An introduction to South Indian Traditions
In November 2015 I was lucky enough to be invited by the British Council on a scoping trip to India with other colleagues across the arts sector in Scotland. This took in three of India’s major cities: Mumbai, Chennai and Dheli. The idea being that we would meet people, organisations and practitioners working in the arts, get some insight into the way of things in India and ultimately find people to work with in some sort of cross-cultural projects. It was possibly a lot to ask in such a whirlwind tour of this complex and massive country. After an amazing three days rushing around Mumbai we landed in Chennai. Immediately I was struck by something different going on in the South Indian city. It wasn’t just the balmy heat. Then on our first invitation as we were greeted by the most colourfully clad people all dressed up for us. The first thing that happened, after a lot of hellos, was we were played the most beautiful music. This was South Indian classical music or Carnatic music. It struck me that instead of frantically trying seek out the Indian underground experimental scene what I should really be doing is starting at the beginning and looking at what this music is and represents and then explore the way this tradition is performed in the contemporary setting and what relationship, if any, this has with what Counterflows is doing. That was that!
The thing about the Carnatic tradition is that it is relatively unknown. We in the UK are more used (if at all) to Northern Indian music, be that from Rajasthan or the Punjab or even Bollywood. What struck me and remember I was only in India 9 days was there was a certain snootiness directed towards the Southern tradition. The little I have learned about Carnatic music is that it is relatively untouched by outside influence. A lovely northern Indian percussionist told me this. Whereas in the north there have been many influences from Iran, Turkey, and across Asia to their music. An example of this is the Sufi tradition which stretches throughout these regions. In the south their traditions, it would appear, retains a certain purity. What I was interested in was the complex systems and rhythms that structure this very rigorous practice and also the rituals that the music follows. In talking with Nandini one of the violinist I met in Chennai, and sister to Lalitha who will play at Counterflows, I discovered that she practices every day at dawn. Why at dawn? Well the idea is connected to the opening every day of the temples where the music originates from. So at dawn music would emanate across the country from the temples. These are the sorts of things that drew me into the music and also I feel links it somehow to Counterflows. Even in our wayward and as we like to think experimental pushing -for-the-new music we are riddled with rituals and methodologies. Improvisation can be seen as a form of ritual and improvisation is at the heart of Carnatic music. As part of this exploration of Carnatic music’s secrets, Counterflows has asked electronic music pioneer and artist Mark Fell to explore possible ways to collaborate with musicians from the tradition, examining the systems and processes in the context of his digital practice. Mark will attend Counterflows in the unusual capacity as an observer and begin a dialogue with the Carnatic musicians.
With the help and support of Lalitha and Nandini and also Sonya from the organisation EarthSync in Chennai we have managed to put together an outstanding group of Carnatic musicians including their Guru and Mother, renowned carnatic singer Smt Subbulakshmi Muthuswamy. Also as part of the ensemble will be two amazing carnatic percussionists.
Hailing from an illustrious family of musicians, Lalitha and Nandini have the privilege of being the fourth generation of musicians in their family. To quote the renowned music critic Subbudu “`Music runs in their blood, they must have played music even when they were in their mother’s womb. ” Lalitha and Nandini are the torch bearers of a unique musical tradition but yet have evolved a distinct style of their own.
Unfortunately for this encounter at Counterflows Nandini will not be able to be with us.
The Carnatic Music Ensemble
Smt Subbulakshmi Muthuswamy – Vocal
Dr M Lalitha – Violin
Neyveli KV Ramkumar – Mridangam
Sai Subramaniam – Morsing.