(The article was presented as part of the curriculum followed at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai)
Cultural theorists say that “objects and events are also signs within a language system that can be interpreted by people who share a set of cultural codes.” In a nutshell, events are also seen as a text made of signs which enable to generate meaning.
Personally, I believe that art knows no boundaries. It is, as a matter of fact, one of those many unique things that connect people. Perhaps it is because of art is open to interpretation. There are no formulae for a blockbuster hit, an award-winning photograph or in my case the perfect note. ‘Good’ or ‘bad’ art is predominantly dependent upon the audiences’ response. Also, the globalised era has exposed today’s generation to wider varieties of music and dance. This has had an impact on the way in which they perceive a recital or a concert.
According to my professor, a native of Chennai, things were extremely different about twenty years ago. Chennai, unlike other metropolitan cities of the country, has a strong and influential cultural history. As a child, my professor only had the opportunity to listen to Carnatic music concerts during the music festival. Of course, Doordarshan did give her an opportunity to see something apart from the usual. But it is only now that the city of Chennai has become open to varied forms of music and other arts.
This piece of information made me curious about the city’s perceptions of world music. Today, Chennai is one of the many preferred destinations for concerts of different genres. This includes rock concerts and those of foreign bands. The city has also hosted a number of fusion music concerts. With the establishment of schools such as the K.M Music Conservatory and other such institutions, the residents of this conservative metropolitan are beginning to welcome other forms of music. Instruments such as harp, which is rather popular in Europe, Africa, North and South American and some other parts of Asia have gained popularity among musicians in Chennai.
Ruhaniyat is an event which emphasised on the cultural exchange not only across the nation but also across the globe. My objective is to draw a contrast in the cultural exposure of Chennai in the past as opposed to the current day Chennai.
This mesmerising event was conducted for the seventh consecutive year. The philosophical aspect of the number seven added to the essence of the festival. This is because the number seven is closely associated with mysticism, spirituality and transcendental significance, expansion and union. Ruhaniyat is truly an example of how globalisation gave us an opportunity to explore cultures not only across the nation but also from different parts of the globe.
The event commenced with “authentic” Kashmiri Sufi music. Dressed in the traditional attire, Abdul Rashid Hafiz and his group had treated the audiences to Sufi music in its original flavour. The instruments that were used were uniquely Kashmiri. Stringed instruments like the Kashmiri Saarangi and the traditional Kashmiri percussions added to the melody. The songs were on general themes of love, peace etc. Interestingly, one of the compositions called Mishyam Soundare spoke of the love between Lord Krishna and Radha. This piece was composed by Ahad Zardar. It was this song that convinced me of the secular aspects of Sufi which was claimed to be Islamic.
The Baul music from West Bengal was one of the other highlights of the programme. Performed by Lakhan Dash and Parvathy Baul, the songs were accompanied by the tunes of the Mandolin and the Ek Tara, giving each note a sound of its own.
This festival had re-instigated the love for other forms of folk music. Manganiyaar, a Rajasthani folk group entertained the audiences with their Sindhi and Kutch compositions. Led by renowned singers Barkhat Khan and Rizwat Khan the troupe was also accompanied by the Sindhi Saarangi and the Khat Taal. The music was unique for its originality and the nomadic voices- husky, open and peppy.
Ruhaniyat had also given the audiences a chance to listen to compositions from across the globe. Latif Bolat, a Turkish historian and musician, entertained the audiences with Turkish songs composed by famous composers like Yunus Ambre. A poem of Kabir’s was also presented in Turkish.
The highlight of the evening was the Egyptian Tannoura. This was a magnificent display of two male dancers draped in a skirt made of a material called Tannoura. The material permits the dancers to display the skirt in a variety of patterns when the dancers circle the stage at a fast pace.
The event concluded with the Sufi Qawwali by the Ateeq Hussain Bandanawazi and group from Hyderabad.
Chennai was and is still a predominantly brahmanical society. The city has been very proud of its rich Tamil culture and continues to propagate it in a very way. Music, mostly Carnatic classical music, was often popular during the music season. The season took place from November to the beginning January.
In fact, even Hindustani Classical music was not as popular among the residents of Chennai. About thirty years ago, the people of Chennai would not have dreamt of a multi-cultural event such as this within the city’s parameters. A “Kutcheri” or a Carnatic Classical Music concert was conducted in halls and temples without the use of microphones. Veteran musicians like M. Balamuralikrishna even claimed that the audiences of yester years would pay attention to the song being sung and were less distract compared to the audience of today.
With the onset of globalisation, even art began taking a whole new turn. Technological developments have made newer forms more accessible. These changes made forms of music such as Sufi and Qawalli were made available in portable forms like cassettes and CDs. Moreover, today cinema has adopted these forms of music. This has thereby exposed today’s generation to a new range of options. Albums of singers like Atif Aslan and Kailash Kher have been instrumental in instilling the love for more “Non-Indian” music. A variety of cultural exchangprogrammeses had started. Spic- Macay was one such exchange programme. However, the authenticity of the music is still questioned. The use of microphones and technology is claimed to have failed in presenting the audiences with “pure” and “soulful” music.
Ruhaniyat not only attracted a large group of foreigners but had also grabbed the attention of many residents as well. Moreover, a large section of the audience was between the ages of twenty five and thirty. The audience predominantly hailed from the upper middle class section of the society. This was evident from the prices of the tickets. There were, however, the sweepers, and caretakers of the venue who hailed from the lower strata of the society.
Some members of the audiences were able to understand the art and appreciate in its true spirit while some others did not. Questions pertaining to the large audience turnout as a result of foreign performers still remain unanswered. What were interesting were the additional performances demanded by the audiences.
The songs sung were secular in nature. Though some of these singers were followers of Islam, the songs sung were also in the praise of the love between Lord Krishna and Radha. Compositions by Kabir did engage the audiences. In other words, the artists adopted certain Indian elements like the poetry so as to be able to connect with the audiences better.
In the end, it is a matter of being receptive. With better coverage of unique forms of music, via television and the internet, the public has begun to be open to more variety. Ruhaniyat, like some cultural exchange programmes, aims at providing their audiences with an experience worth remembering by conducting performances of a shorter duration. This has proven to be successful as it suits the tastes of many working men and women.
I think music brings people together. Like any art, music too has the ability to transcend one from the world that they are in to a world less explored. Be it Sufi, Qawalli, folk music or mere instrumental; it is the best way to break the ice. Technology seems to have enhanced such cultural exchanges by the creation of DVDs, CDs etc. True. Music may not be as pure as it ought to be. But it is still representative of a particular community. The tunes and lyrics of songs are unique to each region. Therefore, it is has played an important role in establishing one’s identity (Eg: Rabindra Sangeeth is representative of the Bengali community). It is events like Ruhaniyat that celebrate music as an integral part of all cultures and not only of a particular group of people or a nation. What one must note is that Sufi and Qawalli were always a part of Indian culture. However, with time its essence had been lost and was ignored by many. Had it not been for concerts such as the those staged during Ruhaniyat, today’s youth would have never considered being open to these rustic and blissful tones. Hence, it is no miracle that Sufi like jazz and hip-hop is gradually becoming part of the popular culture sphere of the nation.