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A contrarian world

A contrarian world: Lalgudi Jayaraman and Lakshmi Devnath: Virtuoso Performer and Mediocre...
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and thrilled millions. That is sad.
When a biographer starts by saying how she admired the subject and refers to the subject as 'uncle' ('mama') a reader like me hesitates.
Only my eagerness to learn about a man that many referred to as 'genius' compelled me to plod on. Devnath claims that she has been
objective and that Lalgudi or his family did not interfere in any way with her book. They did not have to.
The biography is a labor of love and it shows. In a very unique gesture Devnath has made out a CD with Lalgudi's recordings to illustrate
key points she makes. The book helpfully notes, without too much intrusion, places where the reader can pause and sample the recording.
The choice of English as a language is made solely to reach a wider audience else this book would have probably benefited more by being
written in Tamil. A very helpful glossary of Tamil words, for both vernacular usage and music terms, is nicely compiled. That the author is ill
at ease in English is apparent when she writes "she was kind to the core and strict to the hilt". As proof of Gopala Iyer's (father of Lalgudi)
abilities beyond music we are offered a summary, "he sawed with precision, nailed with mastery and glued with finesse". Reading 'coachile
vandhirukkaaaar' is grating to my senses instead of "ேகாசச வணடயிேல வநதிரககா" or 'vango' instead of
Lalgudi amongst all musicians has the rare privilege of claiming to descend from a direct disciple of Thyagaraja, the most revered
amongst the Carnatic music trinity. The introduction of the violin to Carnatic music and such a rare musical heritage opens up many
avenues for a skilled biographer to write a magisterial sweep of music history alongside the subject person. Devnath barely manages to
race past the musical and biographical heritage.
The greatest disservice a biographer can do to a man millions called genius is to attribute his genius to astrology and make it appear that
he was destined to be great. Devnath gushes about Lalgudi's horoscope and how his impending greatness was foretold. This obsession
with unscientific mystery strikes a jarring note when Kandasamy Bhagavathar dies of cancer despite his wife's 'knowledge of indigenous
medicine and mystic powers'.
In my past blogs on music I've written about how Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner were widely read and how their intellectual pursuits
impacted their creativity. When Lalgudi's teacher punished him by caning his fingers Gopal Iyer stopped his son from going to school.
Most Carnatic musicians have little or no education until recent times. Even then it is a cursory education. T.M. Krishna has a degree in
accounting and, by his own admission, 'dabbles in reading'. Gopal Iyer arranged private tutor to teach Math, English, Telugu and Sanksrit.
Telugu and Sanksrit, we are told, 'would help understand the meaning of the songs'. It did not even strike the biographer as odd that Gopal
Iyer did not think it fit to tutor his son in Tamil. He probably thought there was nothing worthwhile in Tamil to be taught requiring a tutor. That
brings to mind a sore controversy about the Tamil music versus carnatic music shenanigans.
Music and caste are intertwined in an unholy nexus in India (as in America too), especially in Carnatic music. Gopal Iyer takes Jayaraman
to listen to a performance in a Mariamman temple. Devnath lists the artistes. All of them are from the 'Pillai' caste. Not a single Brahmin
because its the Mariamman temple. The very next paragraph details the artistes at a function in the temple at Srirangam. All are Brahmin
artistes. Not a single non-Brahmin. Devnath, probably Brahmin herself, does not bat an eyelid at this dichotomy.
A contrarian world: Lalgudi Jayaraman and Lakshmi Devnath: Virtuoso Performer and Mediocre...
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Carnatic music is vocal music with no tradition, for decades, of having accompanying instruments especially one like the violin. The place
of instruments and its players in a performance is a still debated one. As violin evolved to be more than 'just' an accompaniment
Jayaraman wanted to see violin solo performances. This rubbed vocalists and other, hitherto, solo instrument players like veena players.
Madurai Mani for whom Lalgudi used to accompany ensured that only the vocalist had a mike. Semmangudi, the ever irascible vocalist,
would push away the mikes in front of a violinist. Jayaraman's own protege singer T.N. Seshagopalan took to the print and snidely
complained that the violinist does not 'his' place. Veena Balachander confronted Jayaraman that his demand for solo performances was
upsetting veena players. Brahmins, the chief practitioners of carnatic music, are famously vigilant about caste hierarchies and owe their
social pre-eminence to a rigid caste structure entrenched in the name of tradition. It is little wonder that such practitioners were livid about
upsetting 'tradition'. Check this link about Semmangudi ( A young Semmangudi is
performing with accompaniments but only he and the violinist have the mike. An older Semmangudi then performs with mikes for
mridangam and the violinist too.
Jayaraman ruffled many a feather with his venu (flute)-veena-violin concerts. Apparently he even composed music for such concerts. It is
this composing that is often spoke of by his admirers as setting him apart from other violinists who were only virtuosos. That and the
unique and legendary 'Lalgudi Bani' (Lalgudi way of playing) are collectively referred to as his genius. Devnath does a decent explanation
of those.
The only place in the biography where Devnath attempts objectivity and balance is in giving quotes from those who did not think high of
Lalgudi's compositions. But the biographer rescues her 'uncle' by rounding off with counter quotes and gentle brushing away of criticisms.
