Note – This isn’t a technical note on Indian Classical Music, but perhaps a reflection on growing up with multiple cultures and identities with respect to Classical music. It also has something to do with my perception of the Hindustani vs Carnatic mud fests that I see frequently on the net. :)
As a chotu kid, I was equally fascinated by Hindustani and Carnatic classical. Carnatic was familiar, and somehow whenever I heard Carnatic I could automatically smell coffee, jaangri and even vibhuti. And in all honesty, most often I never understand what the songs were about. Not knowing Telugu, and not understanding Sanskrit were definite disadvantages. And being at an age where metaphors don’t really excite the mind doesn’t help either!
Carnatic music associations were typically with early morning hours. I could even polish my school shoes to the tune of Kalyani. On the other hand, Hindustani was more languid. More accessible. It was in a language that I understood. Even now, I feel like the horde of cousins learning Carnatic music has no idea about the ‘lyrics’ of the song. They are so caught up in the beat cycles, and aroham and avarohanam, that the essence of the song escapes them.
The echo of my Grandmother’s voice even as I write this, Ayye. Idu enne azaraan? on hearing Pandit Jasraj. (Trans: Ayye. Why is he crying>)
The accessibility of Hindustani is not just with respect to language, which often tends to be earthy, but has something to do with themes of music. Carnatic themes are typically devotional. They are about divinity. It could range from dvaita to advaita, and yet it always comes back to being holy. Hindustani on the other hand talks about colours, seasons, sex, passion, romance between mortals, and what not. Both of them are equally intense, but the theme of ‘Divine’ can be a bit repetitive, in terms of the content of songs. Both are intense, passionate and involved, and yet Hindustani has that space to offer for a different kind of intensity, one that goes beyond the idea of holiness or faith. I know of course that this can contested. One has Bharathiyaar songs which go into Nationalism and Patriotism, but compared to the larger treasure of Carnatic songs, how many of us tune to Bharathiyaar’s songs?
A personal observation is that a lot of Hindustani enthusiasts do not dismiss Carnatic music. The ones who find Carnatic ‘boring, repetitive and strict’ (the common accusations) are the ones who probably don’t understand Hindustani music either. Hindustani music isn’t just about a bunch of raagas, but is an amalgamation of genres and styles. From bhajans, shloka renderings, taranas, ghazals and qawwalis, it has a wide range, and for that reason, the emphasis is on rendering the song as a whole, and not just about the structure. Even in instrumental, the way the instrument is played, as opposed to just playing by the book becomes important. In a crude way, Hindustani music does recognize that there is a difference between technique and intensity of the performer or the Bhaava.
In Carnatic, technique is definitely more venerated than Bhaava. This is abundantly clear, even in the way music is taught in the two forms. Hindustani teaching plunges into songs, and tends to explore raagas a lot. Carnatic music students will remember the endless and painful hours of practicing Sarali and Janda varisai. :D
This has a lot to do with the evolution of both forms of classical music. While Carnatic survived on coterie, upper-caste production, Hindustani was freely borrowed by other castes and religions. I guess Hindustani had to become fluid to retain its sanity. Till some point in time (around the 12th century or so) there seems to be hardly any difference, and it’s only after that one even hears of different schools. Even now, the raagas that have a lot of Carnatic influence are termed as ‘Mangala’ ragas in Hindustani, in the sense that while they are fit into a time slot, they can still be played any time of the day.
For every North Indian who makes a face when he or she hears Carnatic music, there is a South Indian who thinks Hindustani music is not even classical! Perhaps then the central idea is not to compare the two forms of classical, but to be able to respect each of them for the intensity and the inbuilt ideology they have.
For one, while Carnatic music in Madras reminds me of streams of Mylapore mamas and mamis, Hindustani brings strong images of something as secular as Jahaan-e-Khusrau in the shadow of Humanyun’s Tomb. And yet, D K Pattamal’s voice gently evokes a tender memory of Madurai. I guess being a Cultural mongrel means one can howl in just about any raaga?