Source: The Hindu; Author: M.V.Ramakrishnan

In spite of the distractions of the modern world, the festival still exudes the same spirit.

“Plu sa shonzh, plu sayla maym shoaz!”

Unless you know French, that’s probably the closest you can get to the proper way of pronouncing the famous traditional expression which means: “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing!” Recalling the way things used to be 40 or 50 years ago, I can’t help wondering how intriguingly true this paradoxical French saying is of the Carnatic music scene in Madras during the winter season, spread mainly over Maargazhi (which is a very imperfect but the closest English spelling for the coolest month of the year in the Tamil calendar).

During the past half-century, the whole world has undergone an unprecedented technological revolution, which has greatly altered the economic and social conditions everywhere, which in turn has transformed the whole cultural environment in many ways all over the world.

So far as South India and Carnatic music are concerned, the lifestyles of our musicians as well as rasikas have changed dramatically. More and more young people have gone away from here, to live and work in foreign countries, particularly in the West, most of them still with the legal status of ‘non-resident Indians’ and some of them even becoming foreign citizens. More and more senior citizens here have started going abroad frequently to visit their children and grandchildren, coming back home with a different outlook and adopting an increasingly modern lifestyle.

On another plane, more and more Carnatic musicians are getting invited by South Indian communities in foreign countries to perform there, and many of them have started going abroad on whirlwind tours, mostly to America and Europe in the West, but also to Australia in the East. All this exposure to the outside world tends to make them progressively give up the conservative lifestyle which used to be so characteristic of most Carnatic musicians even around the middle of the 20th century.

Thus, the whole community of Carnatic musicans and music-lovers over here are no longer governed by orthodox cultural standards, which used to be considered a basic requirement for performing and even appreciating the spiritually-oriented and tradition-bound Carnatic music.

Nothing illustrates the vastly altered nature of the Carnatic music scene in Madras (now known as Chennai, of course) more forcefully than the phenomenon called ‘NRI music and dance festival’ organised every year in December by the innovative sabha Hamsadhwani, all the main performers participating in which are living abroad, only the accompanying artists being local musicians.

Another important development is that the activity level in the Maargazhi music festival here, which was already considered to be very hectic 50 years ago, has tended to increase year after year in an almost geometric progression, so that today it is truly a mind-boggling affair, with several hundreds of events taking place in the course of a few weeks. Not only the very old and venerable institutions — which have been active for more than 50 years — but an increasing number of new organisations or groups also contribute to the winter music festival, making it a truly massive extravaganza.

Banyan tree

All told, one would have expected these irreversible trends which have so substantially transformed the entire environment of Carnatic music in recent years — both in qualitative and quantitative terms — to have very seriously altered the basic character of the winter music season in Madras and diluted the powerful spirit which governs the whole festival. But the amazing fact is that nothing so disturbing has happened really, and the mega-gala grows on and on year after year like a magnificent banyan tree, with all its original roots still buried very deep in the spiritual soil, and some sprouts descending from the branches to the ground and striking new roots. The reason why the festival still exudes the same spirit as ever is that Carnatic music itself has not lost its own basic character in spite of all the distracting and disturbing forces of the modern world. As for the reasons why this is so, they were explained in detail in the twin articles titled, ‘Deep waters of Carnatic music’ and ‘The Carnatic Ocean’ — written by myself and Washington-based connoisseur S. Rangarajan — which appeared side by side in these columns six months ago (, Friday Review, archives, May 25, 2007).

For the benefit of readers who may not be able to go readily online and refer to those essays, let me just give a brief extract here from ‘Deep waters’:

Carnatic music rests on a rigid religious foundation and the ultimate source of its monumental strength and vitality is the devotional inspiration radiating from the sacred works of the venerable composers. And fortunately, successive generations of Carnatic musicians and rasikas sentimentally nourished in the worshipful South Indian social and domestic atmosphere tend never to lose their spiritual bearings, no matter what drastic changes materialise in the modern world and in their own outlook, surroundings and lifestyles’.

So then, let us conclude these reflections with the same intriguing quotation with which we started them, this time spelling it the way it’s actually done in French: ‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose!’ thanks Mr.M.V.Ramakrishnan for sharing with us his article. Mr.Ramakrishnan writes for the print column, Musicscan,  Friday Review, Chennai edition.