The Malayalee Sensibilities of Music

“There is nothing as great a music system in this world as Carnatic music. There may be a few others that are pleasant to hear. But none of them have the greatness or the importance of our music system.” This is no sooth-saying of an ordinary person! It was no less than the Guru of Carnatic music, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer! Most of the people here will contend that this opinion of the omniscient Guru is indeed correct. Is it possible that the venerable Semmangudi reached this conclusion after attaining a complete understanding of all the other music systems in this world? If he has reached this conclusion only on the basis of his understanding of Carnatic music, is it tenable or credible?

Melissa Holliday is an Australian friend. She can sing very well. On an occasion I presented her a record of Madurai Mani Iyer’s rendering of a Swati Thirunal krithi ‘Saarasaaksha Paripaalaya’ in Raag Pantuvarali (Kamavardhini). After listening to it, the question that she asked me was, “Is it some tribal chant?” We can dismiss her question as a matter of ignorance. My question is, “Isn’t there a big mistake somewhere in claiming, with just an understanding of a music system that is native to a few provinces in India which is a small part of the world, that our system of music is the greatest system in this world?” We Malayalees have for long been fostering an attitude very similar to this, that what we know is great and everything else is trash.

By now, we have a long history of writing in Malayalam that regards Western music with varying degrees of revulsion and buttresses it with ‘scholarly’ evaluations like ‘Over doing of Western music’ and ‘Noisy Western Music’. If this is the standard of evaluation of the classical system of music that has developed over a millennium and spread to all parts of the world, then I can imagine nothing more absurd! What Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi or Tchaikovsky created are not mere ‘noises’. These are wizardries of music that can reach, touch and transform the most delicate emotions and moments of human heart!

And if these smug critiques refer to the Western popular music (Pop) then to consider the prodigious output of the likes of John Lennon, Beatles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder as noise is height of ignorance. Most of these are sculptures in music that unify light music, the excitement of beat, incandescent moments of emotions and universal brotherhood into one moment of creative greatness. This Malayalee thought that seeks to trash the Western music as noise, when compared to a white woman’s understanding of Madurai Mani Iyer’s rendering as a tribal chant is a much greater distortion and very unbecoming.

In Malayalam film music, in the many songs composed by Salil Chowdhury, M.B.Sreenivasan, Johnson, Ilayaraja and Shyam, we get to hear the great fusion of tunes steeped in Indian classical music and scintillating background instrumental scores that are so beautifully in western music style. But our traditionally handicapped listening style makes us listen to the lines of the lyrics and then the tune in which the lines are sung often completely ignoring the glorious background instrumental music.

To add insult to injury, we grumble aloud that too much importance is being accorded to instrumental music. Our complaints then borrow the tones of our innate beliefs in untouchability to ask why should accompanying instruments, that should stand with deferential humility well behind the vocal music, be given such prominence. As far as Malayalees are concerned lines of lyrics are what count and they should be loud and clear! When we set the sacred lines to tune we should not stretch, shorten or split them! It is just blasphemous.

We refuse to understand that the words of the lines need to be stretched, shortened or split to suit the requirements of the tune to give the whole line the musicality that go on to make a song out of lyrics. The beauty of a piece in the background score whether it is a sitar or flute or tabla used with equal or more prominence in a song barely reaches our ears. If the lines of lyrics alone are important, why have a song at all. It should be enough to read or recite the lines as a poem. Why bother to set the poem to music, at all? Or for that matter, why have instrumental music at all as a background?

How many among us would have noted how in the song ‘Maanasa mine Varu’ sung by Manna Dey for the film Chemmeen the Harmony and the Obbligato of the instruments flute and Oboe in the background gives the song a creative completeness? But then we are Malayalees and our strong belief is that instrumental music only ‘helps’ to discount the clarity and importance of lyrics.

These kinds of opinions emanate from the wrong notion that poem and music are synonymous. As I have already written in a previous article, you need language to create a song. But you need neither language nor lines to create music. Good music can stand on its own strength without the lines of lyrics. Take Mozart’s violin composition Serenade 13 in G Major, for example. You can write lines in any language any time to the tune of Serenade 13 and make it a song.

