Prof. T K Thomas

Prof. T K Thomas

It was during an interview for his radio biography, the late President of India Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam spoke about his love for music. When asked about his morning routine, “My day,” he said, ”generally starts with listening to Sri Venkateshwara Suprabhatam by M S Subbulakshmi”. That devotional music helped him to have calmness and tranquility essential for facing the challenges of the day as Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister of India, he added emphasizing the rejuvenating effect of music in his life. Not only that, he tried his hand at the Veena and desired to play perfectly Raag Shri on the Veena.

One recalls being with yet another great man of Indian science the late Dr. Raja Ramanna, who headed the Bhabha Atomic Research Center [BARC] and who was the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Dr Ramanna was an accomplished pianist. Music to him, it was a great stress buster.

The great, lonely medical professional Albert Schweitzer who ran a hospital in French Equatorial Africa which is now Gaban, was a gifted musician whose organ recitals were much sought after and his music was broadcast from radio stations across the world. Music was part of spiritual quest of this recipient of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize.

Many of us after a hard day’s work, fatigue or emotional upheavals listen to music to calm our nerves. Attending classical, devotional, light, or pop music concerts is not just entertaining but can be invigorating experiences. Listening to music further has a healing effect on our mind and body.

Music meant a lot to the three great men of science who enjoyed and practised music, not as a profession but for their pleasure and wellness. From the murky world of politics, violence, death caused by preventable diseases of our children and the distressing stories about water scarcity across the country it is considered appropriate to write on music.

Last week [ 21st June], about 120 countries observed the World Music Day. The origin of the World Music Day is traced to Joel Cohen, an American who worked for a French Radio station in the 1970s. Later, French Minister of Culture Jack Lang conceived the idea in the early 1980s as Festival of Music later was declared a national holiday in France. The date of 21st June was chosen to note the first day of summer or Summer Solstice, the longest day in the year. It was called “Fete de la Musique” or Festival of Music meant to honour musicians, Though it is not declared as a ‘Day’ by the United Nations, music lovers all over the world observe the day which highlights the soothing effect of music on our violent, distressed, hapless, angry, morose world. It gives peace and solace to the entire mankind irrespective of language, religion, nationality, caste, and creed. It was a pleasure to listen to soothing Kannada songs on some FM channel while travelling in a Bengaluru cab around midnight on World Music Day; references in Kannada by the anchor to the Day one could not understand but the music was pleasing to one’s ears. This piece was planned at that time and is an attempt to pay tribute to our music and musical traditions. Names of modern musicians have been avoided lest this becomes a bibliography!

Ours is a diverse country with endless celebrations characteristic of large number of languages, hundreds of dialects, a surfeit of religious and cultural traditions, seasons, festivals, and fairs. Music is an integral part of all these; not many countries in the world can boast of such fantastic diversity of music.

We have a great tradition of two main streams of classical music – Carnatic or Karnatak and Hindustani. Rabindra Sangeet , considered by many as the third musical tradition is a fusion of Indian and western music and is a new stream that emerged in the last century thanks to that creative genius Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore who composed over 2200 works and added a few new ‘taalas’ or rhythms .

Carnatic or Karnatak music is of Southern origin and Hindustani of Northern Indian origin. Till the advent of the Mughal rule there were major commonalities but later became two distinct schools of music by the 16th century.

Indian music traces its origin to the Vedas, especially the ‘Samaveda’ one of the ancient Vedas known for melodious chants. Bharata’s Natya Shastra, the ancient seminal text of Indian performing arts- dance, drama and music by Bharata Muni or Sage Bharata believed to have been in vogue since 200 BC - 200 AD. Various aspects of music like ‘Swara’ [notes] and ‘Shruti’ [micronotes] dealing with melodic structure and ‘Taala’ [that measures time cycle- rhythm] have been elucidated in this classical text. While Hindustani music gives freedom to the musician to improvise and can go for long performances, Carnatic music is composition based and performances are quite short. It is worth mentioning that in the 18th century Carnatic music witnessed the emergence of three great composers Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Syama Sastri. Known as the Trinity or three jewels of Carnatic music; these prolific composers and musicians hailed from Thiruvarur in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu.

