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Carnatic Music: Book Review

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Carnatic Music: Book Review

History of South Indian (Carnatic Music) – from Vedic Times to the Present by Rangaramanuja Ayyangar, (Published by the author, Madras, Rs 25) 

The Times of India, July 30, 1972

The article as it first appeared.

The article as it first appeared.

INDIAN music is believed to be the oldest system in the world and Bharata’s Natya Shastra (circa fifth century B. C.) is the earliest available treatise on the subject. There were Tamil classics on music even before the Christian era and from the days of Illango’s Silappadikaram (second century A.D.) to the present day. South Indian music has evolved with the stamp of Tamil culture.

Illango’s work in fact completed a process of evolution of South Indian music as an off-shoot of Bharata Sangeeta – a process that had begun long before him and it laid the foundations of Carnatic music. The later works like Tevaram, Divya Prabandha and Siddhar Padal contained the earliest Tamil songs set to raga and tala. The modal system, rhythm, musical instruments, dance and other aspects of music, which evolved from the seventh century in the peninsula south of the Godavari and the Krishna, had the stamp of Tamil culture.

Muslim dominance in North India from the tenth century widened the gulf between South Indian music and what remained of Bharata Sangeeta in North India. A wealth of literature on the science and art of South Indian music, mostly in Sanskrit, sprang up from the ninth century to evolve order out of the prevailing chaos.

South Indian music was christened Carnatic music in the twelfth century. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries marked the golden age of South Indian music. From 1900 to 1920 was its “twilight period”. Thereafter followed the “period of darkness”.

All this and much more forms the subject-matter of Mr. Ayyangar’s monumental work. The septuagenarian author is a versatile musician and an eminent musicologist who already has 16 publications, covering 6,000 pages, to his credit.

It is characteristic of the indefatigable vidwan to come out with one more work, this time in English. In writing this book, he is impelled by a keen awareness of the growing interest in Indian music all over the world and he seeks to “share in intimacy with the curious reader as well as the earnest seeker the hopes and fears relating to an art that is in danger of immenent extinction”. The reader cannot but associate himself with the sentiments expressed by Mr.Ayyangar.

The author is being rather too modest when he pleads that his new publication is the first attempt to present in English a short history of Carnatic music. To say that the book is just a narrative of the evolution of South Indian music down through 25 centuries is to make a gross underststement. It is his magnum opus.

Indeed, this superbly got-up 556 page volume, comprising 27 chapters (including one each on veena and rhythm), a plenitude of colour-plates and rare half-tone photographs, thumb-nail sketches of great composers and musicians and extensive appendices, expounds a new outlook at a time when Carnatic music, in the opinion of the author, “crouches in by-lanes fighting for dear life”. It presents a marvelous reconciliation of theory and practice current at different times and seeks to indicate the lines on which every performing musician, professional or amateur, should proceed. The author has taken care to keep the legenadary element to the minimum. He has also made the technical matter interesting even to the lay reader.

A distinctive feature of the book is the wide compass it covers Mr. Ayyangar has gleaned the material for his work from sources “far apart in the place and time of their appearance” and “too numerous and varied to admit of clear specific, documentary narration”. Yet the work unfolds, chapter by chapter, a continuous organic development of Carnatic music down through the centuries as a well-knit, undivided whole, and not a summary of various treatises. The way he has organized and presented the material speaks of his indomitable zeal, profound scholarship and prodigious industry.

In doing this Mr. Ayyangar can be said to have accomplished a truly Herculean task- an achievement comparable only to that of the late Pandit Bhatkhande, the great North Indian musicologist.

Another notable feature of the book is the literary tradition it sets in music. The author has a style that should be the envy of many a contemporary Indo-Anglian writer. His Incidity of presentation is evenly matched by his felicity of expression. There is hardly a page which does not bear evidence of the author’s integrated culture and his savoir faire for clear, effective communication in a foreign tongue. Chapters 25 and 26 of the book can be specially cited as fine specimens of impassioned prose. Here the author discusses the many challenges that presently face Carnatic music as also other classical traditions. He is in his element when he decries the steady decline in the standards of music. His comments are fearless and forthright, at times devastating and even disconcerting. But he also suggests a number of practical remedies which would stem the rot and reverse the trend.

And finally, opinions- particularly among North Indian musicologists – are bound to differ over some of the theories and assumptions put forward by the author. To quote a few he rejects the idea of a crude beginning of Indian music from the folk traditions; he refutes the theory that the advent of Islam drew a wedge between the North and South in music; he assets that madhyama grama’s writ runs in North Indian music even today, “though on a low key” and has a link with the distant past.

All in all, Mr. Ayyangar book makes a significant contribution to our musical literature. As an authentic reference manual, it will prove to immense value to students of music and musicologists all over the world.



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