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Keynote address as Sangita Kalanidhi designate 2019

A pursuit and celebration of authenticity

Address by Sangita Kalanidhi designate Vidushi Dr. S. Sowmya at the inauguration of the 93rd conference of the Music Academy Madras on December 15th 2019

My namaskarams to the guest of honour, to respected Sangita Kalanidhis Sri Umayalpuram Sivaraman & Smt Sudha Ragunathan, to the President & members of the Executive & Experts committees of the Music Academy, my fellow artistes and to all of you rasikas gathered here today!

I stand here with the blessings of my beloved gurus Sangita Kalanidhi Dr S Ramanathan, Sangita Kala Acharya Muktamma and my parents Dr Srinivasan & Smt Mangalambal. I feel deeply honoured and privileged to be chosen to preside over the annual conference of this august body, arguably the highest honour that a vidyarthi of Karnataka Sangeetham can aspire for. I am equally honoured to receive an award today in the name of the universally beloved Sangita Kalanidhi MS Amma, she who symbolizes all of our traditions and cherished values. I owe these not only to the blessed atmas I invoked at the outset, but also to the affection and regard that the kind of art I practice & perform has earned from the seniors who I have admired & respected all my life; my peerless peers, each of whom has impacted me with his/her uniqueness; all my co- artistes on stage whom I consider my valued treasures; my younger, zestful colleagues; my loving students and most of all from you, the rasikas. A recognition of this kind is well-nigh impossible without the overall stamp of approval by the greater fraternity of Carnatic music, of which the Music Academy is the true and time-honoured representative.

That said, this is also a moment for reflection on the experiences and processes in my musical journey that have brought me to this podium today. Growing up as a student of music, the annual December music season, specifically the Academy conference with its immaculate concert line-ups and even more intriguing/intricate academic sessions were defining moments. Many of my peers and I used to look forward eagerly, not only to listen to kutcheris by revered legends and popular stars of the day, but also to immerse ourselves in the singularly unique and intensive learning atmosphere that the lectures and academic sessions engendered. And I was fortunate to have a guru and a father, both of whom emphasized and prioritized an approach to art as a learner/seeker in addition to being a performer. That approach, with an analytical bend, a devotion to the art rather than the self, has defined my music over the years. I was taught to feel and take responsibility for carrying on a hoary tradition, preserving its pristine beauty and passing it on in as authentic a manner as possible to succeeding generations.

Not only my gurus, every single senior vidwan/vidushi whom I revered and had the fortune to interact with, would invariably tell me the same thing. Most memorable was the advice from one of the greatest legends, Sangita Kalanidhi Sri Palakkad Mani Iyer. My father took me to his house when I was a little child. He heard me sing for a few minutes, was silent for a bit and then came this one-liner in his famously terse manner: “don’t get carried away by applause”. I was perhaps too young to appreciate the import of that comment then. But he was essentially telling me to be faithful to the art, the learning process, the traditions… And to not allow it to be diluted by fear of what an audience would think / expect.

And that is the core of my message today: the sense of responsibility that we, as artistes, teachers and students of music need and be constantly aware of while pursuing our art. I would like to address this in three parts:

1) To my fellow artistes: A reflection on what we, as artistes are doing and what can be done better
2) To my younger colleagues and aspiring music students: on the need for conscious learning, responsible listening and mindful practice
3) To the rasikas: on the need for discernment and understanding, for the sake of perpetuity of the art form


One of my constant refrains has been to wonder whether, as a result of popular narrative, we often end up celebrating the halo of divinity around the Carnatic Trinity and other great composers over their unmatched merit as vaggeyakaras & musical geniuses. Sure, they were deeply spiritual people with God’s grace in abundance and the kind of emotion that comes through each gem they created is unmatched even today. Bhakti was not the only key take away. Their intellectual approach, their scholarship, their knowledge of the musical sastras and tradition are the most important. Why would we still celebrate the Trinity? Why would we still gape in awe at the 40 odd compositions of Sri Tyagaraja in Todi, each one different from the other? Are we not stupefied by the multiple compositions of Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar & Sri Shyama Sastri in Anandabhairavi, a so called ‘less scope’ raga? It is imperative that these timeless masterpieces from the Trinity and from other vaggeyakaras are handed over to the next generation in their pristine form so that every nuance and every subtlety is understood, enjoyed and sung with passion and love. This love is the Bhakti that was passed on to us. We are nobody to change what has been handed down. We can only admire them, experience them, savour their beauty and add our own alankarams, if necessary, in the form of manodharmam.

