Monday, September 23, 2013

Lalgudi Jayaraman and Lakshmi Devnath: Virtuoso Performer and Mediocre Biographer.

One of the best decisions Steve Jobs took in his life was the choice of his biographer. Jobs chose Walter Isaacson, former editor of Time magazine and author of two best selling biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Einstein. Isaacson asked Jobs, if, by choosing him, Jobs saw himself in the league of Franklin and Einstein. Nobel laureate V.S.Naipaul chose bestselling author Patrick French to write his biography. Churchill distrusting others to do justice to World War II and his role decided to write it himself. Of course, self-servingly.

Lalgudi Jayaraman, or just 'Lalgudi' to his legions of fans, who lacked any formal education, 'allowed' Lakshmi Devnath to be his biographer. Devnath's biography, decent, by half, may very well remain the only biography of a man who took his music across the globe and thrilled millions. That is sad.

When a biographer starts by saying how she admired the subject and refers to the subject as 'uncle' ('mama') a reader like me hesitates. Only my eagerness to learn about a man that many referred to as 'genius' compelled me to plod on. Devnath claims that she has been objective and that Lalgudi or his family did not interfere in any way with her book. They did not have to.

The biography is a labor of love and it shows. In a very unique gesture Devnath has made out a CD with Lalgudi's recordings to illustrate key points she makes. The book helpfully notes, without too much intrusion, places where the reader can pause and sample the recording. The choice of English as a language is made solely to reach a wider audience else this book would have probably benefited more by being written in Tamil. A very helpful glossary of Tamil words, for both vernacular usage and music terms, is nicely compiled. That the author is ill at ease in English is apparent when she writes "she was kind to the core and strict to the hilt". As proof of Gopala Iyer's (father of Lalgudi) abilities beyond music we are offered a summary, "he sawed with precision, nailed with mastery and glued with finesse". Reading 'coachile vandhirukkaaaar' is grating to my senses instead of "கோச்சு வண்டியிலே வந்திருக்கார்" or 'vango' instead of 'வாங்கோ'. 

Lalgudi amongst all musicians has the rare privilege of claiming to descend from a direct disciple of Thyagaraja, the most revered amongst the Carnatic music trinity. The introduction of the violin to Carnatic music and such a rare musical heritage opens up many avenues for a skilled biographer to write a magisterial sweep of music history alongside the subject person. Devnath barely manages to race past the musical and biographical heritage.

The greatest disservice a biographer can do to a man millions called genius is to attribute his genius to astrology and make it appear that he was destined to be great. Devnath gushes about Lalgudi's horoscope and how his impending greatness was foretold. This obsession with unscientific mystery strikes a jarring note  when Kandasamy Bhagavathar dies of cancer despite his wife's 'knowledge of indigenous medicine and mystic powers'.

In my past blogs on music I've written about how Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner were widely read and how their intellectual pursuits impacted their creativity. When Lalgudi's teacher punished him by caning his fingers Gopal Iyer stopped his son from going to school. Most Carnatic musicians have little or no education until recent times. Even then it is a cursory education. T.M. Krishna has a degree in accounting and, by his own admission, 'dabbles in reading'. Gopal Iyer arranged private tutor to teach Math, English, Telugu and Sanksrit. Telugu and Sanksrit, we are told, 'would help understand the meaning of the songs'. It did not even strike the biographer as odd that Gopal Iyer did not think it fit to tutor his son in Tamil. He probably thought there was nothing worthwhile in Tamil to be taught requiring a tutor. That brings to mind a sore controversy about the Tamil music versus carnatic music shenanigans.

Music and caste are intertwined in an unholy nexus in India (as in America too), especially in Carnatic music. Gopal Iyer takes Jayaraman to listen to a performance in a Mariamman temple. Devnath lists the artistes. All of them are from the 'Pillai' caste. Not a single Brahmin because its the Mariamman temple. The very next paragraph details the artistes at a function in the temple at Srirangam. All are Brahmin artistes. Not a single non-Brahmin. Devnath, probably Brahmin herself, does not bat an eyelid at this dichotomy.

