status but are evident as well in songs sung by young children to their infant siblings.

Sandra Trehub [iv]

I would like to suggest that Sandra Trehub’s observation regarding distinctions made by all attentive listeners, namely between ‘genuine or contextually appropriate version’ and ‘simulation’ is the key to the concept of emotive power (‘bhava’) and aesthetic experience (‘rasa’) as realized by Tyagaraja and other extraordinary composers, theoreticians and performers. In other words, if Carnatic music is to achieve more than providing passing thrills in concert halls anywhere in the world, exponents and teachers must shift their attention from mere know-how and prestige to the very root of music making.

This implies that ‘their’ music be given a chance to speak for itself, to begin with: musicians can sing or play their instruments without the burden to conform with a host of expectations if not clichés regarding ‘Indianness’ or ‘spirituality’. This also means that the mode of presentation must be made suitable to the nature of a given type or ‘tradition’ of music. As Aruna Sairam[v] has put it aptly some time ago, Carnatic music appeals anywhere and most profoundly when it conveys the feeling of ‘celebration’. This is also my own experience and one that is not limited to a particular context, age group or audience. Carnatic music can indeed relate to all aspects of humane endeavour, anywhere. Tyagaraja speaks of the experience of losing oneself in good music, and by doing so, a listener is likely to ‘find himself’ (or ‘herself’) through a sense of wonder rather than by recognising something familiar. The most direct way of achieving this state of absorption is by means of rhythm since there no cultural ‘baggage’ stands between musicians and listeners:

The sense of rhythm gives us a feeling of freedom, luxury, and expanse. It gives us a feeling of achievement in molding or creating. It gives us a feeling of rounding out a design. ... As, when the eye scans the delicate tracery in the repeated pattern near the base of the cathedral and then sweeps upward and delineates the harmonious design continued in measures gradually tapering off into the towering spire, all one unit of beauty expressing the will and imagination of the architect, so in music, when the ear grasps the intricate rhythms of beautiful music and follows it from the groundwork up through the delicate tracery into towering climaxes in clustered pinnacles of rhythmic tone figures, we feel as though we did this all because we wished to, because we craved it, because we were free to do it, because we were able to do it.

Carl E. Seashore [vi]

In the above quotation, we could identify the experience of a non-Indian listener hearing, perhaps for the first time, a rhythmic interlude (taniyavartanam) of Carnatic music, but it was written long before Indian music made an impact in the West. To enlarge this type of experience so as to comprise also melody, a greater amount of mental preparation and concentration on the part of listeners is needed. But this is not easy to achieve under typical circumstances. Max Müller, the great Sanskritist (1823-1900) expressed his admiration for the Indian capacity of concentration in the famous sentence:

ekâgratâ ... as the Hindus call it, is something to us almost unknown. Our minds are like Kaleidoscopes of thoughts in constant motion; and to shut our mental eyes to everything else, while dwelling on one thought only, has become to most of us as impossible as to appreciate one musical note without harmonies. [vii]

Such appreciation for the most essential element of Indian music, a single and carefully placed note, requires a careful process of nurturing and personal attention. A mere performance or lecture on the part of musicians will not suffice for this. In my own experience, a regular acoustical tambura is best suited to achieve this ‘shutting of one’s mental eyes to everything else’ and draw listeners, even small children, into the enchanting world of Carnatic music for a considerable period of time.


Why is it that Carnatic music is mostly appreciated in the garb of instrumental rather than vocal music outside South India?

One possible answer to the above question is: having a well codified system wherein everything from beginners’ exercises to tripartite songs (‘kriti’) and abstract creative elaborations (‘ragam-tanam-pallavi’) can be taught and remembered by way of singing, is not only an advantage; it also brings a major drawback in its wake, namely the fallacy of regarding the art of singing as one that requires no conscious effort such as working on one’s voice.[viii]

In my own experience in promoting Carnatic music in various contexts I have learnt to accept that very few Carnatic vocalists have made a serious study of voice culture and hence leave a poor impression on non-Indian audiences interested in classical music in general, and Indian music in particular.[ix] Hindustani musicians, on the other hand, tend to be better equipped to deal with vocal technique and style, although there is no reason why this should be inherently so. The lyrics of Tyagaraja leave no doubt that in his times such a contemptuous attitude towards voice culture would have been regarded as flawed.[x]

Voice culture has virtually been eliminated from the teaching process since microphones have conquered Indian concert halls, enabling gifted singers and those with deficient voices to sing with equal self-confidence but mostly with inadequate results. At the same time, the violin and the flute have seen an amazing rise in prestige on account of their scope for modulation under various circumstances.

