The December Music Season was reported in The Hindu almost from the inception of such a concept in the 1920s. By the 1970s, the pattern had been set, with a plethora of music reviews, most of them penned by the redoubtable NM Narayanan (NMN). No mean musician himself, his views carried weight. In retrospect, his long introductions to the review proper, often harking back to the music of yore make for most interesting reading and sometimes overshadow the concert being reported on. He has also penned numerous essays on music and some of these raise questions that are valid even today.

One of these, dated December 15, 1974, wonders as to whether there was any necessity for modern compositions in Carnatic music, especially when the composers of the past have left behind such a vast treasure trove, a large part of which is still unexploited. And in the process of writing this, NMN has chosen not to express his views but interview several leading performers of that era. As his reference point he began with the compositions of GNB and in a typically long tract wrote of how the maestro preferred teaching them in private to singing them at his own performances.

M. Balamuralikrishna was of the view that the ‘sastras had defined the ideal musician (as one) who combined in himself the gifts of the vaggeyakara also.’ He, for one, desired to sing the praise of the Lord in his own words and his compositions had proved popular in the concert hall too. NMN adds that musical composition came to Balamuralikrishna at the age of 14 ‘when he composed his major work of songs in all the 72 melakartha ragas on the command of an anonymous swamiji.’ As he progressed he discovered he was endowed with the requisite sangita and bhasha gnana. He could not subscribe to the view that tradition was ‘limited and concluded.’ If that were to be so, classical music was doomed to stagnation. GNB felt Balamurali, ought to have sung his compositions in concerts and ‘acquainted the audience with their authentic shape.’

Though he felt that nothing need bar an artist from composing, Semmangudi said that he himself had never attempted it as he had been warned by ‘elder musicians when he was quite young never to go anywhere near this awesome field of musical activity. Any type of dosha creeping into the composition either in respect of the music or sahitya was bound to rebound on the creator of the defective work he was told.’ Moreover he questioned, why did seniors such as Ariyakkudi, Maharajapuram and Chembai not compose? As for himself, his creative energies had found satisfying outlet in the task of setting to music the works of Swati Tirunal.

In his characteristically laconic fashion, Palghat Mani Iyer reserved judgment on new compositions. He was of the view that it was up to posterity to evaluate them. He was quite happy drawing ‘inspiration from constant thought of the past in which there was so much magic and enchantment.’ The deeper one delved into the music of the past, the greater the joy of discovery. ‘There was scope for achieving unlimited excellence in a limited repertoire and that was the reason why the songs of the old masters were heard with rapture again and again. Their freshness was perennial and as a mridangam accompanist he enjoyed playing for these trusted and tried vintage pieces.’

Strangely, one of the boldest musicians of all time – M.L. Vasanthakumari, said she was diffident about composing. “Classical music composition was a very serious matter (in which) sangita and sahitya gnana had to meet in happy wedlock.” She felt that she did not have the necessary gifts in language for musical creation. But she felt that those who had the capacity were most welcome to do so.

Lalgudi Jayaraman was of the view that in such matters, as in everything else in music, proportion was of the essence. He listed several great musicians who were also composers in support of his stand. He felt that the musician-composer had a duty to perform with respect to his own creations by performing them in public but within a balanced format that also included the compositions of the great masters. After all, did not painters regularly exhibit their works? He had composed varnams and tillanas he said and had concentrated more on these musical forms rather than the kirtana as in the latter category, “there was such a boundless treasure of the great masters that are still to be learnt.”

The last word was left to the legendary dancer Kamala. During her long career she said, she had composed some tillanas but never announced them as her work. Why? Because, “it was not important!”

This article appeared in The Hindu on