“Classical” music

!!! IMPORTANT – Read this first !!!

What is the definition of “classical”? Depending on the field, the opinion differs. For some, it is the time period of origin and development. For some others, it is the nature and structure of the form that defines it. And there are other definitions too.

In India, there are different classical art forms like various classical dances and music. If you look at all these forms together, we can pick out some common characters which gives them the label “classical” (other than the age factor):

  • Structure – all of them has a “fixed base structure” and then, there are well defined (or generally accepted) rules on how the performance need to be conducted. Eg: Overall structure of a Carnatic/Hindustani music concert or a bharatanAtyam/kuchipuDi/yakSagAna/kathakaLi dance performance.
  • Pre-set theme – the underlying theme is well known before the performance. For example, in a dance performance, the story that the dance is going to enact is not a surprise, but is published or known to the viewer. In a musical concert, the rasika is already familiar with (most) rAgAs or krutis being presented. As a result, most of the rasAnubhava does not depend on the (macro level) suspense/surprises, but it happens with innovative and creative interpretation of the underlying well-known theme.
  • Composed part and Improvisations – most of these art forms have a mixture of composed part and an improvisation part. The ratio of composed part to improvisation part is different in different forms. The way to improvise is not ad-hoc and there are pre-set rules/methods for improvisations and expressing individual creativity.
  • Performer-audience relationship – in order to understand and enjoy them to the fullest, the audience is expected to have prior basic understanding of the above mentioned structure of the performance, the composed parts, modes of improvisation and the theme. (It is not that once cannot enjoy without the prior knowledge, but, more the prior knowledge, more the rasika is able to understand and enjoy the nuances and details)
  • Tempo – most of them have a range of tempo from very slow to very fast. Both the extremes are generally part of a single performance and there are well defined practices/rules on how/when to change (and not to change) the tempo within a performance.
  • Appreciation – There are two ways of appreciating any music – cerebral and emotional. Cerebral listening requires a mental effort on the part of the listener, while our emotional enjoyment is usually automatic and lies in our subconscious. Classical arts cater to both at the same time.

If we examine a Carnatic music concert against these characters, we can see that it matches almost all of them. There is a fairly complex basic structure defining the interaction between the various artists on the stage and there is a fairly fixed format that you can expect for a performance (katcheri paddhati), most krutis and rAgAs presented in a concert are known to the audience, a knowledgeable rasika is able to enjoy every part of a concert (a novice may be put off or get bored by some explorations, but may get excited by other parts), the kAlapramANa varies between and within kritis and conventions and rules exist on how, when and what can be changed in this aspect, there are avenues for individual creativity for all the artists involved, and the appreciation happens at all levels. Depending on the artist and the concert, the prominence of these factors vary.

Now, if one evaluates MDR’s music on these terms, we can see that MDR presented was truly “classical” music. His music was predominantly slow and the innovation and creativity happened at the micro level. He did not thrill the rasikas by throwing big surprises at them or by maintaining high tempo, high decibel music. His way of presentation gave the rasika the time and chance to understand, appreciate and follow the nuances of Carnatic music and was rich in both cerebral and emotional aspects. His performance captured the attention of both a casual listener and a learned rasika, and there was something in his style which made it unique. His concerts were more like an ensemble and every co-artist got enough space for creativity. And, the barrier between the artists and the audience was very thin and audience was very much part of his concerts.

For me, MDR is one of the most “classical” among the Carnatic classical musicians!