These articles had been published in The Hindu in December and are highly recommended reading for all interested in the health and future of Carnatic Music. Even though I had made a mental note to myself then to write my thoughts on the topic, I am only getting around to doing it now, three months later! Anyway, better late than never.
The first thing is, as Indians, we always have a tendency to over-glamorize the past. We always say “Old is gold” and think that whatever is contemporary is crap. Note that I am not saying that the past masters were bad – I was not alive in those days. I idolize the playing of Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramania Pillai, C. S. Murugabhoopathy, Lalgudi, Chowdiah, and others. I am disagreeing with the mindset that the current generation of musicians is not “up to scratch”. While older people tell me “When I was your age, I got to see Palani playing for GNB live so many times!“, I might say “Yes? Well I got to hear Neyveli Narayanan sir playing for TNS… or Delhi Sunder Rajan playing for OST”, to give some examples. It appears that only time will tell which artists become “great” and stand the test of time. I know a lot of people who claim not to like the music of the current generation and say they would rather listen to recordings of past masters than attend concerts by current artists. While such “purism” is to be lauded, it does not bode well for the future health of the art. In order for the art to be sustained (forget about growth for now), it needs a regular rasika base to attend concerts. If people would rather sit at home and listen to recordings, then the art will stagnate. I would say that is the foremost responsibility of rasikas to attend concerts of current artists in order to maintain the art for years to come. Also, having such notions (about not listening to current artists) is very narrow-minded; one would miss out on so much, such as the creative genius and brighas of Abhishek Raghuram, the clean, polished singing of Saketharaman, the smooth bowing of Akkarai Subbulakshmi, or the laya genius of any of the current generation of mrudangam vidwans.
The other thing is that the laya awareness of rasikas has been steadily decreasing for several decades. As mentioned in one of the articles, “When did the Carnatic concert go from being “our” kutcheri to “my” kutcheri? Why is a concert announced as XYZ and party?”. This was apparently not the case back in the day – people used to ask “Lalgudi is accompanying which musician today? (Rather than telling so & so is accompanied by Lalgudi), Pazhani Subramania Pillai is playing for whom?”. I am probably one of the few people alive who chooses which concert to attend based only on who is playing mrudangam, and I am extremely picky – I can count on my fingers the mrudangam vidwans whose concerts I choose to attend! It is unfortunate that this mindset is not more common. It makes sense that I would think like this as a student of mrudangam, but the average rasika does not. They go simply to hear the vocalist (or main artist) and do not really pay attention to the mrudangam or other percussion. If you want to see a concrete example of how laya awareness has diminished over the decades, just attend any Carnatic concert and observe the exodus that usually takes place during the taniavarthanam! Again, this is sad because laya (or rhythm in general) is so fundamental to music – I can go in depth on this later.
As mentioned in the linked articles, the media is also to blame. Concert reviews will usually wax endlessly on the vocalist (or main artist), and the percussionists will be relegated to the last sentence of the review, almost as an afterthought. Sometimes photos of the concert will even not include the entire team – this is an example (in the paper, the photo of only the brothers was featured along with the article). The notion of the violin, mrudangam, and upapakkavadyam vidwans being “accompanists” is poisonous – they are co-artists and should not be considered secondary. Can you have a successful concert without a mrudangam? Laya is what gives life to music, and a naadavadyam like the mrudangam is essential for that. There is room for plenty of change, which can only be bought about by making the public aware of these facts. Lec-dems to raise interest in laya aspects among the public would also be beneficial.