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Should Music Be Popular Or Esoteric?

The other day when we were rehearsing for a concert, the lead vocalist said that she had chosen songs that were mostly janaranjakam (popular). Knowing the fact that only popular items drew decent numbers, without giving much exercise to our grey matter, we co-artistes nodded in agreement to drift along. Since we had performed most kritis umpteen times, it did not take long before we wound up our practice session.

But that sparked an interesting conversation, quite relevant in the present age, where the audience harbours no special affiliation towards any genre of music. This observation does not apply to connoisseurs who have lived their life through music. The value perspectives they derived from their sincerity of immersion in music and a yearning for a better participatory experience have given music the form it has today.

There were several interesting questions that were raised keeping in view the role of a rasika (connoisseur). To have a consistent reference throughout this piece, we shall consider only those connoisseurs attending Carnatic concerts.

What does a rasika expect out of a performance?

That rasika holds a prominent place in the overall scheme of things is well-established. There may be a variety of expectations that a rasika might have while going for a concert. For example, a ghana raga varaali, a Nalinakaanti, a vakra raga begada, a vivaadi raga naaganandini or a unique composition with a complex tala structure; an abhang or a simple bhajan , etc. There may also be many first time attendees and novices coming to the concert without much expectation, but the data is greatly skewed towards an audience that finds joy in hearing only popular music that requires minimal or negligible effort on the part of the performer as well as the listener.

How should artistes respond to the expectations of a rasika?

The answer to this questions leads to another question: Does the artiste have the responsibility to address all rasikas? Not necessarily. Yet, it is a subjective call that can’t be addressed with a closed yes/no question. We can easily have a consensus of opinion that every performer is first a rasika and then a performer. Because the performer has to first derive joy out of what he/she does. The ability to then translate that experience and share the joy with others requires great rigour on part of the practitioner as well as the participant (rasika — in this context), which means music can’t be one-dimensional.

Rasikas hail from various backgrounds carrying their own list of expectations that would keep them appeased till the end, but the technique lies in identifying where to cater to what. Therefore, a good sadhaka (one who strives to get it right) will always strive to connect and engage with a wide spectrum of audiences and at least attempt to address a majority of them.

Do numbers decide the fate of a concert?

Surely the sight of people flocking to concerts would be an encouraging factor for the artistes to put up a good show. But that does not necessarily add testimony to the question whether the concert was actually good or bad. There may be performances that stimulate the audience through high decibel sound and beats but devoid of any content and value. On the other side, there may be artistic excellence and intellectual depth in the presentation, but not enough rasikas to assimilate the nuances and appreciate the richness of the content. Thus, the quality of a concert cannot be necessarily determined by the number of people attending it. However, a receptive and responsive audience can definitely help improve the performance.

Should rasikas just sit back and enjoy whatever is offered on a platter?

A contribution is immense for any form of music to develop and flourish. Every form of music has got multiple facets and styles of performance, but it is up to the aesthete whether to confine oneself to a limited source of hearing or seek something special that does not come easy. The divine providence of having a refined musical ear is not bestowed upon every aficionado. But it is imperative for the qualified rasikas to step out and at least ensure that they get good music and not just remain stuck in a rut of hearing marketable repetitive melodies that have gained popular acclaim.

Is classical music too esoteric?

In one of the lecture-demonstrations, Dr Sriram Parasuram declared unequivocally, “Every generation gets the music it deserves.” Classical music is not meant for mere enjoyment that titillates the senses in a flash and dissipates like a smoke without carrying much intrinsic value. There are various stages that a connoisseur needs to undergo before graduating from an amateur to a professional. It is a transitional experience that always has room for better auditory perception to discriminate between great and ordinary music.

A genuine rasika needs to cultivate a habit of selective hearing on a regular basis to taste the essence of classical music. It is something that simply won’t strike one fine day. As Dr Parasuram rightly says, “identifying a raga of a composition is only the first stage” and that rasikas should not stop there; they need to travel much farther to realize that that scope is unfathomable.”

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Ambareesh Iyer
Handling multiple roles in an IT start-ups, Carnatic music aficionado with interest in Hindustani, ghazals and qawwali


  1. Well written. The artist should not play entirely to the gallery but to the art that he represents.

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