Hindustani music is characterized by the Gharana system from the 19th century. Encyclopedia Britannica defines a Gharana as “a community of performers who share a distinctive musical style that traces to a particular instructor or region”. Gharanas emerged in the 19th century after royal patronage to music waned and musicians moved to urban centers. To maintain their identity Gharanas assumed the names of the places from where a particular tradition of style hailed. So we now have Gharanas like Gwalior, Agra, Jaipur, Patiala, Indore, Sahaswan, Bhidibazar, Mewati, etc. Types of works include Dhrupad, Khyal, Tarana, Thumri, etc.

There is also ‘Vadya’ referring to a rich variety of musical instruments- traditional ones like the Bansuri [Flute], Ek tara, Tanbura, Veena and a variety of drums or percussion instruments and later additions like the Western violin, South Asian improvisations like Sitar, Sarode, Rabab or Santoor or folk instruments which assumed classical and concert status like the Shehnai. There are Gharanas for instruments also.

Emperors and rulers and later nawabs patronized music and musicians. After independence government institutions like Sangeet Natak Akademi and All India Radio [AIR] encouraged music and musicians. AIR in fact popularized all genres of music; classical, light, devotional, folk, film etc. The seminal role of Vividh Bharati, the light entertainment channel of AIR established in October 1957 in promoting music, and radio, is praiseworthy. Primary channels of AIR took to the ordinary people classical music by arranging music lessons and concerts especially the annual Radio Sangeet Sammelan featuring the leading musicians of the country.

We have a rich repository of music celebrating every festival, season, agricultural operation, childbirth, marriage, etc. Our festivals, be it Deepawali, Holi, Pongal, Gudipadav, Bihu, Baishakhi, Onam and a large number of others have music specific to the respective regions. All seasons or ‘ritus’ are ushered in and celebrated with folk, traditional or modern songs; so also songs to celebrate the birth of children and lullabies. In many communities music and songs play an important part of marriage celebrations.

We have wonderful genres of devotional music again specific to religions and languages. Even today AIR stations and some private FM channels start their morning transmission with devotional music. As a deeply spiritual / religious country, devotional music has an important position. There are Sufi songs, Naats and Qawwalis, Shabad Kirtan and a host of other devotional songs of various faiths. Gandhi ji’s Sarva Dharma Prarthana Sabhas or all religion prayer meetings had songs and hymns. The Ram Dhun [“Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram”], Sant Narsinh Mehta’s 15th century Gujarati Bhajan “Vaishnav Jan To Tene Kahiye je”, hymns like “Lead Kindly Light “ [Cardinal Newman] along with scriptures of all religions were part of his prayer meetings.

There was a recent time when Ghazals were a craze. Ghazals, it is believed, have Arabic origin and Sufi influence. These Urdu couplets celebrate the pain of loss or separation and expression of love to others and the ultimate reality with a bit of pathos. Hindi film industry until about the 1980s had a heavy staple of Ghazals which were hugely popular. That trend seems to have ebbed.

India’s folk and tribal songs have a distinct flavor of their own. No other country can boast of such a fantastic variety. The Baul songs of Bengal sung by Vaishnav Hindu and Sufi Muslim mystical minstrels , Abhangs of Maharashtra, Mappila Pattu of Malabar region of Kerala, Fugadis, Mandos and Dulpads of Goa, beautiful songs of hundreds of tribal communities from across India used to reverberate across of our vast country of great diversity.

Music can change a violent person into a peaceful one. Music has great healing powers as it gives us serenity and bliss. Celebration of events like the World Music Day are occasions to remind us of preserving the wonderful musical heritage which is endangered by harmful influences of Western culture and our own film music.