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1 May 2000

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False representation: Vishnuvardhan, Saritha and Madhavi in the Kannada musical 'Malayamarutha'


The unreal classical musician

Most popular south Indian films portray classical music as divine, and film music as profane, forgetting that classical musicians in real life can be as mean and petty as anyone else

In south Indian cinema, classical music is invested with all the reverence we reserve for the sacred. It is pure as the Ganga, and it is our link with the divine sound (nada) from which this world was created.

By extension, the classical musician is the epitome of godliness, above all things mean and petty. He is a traditionalist in his lifestyle who spends a great deal of time in front of his framed or plaster of Paris deity. His favourite pose is to sit silhouetted against magnificent landscapes, suggesting to us the epic nature of his art, and its harmony with the elements.

We come across wicked priests, doctors and policemen, but the classical musician is one who has seldom qualified to play the villain! Somehow, he is so blameless in everything he does, he is close to god, if not a god himself.

The connection between divinity and classical music has been turned into an enduring fable in our cinema. From this position, curiously, the film industry, which happens to be the most prolific producer of popular music, ends up drawing a self-defeating conclusion. As it enthusiastically places classical music on a pedestal and upholds its pristine values, cinema denounces popular music, a very dear child born of its own flesh and blood.

Untainted by desire

In Puttanna Kanagal's Kannada film Upasane, the central characters are two musicians. Mischief mongers spread the word that the guru, played by Seetharam, is having an affair with his young disciple, played by Arathi. This is the central crisis of the film, and the denouement comes in the form of a melodramatic affirmation that the guru and his disciple were 'pure' and never nursed such ideas after all. The middle class tendency to gossip is deplored; Upasane also shows the vicious consequences of a philistine society's distrust of the arts.

Once maligned, the deeply hurt disciple goes on a spiritual journey and we see her, towards the end of the film, in white, singing the praises of the virgin goddess at Kanyakumari. In the backdrop is the windswept rock memorial, echoing the ideals of Vivekananda, that famous propounder of celibacy.

Dominant ideas of propriety and right conduct are imposed on classical musicians, and the sensuous is made to appear incongruous alongside the musical. The two cannot exist together, unless there happens to be a marriage of minds, with the "divine" arts of music and dance binding the couple. It is not uncommon for a classical musician to see the goddess of learning (Saraswati or Sharada) in the woman who loves him. Not only is the classical musician unfit to be a villain, he can't even be a naughty hero who swings to synth music like those in other professions!

In Sanadi Appanna, the hero played by Rajkumar is a shehnai artiste without the slightest flaw in his character. The villain, played by Balakrishna, is shown as a pretender who can at best play some broken notes on his instrument. This rival is consciously portrayed in a most unflattering light, with the only audience he deserves being a donkey. To its credit, the film does not make classical music out to be an exclusive Brahmin domain. It even hints at caste prejudices and economic pressures that are pushing younger people in musicians' families away from their traditional occupation of pipe playing. In both Sanadi Appanna and Sandhyaraga, characters who find little value in Indian classical music turn out to be those puffed up by the Western education they have managed to acquire. These films rightly indicate that the model of education we have chosen in India robs us of any sensitivity to our own music.


Coming back to cinema's portrayal of popular music: the commercially successful Telugu film Shankarabharanam gets away with foolish insinuations not just against film music but against all other forms of music. The Karnatak vocalist played by Somayajulu is so accomplished that he can triumph over a yodeller with effortless ease. A young man, who sings Brochevarevarura in the stacatto style of film songs, is portrayed as deserving nothing but contempt. Somajalu contemptuously dismisses this musician's arguments in favour of contemporary genres. The young man is, in the eyes of the film, an irresponsible clown.

Invariably, classical music is shown as the repository of our rich culture, while other varieties are denounced as cheap and vulgar.

In G V Iyer's Hamsageethe, we at last meet some classical musicians who feel pride, envy, desire and even suicidal rage. Bhairavi Venkatasubbaiah, played by Anant Nag, pursues a drunken guru, and even dares to have a relationship with a devadasi. He refuses to sing before the king, as he finds the idea demeaning. He betters his guru in singing Himadrisute, a composition in raga Kalyani, following which the master kills himself in humiliation.

