Ramakrishnan Murthy's success points to how Carnatic music manages to thrive

Ramakrishnan Murthy, among the most promising young vocalists today, epitomises the South Indian NRI diaspora's continuing support for Carnatic music

Lakshmi Sreeram May 28, 2017 09:51:14 IST
Ramakrishnan Murthy's success points to how Carnatic music manages to thrive

"In America, when I was young, my parents always seemed to be in mourning for something.  Now I understand: it must have been the language," Jhumpa Lahiri says in a moving passage in her recent work, In Other Words.

For a longing heart in exile, nothing can equal music, one's own music, in bringing solace. The South Indian diaspora in the US has been, for many decades now, an enthusiastic patron of Carnatic music. Performing for NRIs in the US and teaching their children during visits and through the internet is a source of serious  revenue for Carnatic musicians today. It was not entirely expected that these children would themselves emerge as successful performers.  The possibility that children with an education and prospect of life in the US would want to pursue a career in Carnatic music was not obvious to many and yet, today we have young musicians like Ramakrishnan Murthy who have done precisely that. Ramakrishnan Murthy, who moved to India in 2011 from Los Angeles after a college education there, is a young talent well on his way to mature musicianship with strong classical values. He is one of the few who land both the purist and the popular vote!

Ramakrishnan Murthys success points to how Carnatic music manages to thrive

Ramakrishnan Murthy. Photo via Facebook/Badari Prasad Music Through The Lens

When you see Murthy, there is nothing to suggest that he grew up away from the shores of Chennai: he wears a dhoti and shirt, the standard attire for most Tamil Brahmins, with the sacred ash prominently smeared on his forehead. When he speaks in Tamil, or English, neither give away his US upbringing.  In fact, his English nestles in the cadences of Tamil. And when he sings, he evokes the music of past masters without mimicking them which, in a traditional music like Carnatic music, is a priceless quality.

“My mother wanted us to stay connected to our cultural roots and made sure that we attended music classes and practiced diligently at home. By the time I was in high school, when academic pressure mounts, I was hooked to Carnatic music and nobody needed to prod me to practice. I learnt from visiting musicians too, especially Delhi Sundararajan who kept me inspired and yearning for more."

Back in Chennai he continues to learn from the multi faceted musician RK Shriram Kumar.

The performance scene in Indian classical music, both Hindustani and Carnatic, has always operated informally.  Initial opportunities and elevation to important slots are meshed in a network of influences: word-of-mouth assessments, endorsements by senior musicians and teachers and, as it gets murkier, prominent musicians looking out for their own little coteries, not to speak of relatives and friends of aspiring performers exerting pressure on the sabha secretaries and committees. Above all, the budding musicians and those on their way to success have to be seen in sabhas and music festivals as often as possible.

How then did a musician like Murthy who has lived abroad make a career? Mainly because his music is arresting — a combination of sheer talent, strong musical values and hard work; but it is also because of the unique sabha infrastructure in Chennai, the place where performing careers in Carnatic music are made.  Murthy himself avers: “While it is true that my career took off  after a couple of lucky breaks, the fact that I have been able to consolidate my position as a performer here has been because of this remarkable infrastructure.”

Carnatic music has a small consumer base, largely restricted to one community, the South Indian Brahmin. This community has been, for many generations, deeply committed to it.

Support structures for the flourishing of this music have today evolved into a system that provides ample opportunities to performers, especially young performers. During the famous Chennai December Season, when over a hundred performances take place any day, sabhas mount day-long programs structured along seniority/popularity. There are slots meant for young, unknown talent who can prove their mettle to graduate to more senior slots — musicians like Murthy when he first moved. There are opportunities through the year; talent and hard work are recognised and given encouragement with the press giving space for coverage of concerts. There is a visible path to success — or so it seems.

The system does work, especially at the entry level when young aspiring musicians get opportunities, but kinks show up aplenty at the later stages. It would be flawless if mediocre talent is not pushed into prominence and no deserving talent gets sidelined; but both happen to a significant degree.

In a way, the infrastructure that has evolved in Chennai is a symptom of foundational changes in the performance and transmission of the art, particularly, a weakening of the traditional guru-shishya model of instruction.

A noted musician and guru shares his unease: “In an earlier age, students would sing along with their guru to build up concert worthiness and on the guru's recommendation, the student would get featured in concerts. Today, when guru-s teach outside the gurukula model too and have students all over the globe and students too learn from more than one guru, this way no longer works and young musicians and their parents approach the sabhas directly.  Concert worthiness is a condition best judged by the guru, but he/she is now out of the equation”.

Many sabhas like The Music Academy do have experts listening to all the concerts and evaluating them on various parameters and a systematic attempt is made to ensure that quality gets recognition.

The encouragement that the system gives to young, sometimes raw, musicians can itself be a cause for disquiet — what this might imply for the ethos of the music which demands maturity to reach its heart. The fear is that ambition for performance and visibility sets in too early without giving the music its due.

Undeniably, great passion drives the world of Carnatic music: despite the hard journey with no certainty of success parents invest time, energy and money in teaching their children Carnatic music. Organisers work on an honorary basis, dealing with multiple pressures from aspiring as well as established artists, and often fighting a bleak bottomline.  It is certainly passion that brought Ramakrishnan Murthy to move to India and pursue a career in Carnatic music.

Though the availability of performance opportunities is a boon for younger musicians, not every young aspirant deserves an opportunity and not every sabha is able to sift them out. And after the initial breaks, it is anything but an easy road: making it big is a complex path involving much else than just excellence in the art.

Would Ramakrishnan Murthy have found the kind of success he has without this system? As Zubin Mehta said of his own success story, there is always room at the top. And from all signs, Murthy  certainly seems on his way there.

First Edition Arts, exceptional curators of Indian Classical music concerts, present him in Mumbai on 4 June 2017.  Devina Dutt of FEA points out that he will be presented not in South Indian stronghold areas like Chembur or Matunga, but in Dadar, a mainstream space that typically attracts audiences for Hindustani music — in the hope of introducing newer audiences to Carnatic music.

Ramakrishnan Murthy will perform live at A Southern Turn - Ramakrishnan Murthy. eaders in Mumbai may book and tickets here.

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