The real victim in the process of ‘homogenisation’ effected by indiscriminate amplification, is the vina. This tragic development could still be reversed given sufficient perseverance on the part of musicians, and commensurate patronage to ensure this effort reaches discerning listeners. But being the most sophisticated instrument of Carnatic music, the vina also depends most on an intimate setting to provide a pleasant listening experience. All attempts to boost its sound sufficiently to reach a larger audience have been futile going by its absence in many concert schedules and institutional curriculums alike. Why? Because merely amplifying it is like magnifying a well cut diamond, its lustre and truly multifaceted impression becoming gaudy or coarse on a larger plane.

Of course, the same happens when a deficient voice is amplified. Most Indian listeners seem to have become blissfully oblivious to the thunderous sounds emerging from enormous loudspeakers piled up for any ‘classical’ Carnatic concert as if it were a rock concert. It is hardly worth mentioning that fellow ‘classical’ musicians in other countries shun such occasions after one such encounter, considering the danger to their hearing with prolonged exposure to the habitual 90 decibels and above.

This is all quite contrary to the desired effect and equally predictable. But I am yet to meet a popular Carnatic musician willing to draw the practical consequences from the fact that a solution to the problems discussed above will not be found by way of improved electro-acoustical means. Only sustained psycho-acoustical research and the implementation of its results can provide genuine solutions, which need to be put into practice by finding musical settings in which congenial presentations are feasible. A look at good auditoria for European chamber music and halls for other classical concerts will also be helpful in this regard.

To return to an equally important subject and put it into one sentence: understanding the structure of the vina is essential for a full comprehension of the tonal system, psycho-acoustic properties, and ornamentation of Carnatic music. Historically speaking, this music system would have taken a totally different course without the intervention of the ‘modern’ vina some four or five centuries ago. The analytical capacity of Carnatic musicians, as far as the melodic or spatial dimension of ragas and scales is concerned, would have been devoid of the sublime dimensions furnished in clear and comprehensible terms by the physical properties of the vina. After all it is known to be the most ‘complete musical instrument’ (‘sarva vadya’) which can, though rarely does, even dispense with any type of accompaniment in a concert setting.


The ‘foreign’ factor

Nothing and nobody will, of course, prevent Carnatic musicians from asserting their status of respectable entertainers for an educated minority, be that in India or in the South Indian diaspora. The latter has become a major source of patronage in recent years, and could well become the sole significant source in the future in the wake of the privatisation and restructuring process of All India Radio and Doordarshan TV. Interestingly, even the proverbially conservative Sabhas (music societies) of Madras have discovered this and started something like NRI (‘Non-resident Indian’) festivals, for musicians and dancers living or trained abroad, in order to raise funds for their local activities.

While this is perhaps inevitable, and can even be said to be an ingenious solution to many problems, an all too one-sided reliance on it also has its pitfalls. To begin with, the Indian community abroad has many musical choices to pick from. Future generations are thus likely to lack the same boundless sense of attachment to their cultural roots. Even the personal affinity and commitment carried by first or second generation migrants to their new, perhaps temporary homes as a remedy against loneliness and homesickness cannot serve as sole pillar to support a classical art indefinitely. With subsequent generations, the demands on Carnatic musicians’ inventiveness are likely to increase with time just as their attention span will decrease due to other preoccupations. Little or no allowances will be made for mere claims to a particular pedigree or ‘spiritual’ inclination on the part of a musician as often seems to be the case now. For these reasons, the present tide of guest concerts and international tours is likely to prove a temporary boon to Carnatic musicians rather than an enduring source of sustenance either at home or abroad.


And the future of Carnatic music?

No prophetic gifts are required for proposing a likely scenario of the future. After all many music systems have come and gone in the course of history, and the present process of globalisation will prove to be a decisive factor also for the future course of Carnatic music. The last process of ‘globalisation’, the colonial period, was indeed quite productive. Far from robbing the country of its musical identity, it forced musicians to consolidate the valuable parts of their heritage and make choices. They cheerfully discarded any obsolete form and style in order to incorporate new ideas and better instruments, most conspicuously the violin. Thus they gradually created the Carnatic music we know today. On similar lines, it is quite likely that Indian musicians will benefit from globalisation by way of seizing new opportunities.

One rather unattractive alternative would be a process of absorption in some less distinct musical entity in the absence of clear articulation and self-confidence among its present exponents. Apart from the economics of musical life, a quite dominant aspect even in past centuries, there is the most powerful yet least quantifiable aspect of music, namely its hold over human imagination and its subconscious shaping of a personality’s aspirations. A great future for Carnatic music is therefore in store if its potential is also recognized and developed in the fields of education, therapy and rehabilitation. More teachers and psychologists would have to be provided with suitable training programs as they cannot be expected to go through, nor require, an entire course of Carnatic music training on conventional lines. This would also provide Carnatic musicians with an opportunity to re-examine the very essence of their art. Those elements that are found to be just habitual but otherwise soulless if not meaningless can be shed; and future generations should be enabled to form their own opinions on the basis of well documented archival material.