I would like readers to carefully listen to Johnson’s background scores in many Malayalam films like Thoovaanathumbigal and Namukku Paarkaan Mundirithoppugal. One can then experience the verity of the proposition that instrumental music can stir our emotions on par with any song or even surpass it. But then we have to improve our discerning power from a mere ‘awareness of the song’ to an ‘awareness of music’. We can understand the real creative contribution of a composer only by listening closely to the instrumental scores of composers in songs. Otherwise listeners simply lose the finer points of music in listening merely to the lyrics of the song.

Another essential stipulation that our listeners prescribe for a singer is that he should have a ‘bass’ voice. We see Yesudas’ ‘bass’ voice as his very great specialty. My experience tells me that this belief in the essentiality of a ‘bass’ voice for a male singer is the peculiarity of Malayalees. None of the great and famous male singers of western music like Michael Jackson, Barry Gibb, Jeff Buckley, Jimmy Somerville, Sting and John Lennon can be said to have the ‘bass’ voice prescribed by us. Nor did the great Indian singers like Mohammed Rafi and Talat Mehmood have the ‘vibrant’ low notes. Look at our great singers before Yesudas like A.M.Rajah or Udayabhanu. They were such marvels but did not have the ‘vibrant bass’ voice. For this reason, can we dismiss these greats as not great singers? Many of them were certainly better singers than Yesudas.

It is generally said that Malayalees are not given to star worship. But, at least in the matter of music, I do not think it to be true. I know many Malayalees who are in no doubt whatsoever that Yesudas is the greatest singer ever to have been born in this world. Here there is no further room for critical analysis or evaluation of great music.

Exactly like our overweening commitment to Carnatic music, we are stuck with an ignore-everything-else interest in some particular ragas of Carnatic music. The countless number of popular Malayalam film songs from the ‘Golden Era’ of Malayalam film music had been composed in ragas you can count on your fingers like Mohanam, Madhyamavadhi, Aabheri, Hindolam, Ananda Bhairavi, Shuddha Dhanyasi etc. I cannot help remembering the comment of a musician friend from Tamilnadu that most of the Malayalam film songs he had heard sounded more or less the same. As you keep composing the songs in a few ragas, the possibility of the song becoming familiar faster increases through the process of the song reminding us of earlier famous songs. The Malayalee tendency of appreciating only the familiar things and viewing the unfamiliar with suspicion is again evident from this.

Then there are Malayalees who make a ‘to do’ about their appreciation of songs with a deep knowledge of music. Right on top of their menu is the requirement that ‘sangatis’ must have deep and grave import. The more involved and difficult to sing the sangati is, the better it is! Then they can delight for hours and days, explaining the unexplainable. They will accept the greatness of a song only when the sangatis score more on the scale of difficulty. ‘Gangey……and ‘Madhumozhi Raadhe Ninne……………..Thedi’ are some examples where lung calisthenics stretching the lines are called for and therefore, count as great songs! Delicate expressions and beautifully portrayed emotions in a song is the basis of good music. But, sorry, it is not so for Malayalees.

Malayalees love music programs, but, please, please reproduce exactly as it was recorded. Omit nothing. And do not add anything as well. My friend, why should you attend a music program? You will be better off listening to a DVD recording of the song. Why should another singer and a music troupe go to the trouble of reproducing the same thing? When a famous song is reproduced in a forum, everywhere in the world, listeners applaud and accept the changes made with a sense of musicality. In fact, most listeners come looking for such nuggets of creative beauty. When Mehdi Hassan sang his famous film songs, audience waited with bated breath for the creative changes he rang up at every different concert!

Only those who know that the music we have not heard is much more than the miniscule that we have heard can realize that there is no such thing as the last word in music! No form of art that does not understand the changing times or fails to reach newer and different audiences can survive. Carnatic music faces this frightening prospect today. We should be ever ready, without forgetting our tradition or the path we had travelled, to understand the new world and changing times. While remaining conscious of the greatness of our traditions, we will do well to remember that there are other even greater traditions in this world. For a listener who can in all truthfulness realize the limitations of what he has heard and therefore keeps both his mind and heart open to newer and fresher listening experiences, the music will always be the language of the heart and soul. Beethoven or Thyagaraja, Ustad Amir Khan or Michael Jackson, Mehdi Hasan or Salil Chowdhury, Madan Mohan or Baburaj, are all but a local dialect of the universal human language called music.