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Cast aside sentiments & rigidity to ensure wider acceptance of Carnatic music, says Ghatam Suresh
A simple human being, a dedicated professional, a keen student and a resourceful teacher, he is a well known percussion artiste. A disciple of T.V. Gopalakrishnan, he has developed an intimate relationship with this instrument. This friendship with the pots has seen him go places and earned him the sobriquet Ghatam Suresh.

A specialist in `double gamaka’ (i.e playing the Gumuki, the base notes with both wrists with felicity), he has also learnt to play on a variety of instruments such as mridangam, kanjira, thavil, konnakkol and dolki. Vaidyanathan Suresh shares his views on very many issues connected to Carnatic music in an interview with Sudha Jagannathan. Read on.

Can Carnatic music go beyond the Indian shores?
Answer: Yes, but not in its entirety. Divided by regions, customs and acceptability, world has different genre of music. For the human mind in general, music is a pass time relaxation or entertainment. Some systems of music also have the emotional appeal, which goes deeper into the minds. For one genre to go beyond its region, it needs to appeal to a large section of people as an accepted form of entertainment and emotional appeal. Since the music also carries the culture of a region by way of language, life style and the message, which is conveyed through expressions via melody and the locally familiar instruments, the entry of a new genre in its full form into another society is difficult. Every new system of music introduced in a society is first received with curiosity and the taste does not generally grow beyond the momentary appreciation of the skill of an artiste. To be precise, for a Carnatic musician singing for a whole lot of westerners to influence a majority of them to prefer his/her music to the one they are used to in their lifestyle and push them to seriously pursue learning from then on is the rarest of possibilities. But there are musicians and students of music who see music beyond the boundary of their culture, trying to experience the beauty of music originated from different parts of the world. They look forward to Indian music, which is ageless and rich. It is some of these serious listeners we see in Chennai during the December music season. But again, Indian rhythm has been received better compared to the melody by the general audience, who could identify their swings and grooves in our traditional solfa patterns.

What has to be done for that?
Answer: Well, there is nothing in specific to be done to take our music to west and Far East. For, our classical music makes its normal course through our musicians, especially percussionists. Just as we take our own time to accept others’ music, we should wait for natural acceptability. In my opinion, India is a huge country with diversified customs and practices even in music and dance. We should devote more time and funds to explore the pure cultural richness of the villages and tribal areas, which are more emotional and blended with life.

Between Carnatic and Hindustani music, the latter has gained recognition globally. Carnatic music appears to have a long way to go. Why?
Answer: Great doyens like Ravishankar and Ali Akbar Khan did two things as early as in the 1950s. They toured the west far and wide, performing even in small towns and villages. Secondly, they made a point to speak to every available gathering, especially the students in universities about Hindustani music and called it just Indian music. Well, at that time they were only introducing Indian music and, hence, cannot be expected to dwell deep into our diversified systems. They targeted the western audience very early with an eye on the future. Our musicians (Carnatic) at that time were hesitant, introvert and highly contented.

What is the role of `laya' instruments in this context? How far they (laya instruments) are successful in taking Carnatic music global?
Answer: Laya or rhythm is universal. It is human nature to move with the rhythm, especially when it is expressed by some aesthetic and organized beats. The west is familiar with an acoustic drum kit, its related percussions, frame drums and the African and Latin American percussion instruments and their beats. Our percussionists can easily identify and show similarities of such beats in our instruments, which pave way for blends and jelling. The laya instruments of the south - the mridangam, ghatam, tavil, kanjira, morsing, konnakkol and folk instruments - have attracted the western audience instantly in spite of playing classical and traditional patterns.

As I said earlier, our beats are easily identified with their grooves and enjoyed. The varieties of instruments and also the solfa systems we show in our playing amuse them naturally. We must also accept the fact that our classical melody is very dissimilar to their classical system, especially the voice modulation. It takes many years for a westerner to accept our style of singing.

What role do you intend to play in spreading Carnatic music across the globe?
Answer: Whenever I get opportunities to perform with western musicians, apart from observing and understanding their approach and styles to the extent possible, I try to explain our style in a simple way to kindle their interest further. I have succeeded in making many professional percussionists compose patterns and laya structures within a short time and motivated them by incorporating the same in my compositions. To impress upon the general audience, I use every opportunity to talk to a homogenous gathering and explain about our music in simple language. It is wise to keep aside the religious sentiments and excessive rigidity of our music temporarily, if you want their acceptability.

Even within India, Carnatic music is still considered an `elitist' art. How do we make it music for masses?
Answer: I strongly object to this contention. There are hardcore rasikas among the masses who yearn for Carnatic music and there are large elitist lobbies that ruin the status of Carnatic music by both being near to and far from it. For most of the elitists, Carnatic music is symbol of status (like a club or a social gathering). With their prejudices, they ruin the spirit of genuine musicians. They also succeed in distracting the talented musicians from good music and indulge more in socializing and public relations unnaturally. In states like Kerala and Karnataka, people assemble in thousands during temple festivals and, as custom, they sit through the Carnatic music concerts for long hours. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian influence sort of succeeded in keeping Carnatic music away from mass gathering like temple festivals. Why Carnatic music? People of Tamil Nadu have lost the taste for even our rich folk art.

When you try for mass appeal, does it mean you have to compromise on core values?
Answer: A majority of our present day musicians has already compromised on core values for elite appeal. They have realized that even the elite want only entertainment. As for mass appeal, I would site an example. In Kerala, we do lot of late night concerts in Temple festivals. There would be some over doing of niraval, swara and percussion rounds to keep the audience entertained for more than four hours. Some ragas and kritis (not tukkadas and funny pieces) are a must! Apart from this, the mass does not expect any dilution.

Laya artistes - do they have enough scope to become professionals?
Answer: Certainly. If they believe in their knowledge, have the urge to improve and mature naturally, they can have a respectful profession as percussionists.

What is the role of laya artistes in Carnatic music?
Answer: In simple words, percussion artistes give life to the still music. The embellishment they give to the songs keeps the diversity alive which, in turn, keeps the audience amused. They clearly define the change of mood in a piece and also demark the breaks and, thereby, guide a presentation. One very important difference between the melody musicians and the percussionists is that the melody musicians, be it vocalists or instrumentalists, have a broad boundary within which they can safely tread and exhibit skills. They have the compositions and well established ragas on which they can rely. But the percussionists have no such guiding scripts or set of compositions and standardized formula to depend on and they are all the time constrained by time, taste and requirement of the musician etc. It takes longer time for a percussionist to establish his route and very less time to emphasize the same. Yet, the contribution of percussionists in Carnatic music is remarkable to the extent of making incredible performances to `immortal’ concerts.
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