Not this or that, this and that is the real zeitgeist

S.R. RAMAKRISHNA writes from Bangalore: Our education and what the elders call “values” are both based on what we revere as classical culture. But whether we like it or not, most of us are children of pop culture.

We are inundated by songs, ads, films, television, and newspapers and magazines, all of which pose a big challenge to what we have learnt at school.

Which is perhaps why we constantly swing between the classical and the popular, convinced that the two can never meet. The songs a majority of us hear and hum are those broadcast by FM radio (and not so much songs sung by Balamurali Krishna or Bhimsen Joshi), and the heroes we look up to hail more from the tinsel world than from the world of real-life achievers.

Our textbooks try to instill in us respect for saints, thinkers, freedom fighters, scientists and poets… but we’re happier idolising models, actors, reality show winners, rock stars, and business tycoons who may have taken short cuts to affluence.

If you work for the government, you will have pictures of Gandhi and Ambedkar at office, but at home, your pin-ups are likely to feature smarter-looking but infinitesimally less illustrious people.

But things may not be as watertight as we believe.

The classical and the pop co-exist in all of us.

Instead of generalising, let me speak for myself. I grew up listening to a bit of Carnatic classical music, thanks to my parents’ love of M.S. Subbulakshmi, and as I stepped into college, a cousin introduced me to the wonderful world of Hindustani music. But all along, I had also heard a lot of film music in Kannada, Hindi and Tamil.

I heard some pop… Abba, BoneyM, the Bee Gees and such other bands popular in the ‘80s.

While I did get to read some books described as classics, I also devoured less famous contemporary writing, pulp fiction, comics, and the glossies.

Which is why I am puzzled by people for whom it is one or the other, classical or popular. For me, it has been both, sometimes more of one than the other, but never just one.

Last week, some of us friends and hobbyist musicians tried a little experiment.  We took some Kannada poetry from the 12th century, set them to Indian-sounding tunes, and then put them in what you could loosely call a rock setting (guitars and drums). We presented nine vachanas at Kala Mandira, an art school in south Bangalore.

We had expected the small audience to be startled by the experiment, since vachanas are mystical poems usually sung in the south Indian and north Indian classical ragas.

A couple of well-known writers, such as G.K. Govinda Rao and “ShudraSrinivas, were upset, and recalled the beautiful melodies that Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur had composed for such poetry. They found us lacking in meditativeness.

Many others, such as the theatre scholar K. Marulasiddappa, sprang to our defence and said the vachanas could be sung in any way, as long as they were respectful of their spirit.

Ki Ram Nagaraj, the famous literary critic, said what we now assume as the vachana singing style was not more than seven or eight decades old, and it was possible the poetry had been adapted to extant styles through the centuries. And not all vachanas are meditative, he said.

Two things occurred to me.

One: Some were disappointed that they had found no raga-like contemplation in rock. In defence, we could say they were looking for contemplation in the wrong place… somewhat like rock fans faulting raga music for not being energetic enough for headbanging.

Two: We had blatantly poured out our classical and popular influences into our songs, but to some ears, they are best kept separate. But then again, vachanas encourage the lowest to sing; they protest against orthodoxy with folksy energy and irreverence.

Many of our tunes are folksy, so we could say immodestly that we may have got something right!

S.R. Ramakrishna is resident editor MiD DAY, Bangalore where an earlier version of this piece appeared


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