This is a long awaited book. Finally we have a history of a musical tradition written by a historian with a cultivated ear. There have been accounts, often extremely interesting, by persons of deep musical involvement but no sense of historical method. Rangaramanuja Iyengar’s History of South Indian (Carnatic) Music comes immediately to mind. At the other extreme I can think of at least one book, C.S. Lakshmi’s The Singer and the Song which for all its attempts at bringing feminist rigour to its analysis of women singers and their situation displays a grievous ignorance of any aspect of music or musical performance. Lakshmi Subramanian’s great strength is that she brings a close understanding and appreciation of the classical music of South India to her study of the social and historical context of the period 1800-1940, and the ways in which this context influenced the development of the form. It is not that she has discovered the art form because of her interest as a historian in the times she has written about; on the contrary her sense of the form informs her understanding of societal trends.

What this means for the book is that it sternly rejects the fanciful and muddled speculation that goes into writing about Indian music, or the tendency to elevate anecdote, and often gossip, to high theory. A great deal of writing on Carnatic music makes illogical and unhelpful assumptions as for instance that all musical development was divinely inspired. Such arguments lead nowhere and deny both the possibilities of human achievement or the inevitability of historical trends. In Lakshmi Subramanian’s hands people and events are grounded in their times. The discussion begins with the Tanjore Court. It is still ambiguous as to what exactly it was that drove the Maratha Kings of Tanjore. The Tamil speaking rulers of nearby Pudukottai or Ramanathapuram, for instance, had no such known interest, whereas the Marathi speaking rulers of Tanjore had a range of cultural and literary interests. Tanjore, and the neighbouring region around the Kaveri, was the heart of the musical tradition, and the Maratha rulers did much by way of consolidation and documentation. In time, the tradition spread outwards encouraged by the growth of printing and of local journalism, the growth of towns and of a semi-urban middle class and the arrival of a new class of patrons and rasikas. Above all, in Lakshmi Subramanian’s analysis, the tradition was influenced by the growth of nationalism and the emerging predominanance of Madras.


Three major themes are explored. One is the growth of sabhas, particularly the Madras Music Academy, as a focal point for performance, in newly growing towns and catering to a newly urbanized audience; a linked theme is the growth of radio and broadcasting. Another is the reform movement of the early years of the century and its impact on musicians, particularly women musicians, and on audiences. The third is the growth of Tamil Isai, or Tamil music and the attendant discussions on the nature of tradition and custodianship, on the politics of language and caste identity. Lakshmi Subramanian asserts that the growth of nationalist feeling influenced and formalized the presence of a dominant art form in South India. Admittedly there was a consolidation and an expansion; but whether this was due to an upsurge of nationalist feeling or simply due to the forces of modernization and improved communications could be argued. It is true that the almost total lack of appreciation amongst European administrators, missionaries and others for the language and music of India could have provoked a strong counter-reaction. Developments such as the growth of sabhas, the publication of songs or, in due course, the growth of the radio, were in their own way signs of nationalist resurgence; but there were also movements outwards, from the temples and salons to more public spaces, from the mofussil to the towns. The spread of education forced young men out of the villages, establishing the first links between the courts and the town. What is however most interesting is the growth of printing and of publication of books on music. This is particularly important given the crucial position in the Carnatic tradition of the composed piece.


Lakshmi Subramanian has a fine discussion on the Trinity of Carnatic music, their songs and their style, their distinctive qualities and their influence. Though not part of the court their influence was considerable and their compositions formed the bulk of the tradition that other, modernizing forces propelled outwards. A hundred songs of Tyagaraja were published as early as in 1859, some with and some without notations. At this time, some twenty years after the composer’s death, several of his direct disciples and representatives of the various schools amongst them, Umayalpuram, Walajapet, Tillaisthanam, Manambuchavadi, are likely to have been around and guarding their heritage. The availability of printing technology can only be said to be revolutionary in what it meant for creating a permanent record. The discussion of Tamil Isai is detailed and well informed and contains as much that is of interest. Lakshmi Subramanian is too polite to say that one reason why the movement ran out of steam, as it were, is the unavailability of a solid repertory of songs in Tamil, on par with what the Trinity had produced, to sustain and enliven a healthy concert style. Tamil musicians were reduced to singing either the songs of inferior composers or indifferently tuned religious verses. But Tamil Isai served another purpose, of strengthening the cause of Tamil language and popular culture.


Other important forces of the time were the growth of sabhas, and the introduction of the sabha kaccheri, the ticketed performance, and its implications for concert style and pattern. Lakshmi Subramanian refers to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar’s innovations in concert format with a view to “quicken the concert tempo with shorter performances and a balanced selection of compositions”. She correctly notes that this development, “ the decision to stay with the medium and fast tempo, in marked contrast to the slower movement adopted by musicians in the north, became an important marker of the Karnatik style”. Ariyakudi’s legacy lives to this day and for all its attractiveness can also be seen as the one single reason which limits the appeal of classical Carnatic music to connoisseurs of the Hindustani style.


Lakshmi Subramanian’s discussion of the devadasi tradition and the reform movement of the early 20th century is interesting for the detail she has collected, though she refrains from an outright condemnation of the practice. She correctly observes that there was a huge difference in the position of women dedicated to the temples and living on temple grants from those women maintained by wealthy, and often cultivated men. She tries to make a case that some of these women in the latter category actually flourished and perfected their art, though this is not quite acceptable. There is no particular status in concubinage and while Dhanammal may have received genteel, upper caste homage she was still identified by society as a courtesan. That she was able to hold her own and be recognized for her art is a tribute to her spirit, not to the structure that imprisoned her. Lakshmi Subramanian cites the case of Madurai Shanmukhavadivu, the mother of Subbulakshmi, as another artist who commanded influence and prestige but this is debatable. If T.J.S George’s biography of Subbulakshmi is anything to go by, Shanmukhavadivu’s turmeric drenched existence was very distant from the lofty camphor imbued status that her daughter aspired to and attained.


This book is an extremely important addition to writing on Indian music. It is both an attempt to demystify and to educate. It also suggests, most clearly, the need for further study, as the author notes, of the move from the local to the global, from Tanjore to Madras, and then to Bombay and Calcutta, and later to Singapore and Cleveland. Lakshmi Subramanian’s work has set the norm for research on this fascinating subject.


Keshav Desiraju lives in New Delhi.

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