A biographer with wider knowledge of music would have used this to illustrate the differences with Western classical and bring out how
western classical, written for instruments by a composer, contrasts with a vocal tradition. I'll not be surprised if Devnath thinks there is no
music beyond carnatic music. A non-Brahmin author might have taken a broader view.
Indians enjoy the recognition that Indian philosophy, literature and music receive from Westerners, that too Whites. I've only heard of
Beatles swooning over Ravi Shankar or Yehudi Menuhin swooning over Lalgudi or U Thant introducing MS at the UN. We never hear of
John Coltrane or the Jazz musicians interacting with Indian music.
Lalgudi was very warmly introduced by Yehudi Menuhin. Menuhin instructs his audience not to judge carnatic music with their customary
paradigms. He gently lectures that in carnatic music the instrument 'follows' the singing. Carnatic musicians who performed abroad were
often feted back home. They had grand send off's and equally grand welcome back functions like conquering caesars. Often such
functions were organized by Sabhas. Strangely none of these Sabhas thought it fit to invite a Zubin Mehta or Leonard Bernstein to India.
Smugness. No carnatic musician would have done what Menuhin did for Lalgudi. Indians only love to boast of what they taught the world.
Never interested in learning.
The carnatic music world is incestuous with a clique like mentality. Music Academy and The Hindu (a newspaper of dubious quality but
A contrarian world: Lalgudi Jayaraman and Lakshmi Devnath: Virtuoso Performer and Mediocre...
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loved by Brahmins on par with their worship of carnatic music) have an unholy nexus. Brahmin controlled news magazines and their so
called critics formed a relationship with sabhas and performers. There was (and is) no professional critic. The Music Academy itself has a
clique mentality.
Devnath dwells, justifiably, on the politics of the 'Sangeetha Kalanidhi' award fracas. Jayaraman had taken great efforts to renovate the
house of Thyagaraja and organize annual festivals in his honor. Inaugurating a Thyagaraja Aradhana G.K.Moopanar addressed
Semmangudi, MS, Lalgudi etc with the prefix 'Sangeetha Kalanidhi'. Semmangudi barked on the stage "he is not one". Besmirched thus
Lalgudi next day visited Semmangudi and told him that even if given he would not accept the title 'Sangeetha Kalanidhi'. Photocopies of
press clippings with English translations give these pages a racy flavor.
Carnatic music has always been accused of reeking with casteism. Thats a blog for another day. I was surprised to learn that the Kanchi
Mutt had taken ownership of the homes of the musical trinity. Carnatic music and Hinduism are inseparable. They need not be torn asunder
but when music is sheltered under religion it does not augur well. Compiling the Pancharatna Kritis of Thyagaraja Lalgudi, Devnath writes,
takes the help of Kanchi's mutt's then reigning pontiff Chandrasekarendra Swamigal. That pontiff would not even see a non-Brahmin. In a
famous rendezvous with Gandhi Chandrasekarendra pleaded "dont destroy hinduism" referring to Gandhi's attempts to eradicate
Lakshmi Devnath herself bares her biases ever so subtly. She is scrupulous in quoting the names, even an Assistant Collector, of whose
quotes she is using or whose views she is sharing in relation to Lalgudi. Striving to drive home the point that everyone in the Lalgudi
lineage, including Guruswany Iyer (grand uncle of Lalgudi who died young) is musically talented Devnath reaches to 'a book'. In the
'compilation of notable vidwans of this period, published as part of a book, talks about Guruswamy Iyer'. 'Guriswamy dyer sings well in
strict adherence to rules. He is also an excellent vidwan'. Devnath, not accidentally, annotates the reference in the 'notes' as the book
written by Nadar Christian Abraham Pandithar (possibly backward community then). Pandithar's book 'Karnamirtha Sagaram' is considered
a definitive text and well researched material on the origins of Carnatic music. Contemporary Tamil writer Jeyamohan wrote of how
Pandithar, being Christian, was studiously eclipsed by the Brahmin establishment. Even the Dravidian parties that emphasized
non-Brahmin influence in music chose to ignore Pandithar because he was a Nadar Christian and not an 'Isai vellalar' the caste of
Devnath ignoring the caste dimensions in the Pillai versus Brahmin artistes depending on the kind of God in a temple is a telling lapse.
Quite interestingly another book by Devnath, titled 'A class apart', is about Rashmi Parthasarathy. Mrs Parthasarathy, naturally, a Brahmin,
is feted as an 'educationist'. She is no such thing in reality. The PSBB schools are notorious for their Hindutva emphasis and blatant
promotion of Brahminism in the name of promoting Indian culture. I am sure Devnath would recoil with horror before writing of Thulasi
Vandayar who is running a well regarded arts college in a villlage, without a penny in donations, for decades. If Mrs Parthasarathy is an
educationist then so are Jeppiar and Wodayar, two bootleg manufacturers turned 'educationists'.
As I closed the book I certainly knew of key events in Lalgudi's life. The controversies, particularly the solo performance issue, were
illustrative if the reader has prior thoughts in that regard else it was only gossip. A biography must delve into the mind of a subject and
recreate the life in a composite manner, including a portrait of the era, for the reader. Lalgudi still remains distant to me. I still do not know
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