Sound and Purity: Classical and Folk Traditions of Music in Modern India

There is a discernible silence reverberating through the hollow of the tanpura. Once venerated as the gods of music in the legendary courts of historic South Asia, Indian classical musicians find themselves in an unfamiliar social circumstance. Classical forms of music do not find themselves to be as popular as they once were, and its practitioners are seen to be just as important as any other form of music. How and why did these genres, from being the pinnacles of musical advancement, go on to become niches interesting to only a few?

Classical genres of music in India, predominantly Hindustani and Carnatic, are often lauded as being two of the most innovative and distinguished forms of music in the world. Their contribution to what is called “World Music” is an assertion that finds itself repetitive in debates regarding the global impact of Indian culture. Then there are other genres of music, very particular to their geo-cultural contexts, that do not classify as classical music. Instead, these tens of thousands of culturally explicit forms of music are homogenized under the umbrella term of “Folk” music. What distinguishes the music of the Parai drummers of Tamil Nadu, or the Ravanahatha players of Rajasthan, or Bauls of West Bengal from “classical” music?

There is no universally accepted set of definitions as to what the differences between “classical” and “folk” actually are, in the South Asian context especially. In the social circles of connoisseurs who enjoy the former genres of music, it can be discerned that classical music is felt to possess a more culturally refined approach to music. Classical musicians are better trained than the so-called folk musicians and it has also been argued that they possess a wider array of techniques and aesthetic embellishments. This explanation, prima facie, would imply that simply to enjoy classical music, one would have to be initiated into the esoteric technicalities of the preferred genre. Economically speaking, the level of education that the appreciation of a genre demands is a social and cultural feature that only upper classes and castes are capable of possessing.

This brings us to a significant complication in the scope of this debate – skill. As mentioned earlier, skill and nuance in music can predominantly be discerned by those who are familiar with the vocabulary of the classical genres. Historically, one can find these musicians to have earned their livelihood and recognition in the courts and halls of kings and noblemen, or in prestigious gharanas or affluent temple institutions. These were the patrons of the classical arts. It was important for the reputation and prestige of the ruling elite to be seen as intellectual actors, facilitators of cultural advancement. It was in this politically charged environment that classical forms of music developed. The legendary Tansen in the court of Akbar and the training of Shyama Shastri under the esteemed durbar musician Adaiyyappa are only two examples of how deeply royal and upper caste the classical traditions of India are. Similar parallels can be drawn by considering the development of Western classical music under the patronage of the European courts and the endorsement of Jazz by the 20th century ruling American elite.

It was in this environment that classical musicians received the incentive to produce “advanced” forms of understanding and presenting music. As an accessory to the state, or rather as an indicator of the cultural refinement of the ruling class, the stage for the development of classical music was set.

In contrast, “folk” music is considered rather simplistic. The implication is that folk songs can be understood and enjoyed by anybody, no matter the class or the level of education. There is an overwhelming body of evidence demonstrating the fact that all Classical music, in terms of instruments, scales, rhythmic patterns, and aesthetic sensibilities, are derived from various forms of folk music. The homage has never been paid as of yet. The term “folk music” is itself a highly diminutive one. The sheer multiplicity of folk genres outweigh the classical genres by a severely large margin. And yet, it is insisted that local, rural, and tribal forms of music be homogenised as “folk music”. In the words of T.M. Krishna, “Art associated with the marginalised castes is described as folk, rural, raw and ethnic—words that seem to express appreciation, but simultaneously damn them with faint praise, signifying them as unrefined and inferior artistic expressions.”

It is evident at this point that caste and class have an undeniable role in our understanding of Classical and Folk forms of music. Are we to enjoy a form of music more than another based on levels of complexity and cultural hegemony? Can feeling and the impact of art forms be quantified and generalised? Is our current understanding of music inherently divisive? Is it not that this mass homogenization that we are all guilty of is maligning our understanding of the beautifully complicated web of cultures that is South Asia?

Aditya Mohanan is a historian/anthropologist from SOAS, London and is also an independant/classical musician.

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