Carnatic music is vocal music with no tradition, for decades, of having accompanying instruments especially one like the violin. The place of instruments and its players in a performance is a still debated one. As violin evolved to be more than 'just' an accompaniment Jayaraman wanted to see violin solo performances. This rubbed vocalists and other, hitherto, solo instrument players like veena players.

Madurai Mani for whom Lalgudi used to accompany ensured that only the vocalist had a mike. Semmangudi, the ever irascible vocalist, would push away the mikes in front of a violinist. Jayaraman's own protege singer T.N. Seshagopalan took to the print and snidely complained that the violinist does not 'his' place. Veena Balachander confronted Jayaraman that his demand for solo performances was upsetting veena players. Brahmins, the chief practitioners of carnatic music, are famously vigilant about caste hierarchies and owe their social pre-eminence to a rigid caste structure entrenched in the name of tradition. It is little wonder that such practitioners were livid about upsetting 'tradition'. Check this link about Semmangudi ( A young Semmangudi is performing with accompaniments but only he and the violinist have the mike. An older Semmangudi then performs with mikes for mridangam and the violinist too.

Jayaraman ruffled many a feather with his venu (flute)-veena-violin concerts. Apparently he even composed music for such concerts. It is this composing that is often spoke of by his admirers as setting him apart from other violinists who were only virtuosos. That and the unique and legendary 'Lalgudi Bani' (Lalgudi way of playing) are collectively referred to as his genius. Devnath does a decent explanation of those.

The only place in the biography where Devnath attempts objectivity and balance is in giving quotes from those who did not think high of Lalgudi's compositions. But the biographer rescues her 'uncle' by rounding off with counter quotes and gentle brushing away of criticisms.

A biographer with wider knowledge of music would have used this to illustrate the differences with Western classical and bring out how western classical, written for instruments by a composer, contrasts with a vocal tradition. I'll not be surprised if Devnath thinks there is no music beyond carnatic music. A non-Brahmin author might have taken a broader view.

Indians enjoy the recognition that Indian philosophy, literature and music receive from Westerners, that too Whites. I've only heard of Beatles swooning over Ravi Shankar or Yehudi Menuhin swooning over Lalgudi or U Thant introducing MS at the UN. We never hear of John Coltrane or the Jazz musicians interacting with Indian music.

Lalgudi was very warmly introduced by Yehudi Menuhin. Menuhin instructs his audience not to judge carnatic music with their customary paradigms. He gently lectures that in carnatic music the instrument 'follows' the singing. Carnatic musicians who performed abroad were often feted back home. They had grand send off's and equally grand welcome back functions like conquering caesars. Often such functions were organized by Sabhas. Strangely none of these Sabhas thought it fit to invite a Zubin Mehta or Leonard Bernstein to India. Smugness. No carnatic musician would have done what Menuhin did for Lalgudi. Indians only love to boast of what they taught the world. Never interested in learning.

The carnatic music world is incestuous with a clique like mentality. Music Academy and The Hindu (a newspaper of dubious quality but loved by Brahmins on par with their worship of carnatic music) have an unholy nexus. Brahmin controlled news magazines and their so called critics formed a relationship with sabhas and performers. There was (and is) no professional critic. The Music Academy itself has a clique mentality.

Devnath dwells, justifiably, on the politics of the 'Sangeetha Kalanidhi' award fracas. Jayaraman had taken great efforts to renovate the house of Thyagaraja and organize annual festivals in his honor. Inaugurating a Thyagaraja Aradhana G.K.Moopanar addressed Semmangudi, MS, Lalgudi etc with the prefix 'Sangeetha Kalanidhi'. Semmangudi barked on the stage "he is not one". Besmirched thus Lalgudi next day visited Semmangudi and told him that even if given he would not accept the title 'Sangeetha Kalanidhi'. Photocopies of press clippings with English translations give these pages a racy flavor.

