Breaking free from within

For interventions to put down roots in complex traditions, they have to make sense to the practitioners and participants There is a remarkable scene in a documentary Aarar Asaippadaar by the director Prasanna Ramaswamy, which traces the everyday life of the great Carnatic singer Sanjay Subrahmanyan. We see Subrahmanyan (when the documentary was filmed, he was already a luminous presence in Carnatic music) seated at the side of a nadaswaram master, the late Semponnarkoil S.R.D. Vaidyanathan. Outside the verandah where they sit, the blazing yellow of the sun shimmers and the occasional traffic sound drifts into the soundscape. All the while Subrahmanyan’s fingers strum the tanpura, and he listens to Vaidyanathan’s gravelly voice traverse the melancholic grandeur of a raagam called Surutti. During the course of this set piece, notwithstanding its cinematic flavour, Vaidyanathan freely shares the compositions from his oeuvre — a mallari here, a padam there. Occasionally, he stops to make small talk with his famous student. But it is music that is foremost on their minds. Together, they talk, sing, soak in the generosities of each other’s presence. Meaningful change Seeing them come together to share and learn — even if separated by age, experience, sensibilities, values — may seem from the outside as commonplace. But such a reading obscures the micro-innovations and micro-borrowings from one musical sensibility to another which enlarge musical vocabularies. These kinds of unostentatious engagements are neither spectacular to behold nor radical in their claims. Their innovations belong to no one person in particular, yet they can only be passed down to the next generation by an artist who singularly takes possession of it. This simultaneity of ownership — this possession and non-possession at the same time — is what makes tradition particularly difficult to study. It is also why it evokes such strong sentiments. Yet, some fundamental questions pose themselves every so often. Why do some changes in the grammar of a long and complex transmission process of human endeavours and aesthetics — call it culture or tradition, if you will — end up being internalised without an extraordinary rupture? And why are other changes, despite all their claims of radicalism and accompanying frenzy of promotion, ultimately indistinguishable from the cosmetic and die away when either the provocateur or his interests fade away? At its heart then, the question is, why do some changes acquire meaningfulness? These are not questions to which we can find easy or even satisfactory answers. But at the heart of any approximate explanation is the question of whether an intervention “makes sense”. In his classic Being and Time , the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger interrogates at length the question of what we mean when we say “makes sense”. To Heidegger, “making sense” meant allowing for things or ideas (or, as he called them, “beings”) to be arranged in a manner that allows for intelligibility. Any innovation must facilitate a recall to the past, must allow for the pre-existing whole to survive and retain coherence in form, substance, and meaning. Dread (or angst), he says, was nothing but the recognition of our inability to interpret. The appearance of a challenge In our times, however, we seem to celebrate interventions as challenges to our abilities to interpret them, to contextualise them. We speak of defying tradition. On closer inspection, however, we realise that such interventions, far from being real challenges to tradition, which would involve institution building and sustained engagement with other practitioners, as exemplified in the life of Rukmini Arundale, are preoccupied with the appearance of challenge. The provocateur presents himself as a sort of transformative figure. His biography becomes the site of innovation. To his critics, he is a radical they slowly learn to ignore; to his admirers, the opportunity to soak in the frisson generated by his experiments compensates for the lack of any critical thought of whether it all amounts to anything. The result is then familiar: around this purported radicalism there cohere people and political sentiments. None too surprisingly, the more the individual talks in the borrowed vocabularies of revolutionaries, the more the artist recedes to make space for a public performer, which in our age is indistinguishable from a celebrity. Invoking the artist becomes a talisman of authenticity in an age of cultural confusion. His art, meanwhile, is only relevant to them as long he wages a battle against the windmills of their choosing. The day he steps off his steed — tired of cant or bored of rhetoric — they will have little use for his art.

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