To give a parallel, modern buildings, spectacular bridges and other new architectural marvels spring up every other day, but these need not be at the cost of destroying olden methods and demolishing heritage buildings. Similarly, modern / newer ragas are most welcome, new compositions are great, change & evolution is a must. But certainly NOT at the cost of pushing older gems into oblivion. The evolution must be based on the firm foundations laid eons ago.

Guarding against loss of timeless treasures: Knowing, practicing and preserving ragas must be a priority. Today, ragas such as Nayaki, Huseni, Narayanagaula, Padi and Ghanta are crying to be sung elaborately. We are lucky to have at least a few beautiful masterpieces in these ragas, with recordings of several past masters to serve as a reference. It is indeed the pleasant task of my respected colleagues and peers to partake of this amrit and pass them on to succeeding generations, by singing them often and elaborately, thereby enabling students and rasikas to understand how extensive some of our hidden treasures are. The job of an established musician is akin to that of a teacher, being fully equipped to keep sharing & spreading knowledge with a sense of occasion, time and place.

I’d like to address one of my pet peeves about the current concert scene on this occasion: Why the proliferation of so many outside musical forms and “imported / hybrid” ragas on our concert platforms, when there’s so much unexplored legacy within? We have Tevaram, Divya Prabandham, Padam, Javali, Ashtapadi, Tarangam, Tiruppugazh and so many other musical forms that have contributed to the development of Carnatic Music in South India. These are lying largely uncared for and relegated to a token piece at the tail end of every concert. Why shouldn’t these be mainstream concert fare rather than feature in lecture-demonstrations or so-called “thematic” presentations? Many ragas, musical concepts and tala aspects have been employed in these forms to embellish their inherent prosodic beauty. The greatness of South Indian classical traditions has been crystallized in these forms – raga / pann, chanda talas, ancient dialect, rasas, bhakti, you name it!

Most of the time, someone with a knowledge of the history and evolution of music and the discernment of what is sung “practically” as opposed to “theory” is casually dismissed as a “musicologist” or “scholarly” – terms that I abhor with respect to a practical, evolving art form. Music was “written” or “documented” for us to understand the beautiful process of evolution and to appreciate its timelessness. If not for all the profound treatises like Natya Sastra, Brhaddesi, Sangita Ratnakara, Sangita Sudha, Chaturdandi Prakasika, Sampradaya Pradarsini and the works of Tachur Brothers or Sangita Kalanidhi Prof Sambamurthy, we wouldn’t know many of the ragas and musical concepts in vogue today. Our predecessors wouldn’t have been able to explain and elucidate much of what has been passed down. If the raga lakshana discussions that were held at these very same Academy premises were not recorded and documented in the Journal, how would we get answers to some of the queries that arise in our mind every day? If the compositions of the greats weren’t written down with/without notation or passed down orally, how many of them would we be singing in concerts today? My point here is that reading the treatises carefully is essential to understand how our music developed and that it only enriches, supplements / complements the singing: why certain phrases are sung a certain way either in compositions or in manodharmam or how certain ragas can be elaborated and so on.


Today many of the younger generation artistes are self-taught. Rather than go to a guru regularly, they are heavily dependent on notated books and recordings to widen their repertoire. There is access to vast recording resources mainly online through platforms like YouTube. Content is available literally at their fingertips. This is not a bad thing per se, but again a sense of discernment is necessary, which is hard to come by in the absence of an inspirational, visionary guru who can tell you bluntly that a performance or concert is actually the last thing one should aspire for as an artist. When there are recordings and resources aplenty and easily accessible, responsible listening assumes paramount importance. It is not the number of concerts one hears, but the how that matters: Listening sans agenda, pre-judgement and ulterior motive. There needs to be purpose and priority, as my guru loved to say.

The awareness that one needs to be sufficiently and properly equipped before ascending the stage is of utmost importance. That awareness breeds sincerity, humility and ultimately your professionalism. My guru considered himself a student till the very end and made us students understand and accept the continuity of the learning process. He believed that there was something to be learnt from every concert, every lecture, every presentation irrespective of the age and experience of the presenter, which is why you would see him attend performances of even a little child.

The myth of raga ‘scope’:

There is a reason why elders keep saying “naraya paadam pannungo” (learn as much as you can). The more compositions you learn, the more you understand the scope of a raga and its various shades and contours employed masterfully by great vaggeyakaras. That understanding will help you venture beyond rigid mindsets. One must dare to explore, but within sacred boundaries. My guru inspired me spiritually to attempt pallavis in a Senjurutti or a Narayanagowla or a Ghanta at a time when we were told only the “big” six or seven ragas had this so-called ‘scope’. “purva-prasiddha” (previously famous) ragas like these have a number of compositions that can serve as guidelines in raga structure, which is why relentless expansion of one’s repertoire assumes so much importance.

