Fusing Music and Subverting Traditions

Amongst many themes, my PhD thesis explores the questions of how do contemporary musicians define Karnatic Music, how do they distinguish Karnatic Music from film music. This has made me think about the genre called ‘fusion music.’ ‘Fusion music’ refers (as self-explanatory words) to any two distinct (or as distinct as we understand them to be) genres are fused together to form a new genre of music. ‘Fusion’ between Karnatic Music and Western Classical Music has been quite popular for decades, now. The likes of Sitar maestro late Ravi Shankar have popularized fusion of Indian ragas (tunes) with music in the West. For decades, film musicians have been experimenting with Karnatic/Hindustani ragas. Specifically, in South India, film music composers such as Ilayaraja have popularized fusing symphonies with Karnatic ragas. Recently, I have been listening to the works of Sikkil Gurucharan and Anil Srinivasan; their recordings, especially this, has rekindled my interest in alternate ways of performing and experiencing Karnatic Music. More recently, a different kind of fusion has been made in which a Karnatic composition set to a Karnatic raga is fused with rhythms that are generally associated with ‘Western’ music, popular examples being this and this.

It is common to look at these works as ‘fusion.’ However, to call works as such shows an assertion that both genres, as whole, have been put together; in other words, both genres have not lost their identities, have come together as whole to form the new identity, the ‘fusion’ music. There is something very problematic and prejudicial with such an argument: the assumption that Karnatic Music remains the same, without changing its identity but is accommodating of other genres. Rather, I see these ‘fusion’ more as a subversion of the paradigms based on which Karnatic Music is usually performed. These musicians/composers have appropriated Karnatic Music compositions and ragas to point to how dynamic they are, that there are alternative ways of experiencing these compositions and ragas that Karnatic Music community holds as its own. I do not go into the musicological aspects of these compositions. My interest here is on how a simple addition of a rhythmic cycle, usually seen as a signifier of India film music, to alaipayuthey kanna, a Karnatic composition on Hindu deity Krishna, made this composition accessible to experience by many. Of course, one cannot underestimate the popularity of the medium; the fact that such a composition is available through films has certainly contributed to the popularity of the composition. Films, in the past, have used Karnatic Music compositions as they are traditionally performed. But performing Karnatic Music compositions outside of prescribed parameters have certainly made Karnatic Music compositions open to diverse ways of experiencing them.

More importantly, the two examples used above also point to another interesting way of subverting Karnatic Music tradition: the context within which these two compositions have been used in the films. That these two particular compositions are erotic in nature are ignored within Karnatic Music tradition; or, they are treated as divine love between the composer and the divine (in which the composer takes the place of the deity’s lover). But the two films place these two compositions between two humans, their love for each other. Thus, subversion here takes place at a more fundamental level. But here again, it points to not an ontological idea of what the compositions are really about, rather different ways art can be interpreted and experienced, for which Karnatic Music tradition leaves little room.


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