The pandemic has affected Chennai’s music season in many ways. The lack of live audiences is on everyone’s mind, but we should perhaps focus on how this has presented a great opportunity to widen the following for Carnatic music. That is, if the firmament takes notice.
As multiple virtual concerts get ready for streaming this December, how can the new medium be used to invite new listeners, not just from outside south India or from among the Indian diaspora, but outsiders as well? Many people have not heard Carnatic music at all and their curiosity could be piqued now by the format, style, raga elaboration, vocal cord twists, myriad scales and blend of accompaniments. I have listened to more western pop and symphony in the past 10 months than all my years before. I understand it all only in parts, but am trying earnestly to make a connection. Western musicians, students of music, music conservatories, and committed Western audiences could just as easily be encouraged to listen to Carnatic music. Not just the West, but there is plenty of musical interest in the East as well — China, Korea and Japan leading amongst them — and there may be audiences there too, if the right kind of listening opportunities are created.
Germany has been very successful in exporting not just its fabled cars, but its impressive classical music legacy too. German classical music is taught in various global universities and by freelance tutors. By contrast, we have been conservative. Our music needs to be heard before it is judged as interesting or not, and that moment may have arrived. With clever marketing and good use of social media, the 2020 Margazhi season could enter drawing rooms and schools across the world. It could prove to be a soothing alternative for the many fatigued and jaded people who are still reeling under physical and travel restrictions. Instrumental concerts, for instance, are less daunting to uninitiated ears and they could prove to be an entry point. If the music reaches a million new listeners, there is every possibility that the law of averages will bring in a few thousand people who want to be involved more regularly. Wesleyan University is just one eco-system that has produced many performers and, more importantly, informed listeners.
Carnatic music is an acquired and niche taste. If it wasn’t, we would have droves of followers in India itself. But all fine arts are like that. Access and knowledge have been inhibitors to a wider audience for classical music. And Carnatic musicians and audiences have tended to share, discuss and debate it within a small cocoon. There have been a few odd concerts abroad attended by non-Indian audiences. And film music has taken some of the melodic structures to global audiences, but these are drops in the ocean. Internationalising a genre of music is a massive, multi-year programme that will need much work. The webcasters can make a beginning this year.
If the process of musical export starts with new listeners, teaching and learning can follow. All change starts with baby steps.