If there is one quality Carnatic music can pride itself more than any other system known to me, it is its capacity to re-invent itself without losing hold of the accumulated experience of past generations even in the absence of detailed notation. It can be said to be a harmonious blend of unique grammatical concepts (‘lakshana’), techniques and conventions (‘lakshya’), room for imaginative features (‘manodharma sangita’), a solid foundation in terms of tonal and rhythmical complexity (‘melakarta’, ‘raga’, ‘sruti’, ‘gamaka’, ‘tala’, ‘laya’ etc.), a rich background of associations (philosophy, imagery, symbolism, mythology etc.), not to forget its effective methods of communicating musical ideas (solmisation such as ‘sargam’ for melody and ‘solkattu’ for rhythm), and a vast repertoire of beautiful compositions from several centuries. All these features provide ideal conditions for further growth. Complacency, on the other hand, would lead to stagnation and near-oblivion.



Few of its underlying principles have, however, been communicated effectively by Carnatic musicians to their uninitiated counterparts abroad. Busy musicians, teachers and students rarely have the time or patience to endure lengthy ‘lecture-demonstrations’ laced with Sanskrit and Tamil jargon, and rarely can make sense of it all even if they give it a try. The barely concealed sense of superiority conveyed by many a Carnatic musician is mostly endured politely by non-Indian musicians and scholars. Needless to say that this attitude is most unproductive in terms of a meaningful and enduring dialogue.

Yes, a musical dialogue is far more rare than most Carnatic musicians would make us believe back at home after a foreign trip. More often than not, we witness a lack of consideration for the norms and conventions of other countries such as the fact that music is best enjoyed if listened to with little or no amplification wherever the setting proves to be suitable; and most conspicuously, a genuine interest in the music of those countries.

The capacity for a ‘tasteful’ presentation of Carnatic music, at decibel levels also suited to discerning non-Indian ears, and a sincere engagement in an enduring cultural dialogue, based on prior information and listening to other types of (classical) music, are far from being developed; on the contrary, not even the very need for such an effort has been acknowledged in most cases.

Seizing the present opportunities now offered to many Carnatic musicians and teachers in a more ‘global arena’ will give their art a new lease of life without having to compromise in terms of genuine values and integrity of musicianship. After all, only that which is open to investigation in a scientific spirit, now as in the past, will be valued. Thereby Carnatic music will not merely endure but inspire traditional and new audiences alike. Thus it will flourish in novel ways we should eagerly look forward to.

I do not subscribe to the superstition that everything is good because it is ancient. I do not believe either that anything is good because it is Indian.

Gandhi [xi]

The author

Ludwig Pesch (b.1955) is a musician, musicologist and teacher having specialized in Carnatic music. He obtained his Diploma (First Class) at Kalakshetra College of Fine Arts (Chennai, India) and has written The Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music (Oxford University Press, 1999).

For his contribution to Indo-German cultural relations, he was awarded the ‘Cross of the Order of Merit’ by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany (2000).

E-mail: (comments and criticism are equally welcome)



[i] Carnatic music constitutes a unique and precious contribution to world culture for which the peoples of South India deserve to be given the credit. Yet its perception and propagation have been obstructed by being portrayed as a local variety of Indian music. For this reason, the expression ‘South Indian music’ will be avoided in the context of the present contribution.

[ii] Devadhar, C.R. Mâlavikâgnimitram of Kâlidâsa (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987), Prologue (2)

[iii] Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) quoted in The Origins of Music. Nils L. Wallin, Björn Merker, and Steven Brown, eds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: A Bradford Book, The MIT Press, 2000, p. xiii

[iv] Trehub, Sandra. ‘Human Processing Predisposition and Musical Universals.’ The Origins of Music. Nils L. Wallin, Björn Merker, and Steven Brown, eds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: A Bradford Book, The MIT Press, 2000, p. 438

[v] Personal communication by Aruna Sairam

[vi] Seashore, Carl E. Psychology of Music. Dover Publications. New York: 1938/1967, p. 142

[vii] Müller, Max, ed., the Sacred Books of the East (Preface)

[viii] Dr. S.A.K. Durga is a pioneer as far as the rediscovery of ‘Voice Culture’ in Carnatic music is concerned, both as a scholar and as a singer in her own right.

[ix] The old Sanskrit texts also provide some interesting and useful clues for cultivating and projecting one’s voice with ease although these are rarely if ever applied today.—See my chapter titled ‘The Voice in South Indian Music’ in The Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music (Oxford University Press, 1999).

[x] See the lyrics of the kriti Svara râga sudhârasayuta by Tyagaraja in: Jackson, William J. Tyâgarâja: Life and Lyrics. Madras: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 334-5.

[xi] Fischer, Louis, ed. The Essential Gandhi: His Life, Work and Ideas (An Anthology). New York: Vintage Books,1983, p. 244

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