Carnatic music has always been accused of reeking with casteism. Thats a blog for another day. I was surprised to learn that the Kanchi Mutt had taken ownership of the homes of the musical trinity. Carnatic music and Hinduism are inseparable. They need not be torn asunder but when music is sheltered under religion it does not augur well. Compiling the Pancharatna Kritis of Thyagaraja Lalgudi, Devnath writes, takes the help of Kanchi's mutt's then reigning pontiff Chandrasekarendra Swamigal. That pontiff would not even see a non-Brahmin. In a famous rendezvous with Gandhi Chandrasekarendra pleaded "dont destroy hinduism" referring to Gandhi's attempts  to eradicate untouchability.

Lakshmi Devnath herself bares her biases ever so subtly. She is scrupulous in quoting the names, even an Assistant Collector, of whose quotes she is using or whose views she is sharing in relation to Lalgudi. Striving to drive home the point that everyone in the Lalgudi lineage, including Guruswany Iyer (grand uncle of Lalgudi who died young) is musically talented Devnath reaches to 'a book'. In the 'compilation of notable vidwans of this period, published as part of a book, talks about Guruswamy Iyer'. 'Guriswamy dyer sings well in strict adherence to rules. He is also an excellent vidwan'. Devnath, not accidentally, annotates the reference in the 'notes' as the book written by Nadar Christian Abraham Pandithar (possibly backward community then). Pandithar's book 'Karnamirtha Sagaram' is considered a definitive text and well researched material on the origins of Carnatic music. Contemporary Tamil writer Jeyamohan wrote of how Pandithar, being Christian, was studiously eclipsed by the Brahmin establishment. Even the Dravidian parties that emphasized non-Brahmin influence in music chose to ignore Pandithar because he was a Nadar Christian and not an 'Isai vellalar' the caste of Karunanidhi.

Devnath ignoring the caste dimensions in the Pillai versus Brahmin artistes depending on the kind of God in a temple is a telling lapse. Quite interestingly another book by Devnath, titled 'A class apart', is about Rashmi Parthasarathy. Mrs Parthasarathy, naturally, a Brahmin, is feted as an 'educationist'. She is no such thing in reality. The PSBB schools are notorious for their Hindutva emphasis and blatant promotion of Brahminism in the name of promoting Indian culture. I am sure Devnath would recoil with horror before writing of Thulasi Vandayar who is running a well regarded arts college in a villlage, without a penny in donations, for decades. If Mrs Parthasarathy is an educationist then so are Jeppiar and Wodayar, two bootleg manufacturers turned 'educationists'.

As I closed the book I certainly knew of key events in Lalgudi's life. The controversies, particularly the solo performance issue, were illustrative if the reader has prior thoughts in that regard else it was only gossip. A biography must delve into the mind of a subject and recreate the life in a composite manner, including a portrait of the era, for the reader. Lalgudi still remains distant to me. I still do not know the man. The book did leave a respectable impression of Lalgudi in my mind. But I am afraid the lack of an intellectual flavor could also be because the subject person lacked it too. Here is no Wagner wondering about why not use Buddhism. No Beethoven flinging a condemnation at an emperor. A biography of Ilayaraja might have more drama in it. Raja, as film musician, had more freedom to experiment and push the horizons of what people thought of as music. Lalgudi born into a family steeped into music for generations takes to it like fish takes to water. Raja hailed from a very low caste with no musical heritage. Sadly Devnath succeeds in a way she did not perhaps want to succeed. If the reader thinks at the end 'great man. Admirable principles and decent man. Yet, we can only admire that instead of frittering away his advantages he built on it'.

Jobs commenting on what he thought as the reason for his famous rival's, Bill Gates's, reason for not being as creative as himself said "if only Bill had dropped acid in college or went off to an ashram". Lalgudi the ever obedient, eager to please, role model son scaled heights on the shoulders of a storied family and capitalized on a very stratified art form that prided itself on 'connections'. Maybe someday a better biographer will do better justice to a talent that readers could understand better.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All things cannot be looked through the prism of caste. After all, many of the initial saints in the Vaishnava movement were non brahmin. As far as carnatic music is concerned, the Pillai community has produced many violinists, percussionists, so on. As for the mike not being there for the pakka vadiyam, I think it was more because that the instruments come out much louder than the voice. This would have been more prevalent initially, since it took time for people to adjust to the microphone. Even now, there are quite a few concerts ruined by a very load mridamgam or a violin.