Is Carnatic Music Casteist?
I didn't however, see this vizha as an answer orchallenge to the Brahmin caste's alleged domination of the art. Yes, most performers today are Brahmins, and so are listeners. However is this by design of the Brahmins and are non-Brahmin aspirants feeling hurt and left out? Several articles over the last few months, including some published by reputed Indian and foreign media make out that over the last few decades, the Brahmin elite of Chennai deliberately elbowed out the Nadaswaram community. Many of these articles quote the charismatic vocalist TM Krishna or present his interpretation of history. I admire my friend TM's music and his genuine search for a critical understanding of the relationship between art and society. However, many of the conclusions he draws are flawed.
In the pre-trinity era the important composers of Tamil Nadu were Muthu Thandavar,Marimuthu Pillai and Arunachala Kavi, all non-Brahmins. Purandaradasa, considered the 'father' of the art form was from the Vaishya caste. Performers and composers spanning several centuries straddled many classes and at least two castes -- Brahmin and Isai Vellalar. It is well known that Muthuswamy Dikshitar had several non-Brahmin students including the Tanjore quartet and Kamalam, a Devadasi.
My great-grandfather, Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar (1866 to1943) was a respected Brahmin Harikatha Bhagavatar and a towering musical personality of his era. He wrote a series of articles for the Kalki magazine – now also published as a book in English titled Cameos  -- chronicling noteworthy artists he hadpersonally witnessed. Many of the artists he wrote about, in much admiring tones, were non-Brahmins (Pillais). A great deal of cooperation and mutual respect between these castes is evidenced from this book, an authoritative narrative on the musical mileu of that time. Incidentally, my great-grandfather had two major rivals inconducting the aradhana for Thyagaraja in Tiruvayyaru: one was Bangalore Nagaratnammal, a Devadasi. The other was a group predominantly of vidwans belonging to the Nadaswaram caste. While he had his differences with them, he also had artistic and personal respect for them.
Continuing over the last century, instances of shishya-paramparas across the two castes were not rare at all. Well known exampes of this are: TN Rajaratnam Pillai learned vocal music from Tirukodikaval Krishna Aiyar and Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Aiyar, leading Brahmin musicians. In the other direction, P.S. Narayanaswamy, today considered one of the go-to Gurus for aspiring performers, himself received his training from Tiruppambaram Somasundaram Pillai. Several Brahmin men and women who were leading performers learned from women of the Dhanammal family. More recently, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, a popular young vocalist learned from nadaswaram vidwan Sempannarkoil Vaidyanathan.
Members of the Brahmin and other privileged classes who were lawyers or bureaucrats in the British government of Chennai around one hundred years ago, founded an alternative to the dying feudal and royal patronage of the arts -- the membership-based sabha.
The participation of castes other than these two in the art-form needs to be examined as well. The music of theater of the previous era had its basis in carnatic ragas. A minority of non-Brahmin musicians of other castes performed in drama troupes. In the twentieth century these musicians naturally migrated to cinema acting and singing. They were often trained by concert-performing carnatic musicians, both Brahmin and Isai Vellalar. Prominent examples are M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar from a goldsmith family, T.M. Soundararajan from a weaver family and K.B. Sundarambal, a talented young girl spotted singing for alms on a train.
Carnatic music and religious themes were the bases for drama and cinema. Later influences changing that included the atheistic politics of the Dravidian movement.
Non-brahmins from the states of Kerala, Karnataka and AP have done very well in the art form. KJ Yesudas, Mysore Manjunath & Nagaraj, M. Balamuralikrishna are leading performers from various non-Brahmin (and non Isai Vellalar) castes. What happened in Tamil Nadu? Where are the MKTs, KBS's and TMS's of a later period?
Art grapples with the dilemmas and struggles of the human condition. Composers are inspired by the symbolism and evocative power of mythology. Every character in the Mahabharata is a symbol for a heroic internal journey. The divine charioteer, the battlefield, the bow -- all evoke deep questions and give a context to develop the melodic and rhythmic frameworks to greater sophistication. The art-form does not dictate that the theme has to be religious. Musicians are welcome to explore other themes, or pure sound for its own sake, and inspire or evoke what it does in the listener. Whether this is successful depends onwhat happens!
A lot of western classical music of an earlier era thus similarly drew on the supremely evocative crucifixion of Christ as its theme. JS Bach lived and breathed the word of God through his music. To the secular western musicians of today, the Masses and Passions remain an important body of classical music, not of 'religious' but of artistic importance. In spite of their own agnosticism or atheism, they approach Bach with the reverence he deserves, and acknowledge his work as deeply religious at its core.
Folk traditions examine human dilemmas too, and many of them are also based on mythology. The audience was broader, because the art is more accessible in the sense of using simpler frameworks bethey of melody, rhythm or visual code, but still evoking these questions in the mind of the audience.
If the Music Academy doesn't wish to include Parai-attam, it is no different from the literary forum which excludes pulp fiction, or the Opera house which excludes the Beatles. I enjoy the Beatles, Parai-attam and T.M.Krishna's Jambupathe equally. But these don't evoke the same feelings in me. All are my feelings, all are valued by me.