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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Carnatic musicians and Mimicry

In a few weeks from now, Carnatic music fans (or rasikas, if you prefer) in Bangalore will buy season passes to concerts that are held annually to coincide with Ramanavami (the mythical hero Rama's birthday) celebrations. This is Bangalore's version of the much more large-scale and prestigious December music season in Chennai. My parents attend these concerts, and usually tell me stories of how many youngsters are entering the Carnatic music scene, and how well they render some of their favorite compositions. And I've always been struck by how musicians' "originality" is evaluated on the basis of how well they render a centuries-old composition. To many who are not fans, this appears to be little more than mimicry and repetition, and Carnatic music is deemed a performative tradition that does not value "originality" in the sense of authoring new texts.

I've always struggled with this myself. I've enjoyed listening to my mother play the Veena, and knew at an intuitive level that she liked playing some songs over and over again not because she wished to imitate her guru, but because she truly enjoyed those songs. But I've also been a bit uncomfortable with accepting that mimicry is an art in itself. I'm not sure what Carnatic music aficionadoes would think of my drawing parallels with African American expression, but here's what Zora Neale Hurston says about how black aesthetics have been misread because of a "fixation on European notions of authorship and originality":
The Negro, the world over, is famous as a mimic. But this in no way damages his standing as an original. Mimicry is an art in itself. It it is not, then all art must fall by the same blow that strikes it down...moreover, the contention that the Negro imitates from a feeling of inferiority is incorrect. He mimics for the love of it...he does it as the mocking bird does it, for the love of it, and not because he wishes to be like the one imitated.

As I read this in Siva Vaidyanathan's book (Copyrights and Copywrongs), it led me to wonder how notions of authorship work in the world of Carnatic music. Is authorship "demystified," with the major concern being how well a performer renders a composition and how well s/he evokes a certain "bhava" (emotion) in the audience? Is the great Thyagaraja an author in the modern, legal sense of the term? Does a raaga have an author? Does the notion of "intellectual property" make any sense when we consider Carnatic music?

3 Comments:

  • Does Carnatic music also have gharanas like Hindustani music?

    In Hindustani music, there were different gharanas. (To be classified as a gharana, the music must have been passed down atleast three generations). But then as musicians began to travel and interact with other musicians, they began to exchange the styles and the gharanas were mixed and faded away over the years. Some of the prominent ones like Gwalior, Jaipur and Lucknow gharanas etc still remain.

    I was recently reading that there is now a renewed effort to revive the other ones.

    By Anonymous mandira, at 3/29/2006 8:23 AM  

  • I totally disagree with you when you talk about mere 'mimicry'.

    For a change, you should listen to a rendition of, say, "English Note" by Madurai Mani Iyer, Mandolin Shrinivas and say a Balamurali Krishna. The renditions will all be so vastly different. The artist brings the uniqueness and this is enough empirical data to show that its not just 'mimicry' that is done uniformly across the planet.

    Secondly, each song rendered by the same artist might be different during each rendition. Kalpana Swaram, Niraval, Alapanai, Thani Avardhanam, etc.,. all add to the 'improvisation' part of the entire rendition.

    It is as though the 'original' composition exists only as a platform for improvisation... a platform where the audience can connect to, relate to and appreciate the improvisations happening. The real improvisation is a function of the artist's creativity and knowledge.

    I would say, carnatic is a much 'mellowed' down system of improvisation if you compare to Jazz. In Jazz, "Alternate Takes" (done by the same artist, on the same song, in almost the same day in the studio) sound so vastly different and for even serious Jazz afficionados it gets difficult to know _which_ song is being rendered by the artist. Carnatic, in this sense, makes it more easier for the listener to understand 'what is going on'. (oh, and by no means I'm talking anything 'negative' about Jazz. I'm a Jazz fan too).

    To end it, carnatic is _not_ just mimicry _at_all_. Hope this gave you some light :)

    By Blogger Suraj, at 3/30/2006 11:59 PM  

  • Suraj - thanks for your comment! I esp like your suggestion that with carnatic music, "It is as though the 'original' composition exists only as a platform for improvisation." I agree with you for the most part, but the question here isn't so much "is it mimicry or not," and more, what happens to carnatic music's claims to "high culture" when we think of its performative traditions in terms of mimicry. Take another look at the quote from Hurston in the post.

    By Blogger Aswin, at 3/31/2006 6:44 AM  

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