Sandhyaraga, an early film on music, stresses the connection between classical music and suffering. Its hero, played by Rajkumar, is so poor he has to sell his tamboori to buy medicines, and his wife, played by Bharati, has to undergo the direst privations because of the unhappy conditions classical musicians are forced to live in. Even in his most trying moments, the hero does not curse his choice of profession. Classical music, then, is a lifelong vrata that can offer little by way of reward. Sandhyaraga brings out the idealism inherent in the pursuit of classical music and creates an aura of saintliness around the classical musician.

Discounting human effort

In the Vishnuvardhan-starrer Malaya Marutha, classical music is touted as being divinely inspired and inaccessible to ordinary mortals. Goddess Saraswati is not easy to please. A sincere student fails to master even the basics of the art, despite his best efforts. Only after the untimely death of his guru -- played incidentally by the real-life vainika R K Suryanarayan -- does our hero manage to acquire any musical knowledge at all. This he does after he hears his dead master's voice, and rolls pathetically in the slush on the guru's tomb! Without divine, or at least ghostly intervention, you must never aspire to be a classical musician! From the realm of the religious and the spiritual, classical music here is consigned to the realm of the esoteric. And human effort is given zero value.

One one occasion, the hero sings Kanakadasa's classic Ellaru maaduvudu hottegagi with a Western-style orchestra, the implication being that he resorts to such an unthinkable experiment only because he is in deep financial distress. If this film is to be believed, classical music remains untainted by money while popular music is a mercenary hell that great musicians are sometimes forced to descend into.

Such ultra-orthodox views had already taken deep root among the audiences. They were outraged, and a caste group had the song removed on the grounds that it offended the great poet Kanakadasa. The music was by Vijayabhaskar, and the film's won him the Sur Singar award.

Classical music as spiritual Dettol

Hamsalekha, who won the 1996 national award for best music for his score in Ganayogi Panchakshari Gawai, gives expressions to similar notions about the exalted nature of classical music when he says, "A person who knows 10 ragas can communicate with god."

In interview after interview, he went on record to say, "I have washed away all my sins by composing music for this film in the classical style."

Hamsalekha adapted his intimate knowledge of Bangalore's colloquial Kannada to write film songs. That he should feel the need to disown the better part of his own work speaks of the power of cinematic representations of high art to chasten even the more successful exponents of film music.

The whole irony is that very successful stars of non-classical forms flog themselves guiltily when they come face to face with cinema's idea of classical culture. They can never think of popular art as challenging the dominance of high or classical art. Classical music becomes a sort of pilgrimage that can "wash away" the sins of one's indulgence in popular music. It is a form of penance and expiation.

Pete rap versus classical dance

In Kadalan, which gave us one of A R Rahman's most popular scores, hero Prabhudeva is consumed by guilt when, after singing the stylised Pete rap song celebrating street culture, he is ticked off by the heroine. Nagma, the girl he is pursuing, is a Bharatanatyam dancer and is outraged that he has "insulted" our rich, ancient culture. Classical culture defeats his sense of dignity and he must learn Bharatanatyam himself to regain his lost honour. Popular cinema thus advertises the value of classical music at the cost of its own music. Even a film with the music of a box office wizard Rahman cannot do without such a gesture of deprecation.

From reticent musicians who never step out of their homes to cynical high fliers, we have classical musicians in a thousand hues right here in our midst. One hears of great musicians who are so self-effacing that they call themselves farmers rather than singers, musicians who think nothing of selling their souls to the most dubious of patrons, musicians who pretend to be eccentric whenever it suits them but turn into sharks the moment they smell money and publicity, musicians who spend a lifetime selflessly nurturing blind students, musicians who cheat accompanying artistes even of their bus fare, musicians crushed by a musically insensitive world, musicians who waste away in lowly uncreative jobs ...

The very real sidelining of the classical musician in the age of popular music, his newfound friendship with the world of glamour and corporate business, his absorption into the world of commercialised bhakti, his passions, struggles, jealousies, his miserable stinginess and reckless generosity -- all these could provide interesting themes for elaboration on celluloid.

It is a pity that our films have ignored this rich variety, all the while churning out totally unrecognisable images of classical music and musicians.

S R Ramakrishna

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