At last, a sensible view on the state of music

Good news, ladies and gentlemem. It is time to doff our collective hats to M.S. Ramaswamy Iyer. His very sane and sensible commentary on the state of music has appeared in The Hindu, and it has come not a day too soon.


“Nowadays a general theory persists that modern music is going down and down. But why? Because in most cases, the notes are combined inartistically without any reference whatsoever to their scientific properties.

“Indian music suddenly jumped from the palace into the open street and the musicians had perforce to pick up the trick of pandering to the tastes of the street-wallas. A few worn out ragams, some jaw-breaking pallavis, disproportionate swarams, a few stale krithis minus their sentiments, a few lascivious javalis plus their temptations.

“Carnatised Hindustani songs are ways wherewith most of the South Indian musicians have now been getting on. Our own Sanskrit granthas are scarcely looked upon as binding authorities, because the practical music in use now contravenes their directions on some of the most important points. Our granthas having thus become inapplicable to the current practice we naturaly have come to be thrown on the mercy of our illiterate, ignorant and narrow-minded professionals.

“In the matter of singing songs, both Northern and Southern musicians do not so much as even care to learn the purport of the songs. South Indian singer proceeds to add his accursed swaram-gymnastics. I am not, however, opposed to append swarams or solfa passages to songs. Indeed such an appendage enhances the attractiveness of the style and enriches the effect of this music.

“The change from words to solfas is peculiarly relished in South India. Thyagaraja successfully employed them in many of his krithis. But he knew when and how to introduce them. His employment of swarams looks like well-cut diamonds. But the modern singer’s employment of the same looks like old broken tins appended to the shabby tail of a lame ass.

“The deterioration is due to the performer’s weakness for fame and profit. Commercialism has driven the musicians to adjust their arts to suit the taste of the largest numbers!

“The fatal taste for everything western has infected the hybrid-underfed middle class. Dr Ananda K. Coomaraswamy in his “essays in national idealism” grphically described the position thus:

Speak to the ordinary graduate of the Indian University of the ideals of the Mahabharatha, he will hasten to display his knowledge of Shakespeare. Talk to him of religious philosophy, you find that he is an atheist of the crude type common in Europe a generation ago. Talk to him of Indian music, he will produce a gramaphone or a harmonium and inflict upon you one or both. Talk to him of Indian dress or jewellery, he will tell you that they are uncivilised and barbaric. Talk to him of Indian art, it is news to him that such a thing exists. Ask him to translate for you a letter written in his own mother tongue, he does not know. He is indeed a stranger in his own land.”

“The remarks of the doctor on music if not on others are, emphatically assert, of universal application throughout India.”


To repeat, the good news is we owe a debt of gratitude to M.S. Ramaswamy and The Hindu for this sage, scholarly piece. The bad news, ladies and gentlemen, is that this commentary by M.S. Ramaswamy Iyer did not appear in The Hindu today, or yesterday, or last month, or last year.

It did not appear in response to some Carnatic number sung radically, sacrilegiously, differently by Balamurali Krishna or some crazy tweaking by Kunnakudi Vaidynathan.

And it did not appear in response to the rapidly cheapening quality of Tamil/Telugu/Kannada film music, a bug which has bitten sensible Malayalam too.

This review, hold your breath, appeared on July 5, 1922—eighty-five years ago.

In other words, cribbing and complaining about the state of modern-day music—or the quest for profit and fame, or the apeing of the West, or the quality of students—is not new. It is endemic. It is in our genes. It is our national trait.

A hundred years ago, critics, purists and rasikas were shedding tears over the decline of music as they knew it. A hundred years from now, they will be doing the same.

A hundred years ago, parents, teachers and philosophers were mourning the diminishing quality of students as they they them. A hundred years from now, they will be doing the same.

Either things remain the same, the more they change. Or we are all prisoners of our past. Or as H.Y. Sharada Prasad once wrote memorably: “Nostalgia is no longer what it used to be.”