A few days ago, the eminent vocalist T M Krishna wrote an article in The Hindu bemoaning the increasing use in Carnatic music of instruments that are not sufficiently sensitive or flexible to reproduce the fine microtonal modulations (“gamakas”, similar to “meends” in Hindustani music) required to fully express a raga.

This is not a new controversy. The western “equally tempered” chromatic scale is an approximation that gets every interval except the octave subtly wrong. For example, the fifth note (“panchama”, “pa”) is supposed to have exactly one and a half times the frequency of the tonic or “sa”, but in the chromatic scale it turns out slightly flat: 2^(7/12) = 1.498 approximately. It has been recognised since Pythagoras (and even earlier, probably) that notes in small-integer frequency ratios sound pleasant when played together, but all intervals on the piano, except the octave, are irrational (being powers of the twelfth root of two). The compromise is necessary in western music to enable modulation to new keys without retuning the instrument. In Indian music, where the tonic is never changed, it is argued that the chromatic scale is unnecessary. While the piano is rarely used, the harmonium has achieved considerable popularity (it continues to be widely used in Hindustani music, though not in Carnatic music) but is detested by some purists for this reason.

Equally important, instruments like the piano cannot “bend” the note: they play a fixed pitch when you press the key. In Indian music, it is common to “slide” from one note to the other and “waver” about certain notes: it is such ornamentation (the “gamakas” and “meends” that I referred to above) that gives ragas their individual character.

So Krishna’s tirade against the keyboard and the saxophone is understandable but not new. (He also acknowledges that some imports of Western instruments have been successful, in particular the use of the violin since the 19th century, and the use of the electric mandolin by U. Srinivas.) Nevertheless, I wonder if an excess of such “purism” may not be detrimental to the music itself.

Most of the arguments against keyboard instruments can be, and have been, levelled against the santoor and its first and foremost practitioner in Hindustani music, Shivkumar Sharma. Shivkumar cannot produce genuine “meends” but he achieves the illusion of doing so with rapid sliding tremolos. He also produces several new dimensions to his music by striking notes simultaneously with both hands: his left-hand patterns, while his right hand plays the melody, are a form of harmonic accompaniment to the music — but done so tastefully that only the rigidest of purists would object.

Krishna names no names but, since he believes no experiment involving the saxophone has worked, he clearly has a poor opinion of Kadri Gopalnath, the best-known saxophone player in Carnatic music. Personally I am not fond of Gopalnath’s music myself, without being able to quite define why. But I found the contrast of the following two passages interesting. Krishna:

The saxophone, among other instruments, is today very popular. The artists have made some modifications and changes to try and make it sound Carnatic but that has just not happened. The inherent limitation of the instrument makes the artiste limit his choice of ragas. Is this necessary? This is, to me, ridiculous. Are we willing to limit the bandwidth of a musical idiom to accommodate an instrument?

Gary Giddins, writing on a recent collaboration between Gopalnath and American jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa:
Gopalnath, who generally plays in a yogalike seated position, has perfected something that jazz saxophonists have been attempting for decades: moving beyond the Western chromatic scale into the realm of microtones, a feat harder for wind instruments, whose keys are in fixed positions, than for strings or voice. Jazz players, such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, had gone about it by varying intonation, blowing multiphonics (two or more notes at the same time), or squawking in the upper register, where pitches are imprecisely defined. Gopalnath does none of that. Using alternate fingerings and innovative embouchure techniques, he maintains faultless intonation while sliding in and out of the chromatic scale.

Krishna is of course much more knowledgeable on Carnatic music than Giddins, or Mahanthappa, but I wonder if he is not too close to the picture to see it fully.

There are few significant practitioners of the piano in Indian music, but one recent pianist who has attracted much recent attention is Anil Srinivasan, Krishna’s cousin. Anil is a trained western classical pianist who has been immersed in and absorbed Carnatic music since childhood. He has been grappling with the hard (many would say, impossible) problem of combining Western harmonies and Carnatic melodies, and — in collaboration with the vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, in particular — has produced some very interesting music. I have no idea whether Krishna was referring to Anil in his article. But Anil is trying to do something very different from Shivkumar Sharma or Kadri Gopalnath. He is not trying to play authentic Indian classical music on an apparently unsuitable instrument. He is trying to use his instrument and his knowledge of harmonic theory to supplement, and expand, the music itself, while relying on collaborators like Gurucharan to supply the “purist” component of the music. He is playing to the strengths of the piano, not to its weaknesses. He is not trying to do things on the piano that are easy on Indian instruments: he is doing things that would be impossible on Indian instruments. Whether those things are desirable is a matter of opinion, but I — and many others, it seems — like the result.

It seems that Anil wrote a rejoinder to Krishna, which I haven’t seen and can’t find online (update 27/12: here), but Krishna’s reply accuses Anil of missing the point of Krishna’s criticism. The point, stated as narrowly as possible, is that playing Carnatic music on instruments incapable of expressing all nuances of the music, and therefore limiting one’s repertoire to “suitable” ragas, diminishes the music rather than enhancing it. Again, I’m not sure whether he is applying this criticism to Anil, who is not (I think) trying to reproduce the intricacies of the music, but to supplement and expand it.