Core phrases vs Scalar classification:

It is also essential that we do not restrict ourselves and stick to theoretical dogmas when trying to understand raga swarupa. I firmly believe that the codification of ragas according to arohana-avarohana or “scale” was simply a tool to help our understanding. It is important to remember that most of what we call core Carnatic ragas existed centuries before the codification came in and were characterized by their trademark phrases and “pidis” rather than by a scalar structure. It is something like the Periodic Table of elements which was conceived as a tool to understand molecular structure. Much of the “pathantaram tampering” about which we lament today is actually a result of backward correction wherein changes are made to the original tune so that it fits in with the codification that came much later! It is also extremely important when learning/researching to look for original texts rather than commentaries. Your analysis needs to be original, not a rehash of someone else’s opinion of the original. Proper assimilation is the only way to enjoy the beauty of our treasures and that will inevitably lead to a better enjoyment by rasikas when you make your case before them!

Creating Originality in the age of social media:

In this day and age where social media with its “stories”, “posts”, “memes” and fliers are of supreme importance, there is the urge, especially among youngsters to latch on to trends that catch the popular fancy, whether it’s in attire, song list or on-stage mannerisms. The result is a glut of cookie-cutter musicians, many of whom sound and appear indistinguishable from each other. So then how do you create originality? We remember each of our old masters because they all had some unique characteristic or identity that made them stand out from the crowd. They were deeply conscious and aware of their individual strengths and weaknesses and in discovering a niche that resonated with the listening public. Simply put, that discovery of one’s niche is the key to creating an original identity. And that discovery will come only through the process of sadhana. It involves conscious practice and a deep devotion that transcends mundane learning-by-rote. It needs constant exploration of both the self and the art.

Sruti awareness is paramount:

Not everyone is blessed with a great voice. But many singers with average / decent voices are valuable musical assets because of one simple reason: a keen awareness and sense of sruti. “Sruti-suddham” is a term that’s bandied about merrily, but it’s important that an artist knows it within his/her own deep consciousness AND conscience – the need to be aligned to sruti not just in an overall fuzzy sense but at a deep microtonal level.
The interdependence of posterity and popularity:

Singing good, conscientious sruti-aligned music, true to tradition and one’s Guru-parampara will automatically reach the public, stay in their minds and help one’s art stand the test of time. It’s a counter-intuitive concept, but popularity and posterity are deeply interlinked. A style that develops a following also tends to attract more disciples and hence the creation of paramparas. For every great school or bani that exists today, there are several that are forgotten or fell by the wayside due to a lack of following. Were they inferior in some way? No. But they failed to touch a popular chord and the styles decayed due to a lack of following. The sure-fire way of preserving for posterity is to simply put art before the self. It is the moral, ethical and bounden duty of every musician to leave an individual imprint in the ocean of art and that imprint ought to speak for centuries.


Classical vs popular:

Carnatic Music is “sastriya sangeetham”, a classical art that follows a set of rules and time-bound traditions. It has never been and never can be a mass market art and for that reason never a strong competitor at the box office. And this is where rasikas play a prominent role. I am as much a rasika as a musician and it’s our duty as rasikas to support art that is enriching and elevating, not just with fulsome verbal praise but also with our wallet. Carnatic music is deeply associated with devotion in the popular mindset and so mustn’t be “maligned” with money matters goes the thought amongst many rasikas. We think artists ought to lead and survive saintly lives, organizers should worry how to run events by chasing sponsors but we need our “all are welcome” programs to continue… right? NO! Box office health is important for the sustenance of the art and it is as much the responsibility of the rasikas as it is of the artists and sabhanayakas. Art would be enriched when we listen with an open mind and forgo expectations and pre-determinations. As rasikas, we need to elevate ourselves to a level where we see this not just as entertainment or diversion, but as a deeply educational, immersive, spiritual and emotional experience where we are as invested as the performer and the curator.

Let me conclude with the assertion & belief that the attainment of musical bliss – nAda brahmam – is possible for everyone: artists, students and rasikas alike with responsible, conscious listening in which the art is always above the individual. Let me reiterate my gratitude to the entire music fraternity for this opportunity and for the faith reposed in me to conduct the proceedings of this august body over the next two weeks.