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23 February 2000

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Book review

Finding peace after troubled exploration

Macmillan and The British Council
Editors: Vanamala Vishwanath, V C Harris
C T Indra, C Vijayasree
Rs 260

T Janakiraman's short story Message explores how India and the West can reach each other through deep classical music experience

I was casually reading Routes, a collection of short stories in the four south Indian languages of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam, with no idea of reviewing it for The Music Magazine. The book is sub-titled "Representations of the West in Short fiction from South India in translation". I must have read more than a dozen stories which explored the way India looked at the West and how the West looked at it.

Most stories looked at situations with intellectual surmises of the 'other'. The pre-Independence stories (like the Kannada story Cobra Cane by Sediyaapu Krishna Bhatta) showed the Indian mind's fascination, repulsion and lack of comprehension of the British.

In T Janakiraman's Tamil story Message, translated into English by R Rajagopalan, shifts the focus of the East-West dialogue to music. The nadaswaram player Pillai, his son Thangavelu and the Western band leader Phillip Polska interact varying levels of relationship and consciousness.

In a Kannada story, A K Ramanujan talks about how the nagaswaram is seen as an instrument to be played only by the non-brahmins -- it involves touching the pipe with one's mouth and saliva. The central character of this story is a non-brahmin, a passionate artiste who has learnt the art from his father.

Vakil Iyer, a brahmin, is the interpreter between Pillai and Polska. The story doesn't talk of caste or nationality in so many words, but for Pillai, his art is the highest point of refinement, and film songs are crude, deserving of being played by "butchers".

The younger generation doesn't think so. Thangavelu enjoys playing film music on his nagaswaram, and whenever there are requests for film songs at their joint concerts, he takes over from his father.

When Pillaival (the father) finds Thangavelu playing what he calls "tum-ti-tum" music on the nagaswaram, he orders him to clean the instrument. He cannot swallow the idea that an instrument handed down over generations, on which his father played divine ragas like Huseini, should produce such cheap tunes.

The conflict comes through in passages like this:

"Did I teach you this art for you to start keening even before one is awake? You might as well set up a butcher's shop at the river bank and chop meat..."

The two are called upon to play before an audience of whites, when Thangavelu decides to play something that he thinks they might understand. He does not consider this a compromise. Pillai is outraged: "Do you think I would let you sit beside me to play these dirges, light music and film songs? Like a bandicoot upturning the spice box? You thought you would come there and make these noises?"

The son reminds his father that the audience has no knowledge of Indian traditional music.

"So what?" asks the senior musician.

This is not a simplistic tale of music winning all. Pillai is plagued by doubts about his own artistry, especially when he sees his son jazzing up his playing. He is also unsure about the Westerner's understanding of his music.

But he sticks to his usual way of playing. He plays Tyagaraja's Shantamu leka in raga Sama, an uncompromisingly rigorous classical piece.

Polska is "possessed" by the composition and the playing, and kisses Pillai's hands reverentially. In this song he finds peace, and a message "that no one, no art and no music has ever given". He requests Pillai to repeat it five or six times, and says he has risen to "a height where no sounds are heard".

Pillai is amazed that a Tyagaraja composition yearning for peace should fill a foreigner with that very feeling. Polska is stunned when Vakil Iyer tells him the meaning of the song.

As modernity comes into his life in the form of his son's tastes, Pillai constantly asks himself, "Are we in the wrong? That music which is not understood by the masses, is it still music at all? Can incomprehensible art still be art?"

Puzzled by a discordant note he has heard his son play in the morning, he tries to play it himself. But "the bastard phrase" eludes him and try as he might he cannot get the note which does not belong to any raga he knows.

He plays chaste Karnatak music that evening and finds an answer to the contradictions inherent in any great human endeavour. The message of peace in his song has been communicated. In Polska's discovery of peace is a message for Pillai, troubled by lack of recognition.

The Music Magazine recently carried a feature on nagaswaram players. This short story seems to be a fictional representation of the true stories we found, with an added dialogue with the West.

Routes could be an interesting book to anyone interested in understanding traditional India's long engagement with the West.

S Suchitra Lata

Pipers' plight: Read The Music Magazine feature on nagaswaram players

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Media praise for your favourite e-zine from India:

*Fantastic site -- Hitbox
*Web's best -- Britannica
*Superb coverage... worth tuning in to -- Rediff
*Classy -- Deccan Herald

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