But is Krishna’s narrowly-stated criticism justified at all? I can’t help thinking of another form of music I am fond of, the blues, which permeates jazz and rock as well as being an art form in its own right. The blues is defined by the “blues scale” and its “blue notes”: some notes — notably the third and seventh, and sometimes also the fifth — are played slightly “flat”, but not quite as flat as their Western “minor scale” counterparts. That sort of flattening cannot be reproduced on the piano. “Bending” and “wobbling” those notes is also integral to blues, and certainly cannot be achieved on the piano (it is achieved on the guitar by bending the string with the left hand). Yet nobody would argue that the piano has no place in blues or jazz. Since the early 20th century pianists have worked around their instrument’s limitations in innovative ways, and their experiments have enhanced the music, not diminished it.

Of the artists mentioned above, I usually like listening to Shivkumar, I don’t much enjoy Kadri Gopalnath, and I find Anil Srinivasan’s approach very promising. This is not a technically informed evaluation of these artists’ respective merits. But I think musical quality is not necessarily correlated with technical purity. There are lots of musicians who follow all the rules but are mind-numbingly dull to listen to.

It seems to me, on reading Krishna’s first article closely, that he is more worried about the effect of keyboard instruments on music education — but then there are much graver problems to worry about. A scholarly article on how music should be taught would be welcome. But complaints about unsuitable instruments sound, to me, more reactionary than artistic. T M Krishna is a well-established and widely respected musician, but he is too young to sound like a curmudgeon.

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  1. Have you heard "Raw Materials" by Iyer and Mahanthappa. I thought it was one of the best jazz/world cds of recent date. Also, it is true that one cannot bend notes on a sax, but Coltrane's sheets-of-sound concept comes very very close. So maybe Krishna has not heard much Coltrane. For a more recent application of this sheets-of-sound concept, check out British saxophonist Courtney Pine's "Modern Day Jazz Stories". Pine is a true innovator.

  2. ws – (sorry for late reply) No, I haven't heard "Raw Materials", but the Iyer/Mahanthappa that I have heard was "straight jazz", not "world music". As I understand "sheets of sound" it is Coltrane's style of rapid playing (as in Giant Steps", and it's not so much that he can bend notes as that he doesn't have to — the ear blurs them together (just as Shivkumar's fast gat passages are often more convincing than his alaps). Will check out Pine.

  3. I loved this post. It was illuminating. I read T. M Krishna's article the other day. But not being very exposed to carnatic music, I really didn't have much of an opinion on what he was saying. The way you have put it, though.. is interesting and thought provoking. I've grown up listening to the blues and grew into jazz eventually like a natural progression and in teenage fashion thought carnatic music was awful and for the oldies. Mercifully, time has changed and broadened the mind. And last year, for the first time, I attended the margazhi concerts in madras(and I went to about thirty with all the zeal of a fresh convert)- including twice to kadri gopalnath's (whose music I did not like). To someone who does not know a thing about musical theory, I think the thing that counts is how an instrument lends itself to the mood of a piece.. does it draw all the attention to itself? can it meld in with the rest when it needs to? does it take away from the intricasies of the composition (raaga) – To me, the saxophone did. Certainly when Mr. Gopalnath was playing it. It sounded strange! But on the other hand, I have heard a guitarist friend play a raaga on his guitar, and it was beautiful, and very 'carnatic' … I have also heard Anil srinivasan several times both alone and with Sikkil Gurucharan in this past year, and I have to say that some times it sounds lovely and sometimes not. I don't know how to put it more specifically than that, but it just doesn't 'go' with some pieces, his piano. But I suppose then, that a musician's point of view is entirely different.. and perhaps in the interest of expanding horizons, experimenting is a wonderful (and necessary)thing… And Mr. Gopalnath, whether one personally likes his music and style or not, is doing something important for carnatic music – which is, not allowing it to stagnate.

  4. 1. You seem to support Krishna's purist view. 2. And you seem to support Anil's approach which is orthogonal to the purist discussion, is more about a concert format like fusion. 3. And TMK has not directly hit on Anil approach. And there is no conflcit between anils concert approach and TMK's purist thinking because gurucharan will be there to sing the gamakas. Any ideal , undiluted purist view ( or if it is titled as purist view by any CM concerned person ) on a focussed topic like CM instruments , can be no better than this. So why you look for legitimacy from TMK is not clear. Kadri is indirectly hit (assuming) , you seem to take pity on him, you are trying to clarify/glorify his capacity, and target TMK…. You seem to be biased with kadri for reasons known only to you. These are just my thoughts.But a very clear writeup, surprised at your technical clarity. conclusion is unclear.

  5. Drat. Looks like I missed out on another good thread.

  6. Mercury – thanks for the comment. I think music (and other forms of art) should not be only for the cognoscenti. I myself am not musically educated and have only picked up a few things here and there. Additional knowledge helps you appreciate the nuances and details, but shouldn't be required, and certainly shouldn't stop you appreciating other ideas. Glad you enjoy Carnatic music now. Rajagopalan – thanks for finding me surprisingly clear. I'm afraid I can't return the compliment. What are you saying?km – feel free to prolong it. (The thread seems to have woken up today all of a sudden — I suppose someone somewhere linked to it.)

  7. Rahul,That is an escape. May be that you donot have an explanation.Or sorry if you are busy. good luck

  8. Wonderful post!Cant really comment on it as I am not qualified. But whatever that can enrich music.. its welcome!

  9. Hey Rahul, I agree with you. We have moral police, cultural police and now aesthetics police. Krishna should interpret music as he things fit and leave the rest to the audience. Kadri and his audience will decide what they make of carnatic on Sax. Sriram


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