Music seems to have an important, if not profound, influence on peoples' lives. It defines personality, depicts emotion, creates mood, and even changes minds. The seemingly simple play of notes affords immense power over the human spirit, having the ability to alter the very way we feel about a certain situation or circumstance.
But is music actually more than a pastime? Is it more than a pleasurable hobby? Can music be more than a frivolous luxury? Sure, people make careers out of music, but perhaps our Indian cultural upbringing makes us quick to snub the Western pop star who makes his millions from performing to raucous screaming, shrieking girls, and a bone-thudding bass. Sure, his appearance on tabloids doesn't help, but maybe we are eager lay our faith in doctors, lawyers, and engineers, not because we are afraid of turning into attention seeking superstars, but because we don't understand the necessity of music as a staple to daily welfare. We assume that the the value of those three professions is obvious, one does not need an advanced degree to understand the irrevocable impact they have on societal progression -- doctors cure us of our diseases, engineers build the tools that doctors use, and lawyers make sure the doctors have good coverage in the case of a lawsuit. So what the heck does a musician do?
Well let us take a step back and take a look at music through time. Music has been used in different forms and for different purposes. From voicing the hopes, pains, fears, and dreams of a people fighting to retain an identity as in the case of Jana Gana Mana by Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, which is said to have unified the nation of India during the freedom struggle, to speaking out against apartheid as in the case of the South African activist and Grammy winner, Miriam Makeba. Music was a medium for these artistic geniuses to share with the world their thoughts on social and political issues of the time, and as a by product, a way for the mass populace to engage with these sentiments.
We gather together, every year, to celebrate the Thyagaraja Aradhana, a time to exhibit and share the musical talents of our community while honoring the Karnatic greats, but I fear that our appreciation and passion for music is as fleeting as the last hums of the shruti box that resonate in your ear even after it's turned off. Let us educate ourselves and younger generations about more than just the basic notes in a song. Let us understand the meaning behind each song, and furthermore, comprehend their historical and contextual significance, using that content as fuel for our daily actions. Let the music we sing and play be more than a melodious sport -- let it impact our lives in our actions, our thoughts, and our interactions with each other.
I may be presumptuous in saying that music can affect the way we think and act, but then why do we sing songs at temples or other Hindu religious events? Do we actually think that the gods are sitting aloft their heavenly abode pleasantly swaying to the tunes of Ragamaalika? Or do we, rather, sing these bhakthi infused compositions to draw in ourselves a sense of faith and reverence? In that very basic way these songs are changing the way we think and live our lives; pulling us away from the busy happenings of school, work, and activities to center our minds on something that is not easily described or reproduced. Not only do these songs force us to pause and immerse ourselves in their undulating chorus, but they require an additional type of focus and concentration, requiring us to control our breathing, regulate our posture, and exercise our minds to remember the words and/or tune.
A song can be one of the most basic forms of human expression. Just try watching a movie without any of the background music. Suddenly the monster creeping up the stairs is not as scary ... suddenly the heartbroken woman does not evoke as much sympathy ... suddenly the trees swaying and river shimmering below don't seem as magical.
By no means am I the best singer or the most learned musician, but I do insist that music plays a very important role in our lives. To me, music is memory. It’s harder to remember words than it is to remember a tune. Music provides an opportunity to ingrain something in your mind in the simple beauty of a few notes. Whether it be the once popular NSYNC that trigger memories of elementary and middle school where I adamantly insisted on writing about Justin Timberlake for a hero essay (my parents rather suggested, or forced, me to write about John Wheeler, the discoverer of black holes instead...), the multiplication tables my dad taught me to sing in a tune, or Thyagaraja’s Pancharatna Kritis that fondly bring back the days of bicycling to Shaila Aunty’s house for Pancharatna practice … these are souvenirs of my childhood that have remained because of their connection to music.
Music can invigorate us on emotional and intellectual levels. In Karnatic music specifically I see a certain grandeur, knowing that many of these songs originated with high levels of thought and sophistication when many other cultures were still figuring out spoken language. The directness of expression and the range of possibilities in terms of melodies in unmatched. Songs range from simple and beautiful to impressive, complex poets that tell the epic tales. And while the meaning and lyrics revolve around religion and devotion, things that may not be relevant or appreciated in our modern age, I still think they carry great value as they are an exposé of both basic and complex life values and principles.
For example, in the Purandaradasa Kriti Hari kotta kaala the composer says Hari kotta kaalakke unalilla udalilla, Hari kodadha kaalakke bayaridheno. Literally translated this means When Hari gave me the food to eat and clothes to wear I neither ate nor wore, but when he did not give me then I thirsted for them. One may interpret this to mean that when we are given opportunities many times we are afraid to take them, afraid to seize the moment and thrive; yet later on we are prone to complaining, regretting, and wishing that we had taken the right actions at the right time to prevent later remorse. One may further see this as doing the appropriate thing at the appropriate time. Every stage of life has certain duties, whether that is attending school and studying, focusing on growing a career, or caring for a family. Fulfilling these duties at the appropriate time is imperative, lest later regrets surface, from not studying enough to not spending enough time with near and dear ones. This simple song, a beautiful pleasure to the ear, has lyrics that when understood and internalized can change someone’s perspective on and approach to life.
These kritis can speak to us both in word and music -- they express the power in the world beyond petty human concerns, something which music is so ideally suited to express. These ancient composers subconsciously insist that we, as listeners, confront our own ideas of our place in the world.
The ultimate success of music is in the mind of the listener -- how it makes the listener feel, how he or she is influenced and impacted by it, how it may provoke thought or change in the person’s life, and for me personally, how it links to memories. I would venture a bold statement saying that Karnatic music has only a positive effect, something other popular forms of music cannot attest to, unfortunately, in today’s day and age. Yet at the same time all forms of music have a way of causing people to think or react, which in and of itself, is the goal of these paradigm-shifting, culture-creating art form. Music’s ability to, if only for a few minutes, pull us out of our lives, its ability to draw us into an ethereal, intangible beauty, and its ability to connect us to people and culture sets it apart as a magic of its own.