A few days ago, the eminent vocalist T M Krishna wrote an article in The Hindu bemoaning the increasing use in Carnatic music of instruments that are not sufficiently sensitive or flexible to reproduce the fine microtonal modulations ("gamakas", similar to "meends" in Hindustani music) required to fully express a raga.
This is not a new controversy. The western "equally tempered" chromatic scale is an approximation that gets every interval except the octave subtly wrong. For example, the fifth note ("panchama", "pa") is supposed to have exactly one and a half times the frequency of the tonic or "sa", but in the chromatic scale it turns out slightly flat: 2^(7/12) = 1.498 approximately. It has been recognised since Pythagoras (and even earlier, probably) that notes in small-integer frequency ratios sound pleasant when played together, but all intervals on the piano, except the octave, are irrational (being powers of the twelfth root of two). The compromise is necessary in western music to enable modulation to new keys without retuning the instrument. In Indian music, where the tonic is never changed, it is argued that the chromatic scale is unnecessary. While the piano is rarely used, the harmonium has achieved considerable popularity (it continues to be widely used in Hindustani music, though not in Carnatic music) but is detested by some purists for this reason.
Equally important, instruments like the piano cannot "bend" the note: they play a fixed pitch when you press the key. In Indian music, it is common to "slide" from one note to the other and "waver" about certain notes: it is such ornamentation (the "gamakas" and "meends" that I referred to above) that gives ragas their individual character.
So Krishna's tirade against the keyboard and the saxophone is understandable but not new. (He also acknowledges that some imports of Western instruments have been successful, in particular the use of the violin since the 19th century, and the use of the electric mandolin by U. Srinivas.) Nevertheless, I wonder if an excess of such "purism" may not be detrimental to the music itself.
Most of the arguments against keyboard instruments can be, and have been, levelled against the santoor and its first and foremost practitioner in Hindustani music, Shivkumar Sharma. Shivkumar cannot produce genuine "meends" but he achieves the illusion of doing so with rapid sliding tremolos. He also produces several new dimensions to his music by striking notes simultaneously with both hands: his left-hand patterns, while his right hand plays the melody, are a form of harmonic accompaniment to the music -- but done so tastefully that only the rigidest of purists would object.
Krishna names no names but, since he believes no experiment involving the saxophone has worked, he clearly has a poor opinion of Kadri Gopalnath, the best-known saxophone player in Carnatic music. Personally I am not fond of Gopalnath's music myself, without being able to quite define why. But I found the contrast of the following two passages interesting. Krishna:
The saxophone, among other instruments, is today very popular. The artists have made some modifications and changes to try and make it sound Carnatic but that has just not happened. The inherent limitation of the instrument makes the artiste limit his choice of ragas. Is this necessary? This is, to me, ridiculous. Are we willing to limit the bandwidth of a musical idiom to accommodate an instrument?
Gary Giddins, writing on a recent collaboration between Gopalnath and American jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa:
Gopalnath, who generally plays in a yogalike seated position, has perfected something that jazz saxophonists have been attempting for decades: moving beyond the Western chromatic scale into the realm of microtones, a feat harder for wind instruments, whose keys are in fixed positions, than for strings or voice. Jazz players, such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, had gone about it by varying intonation, blowing multiphonics (two or more notes at the same time), or squawking in the upper register, where pitches are imprecisely defined. Gopalnath does none of that. Using alternate fingerings and innovative embouchure techniques, he maintains faultless intonation while sliding in and out of the chromatic scale.
Krishna is of course much more knowledgeable on Carnatic music than Giddins, or Mahanthappa, but I wonder if he is not too close to the picture to see it fully.
There are few significant practitioners of the piano in Indian music, but one recent pianist who has attracted much recent attention is Anil Srinivasan, Krishna's cousin. Anil is a trained western classical pianist who has been immersed in and absorbed Carnatic music since childhood. He has been grappling with the hard (many would say, impossible) problem of combining Western harmonies and Carnatic melodies, and -- in collaboration with the vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, in particular -- has produced some very interesting music. I have no idea whether Krishna was referring to Anil in his article. But Anil is trying to do something very different from Shivkumar Sharma or Kadri Gopalnath. He is not trying to play authentic Indian classical music on an apparently unsuitable instrument. He is trying to use his instrument and his knowledge of harmonic theory to supplement, and expand, the music itself, while relying on collaborators like Gurucharan to supply the "purist" component of the music. He is playing to the strengths of the piano, not to its weaknesses. He is not trying to do things on the piano that are easy on Indian instruments: he is doing things that would be impossible on Indian instruments. Whether those things are desirable is a matter of opinion, but I -- and many others, it seems -- like the result.
It seems that Anil wrote a rejoinder to Krishna, which I haven't seen and can't find online (update 27/12: here), but Krishna's reply accuses Anil of missing the point of Krishna's criticism. The point, stated as narrowly as possible, is that playing Carnatic music on instruments incapable of expressing all nuances of the music, and therefore limiting one's repertoire to "suitable" ragas, diminishes the music rather than enhancing it. Again, I'm not sure whether he is applying this criticism to Anil, who is not (I think) trying to reproduce the intricacies of the music, but to supplement and expand it.
But is Krishna's narrowly-stated criticism justified at all? I can't help thinking of another form of music I am fond of, the blues, which permeates jazz and rock as well as being an art form in its own right. The blues is defined by the "blues scale" and its "blue notes": some notes -- notably the third and seventh, and sometimes also the fifth -- are played slightly "flat", but not quite as flat as their Western "minor scale" counterparts. That sort of flattening cannot be reproduced on the piano. "Bending" and "wobbling" those notes is also integral to blues, and certainly cannot be achieved on the piano (it is achieved on the guitar by bending the string with the left hand). Yet nobody would argue that the piano has no place in blues or jazz. Since the early 20th century pianists have worked around their instrument's limitations in innovative ways, and their experiments have enhanced the music, not diminished it.
Of the artists mentioned above, I usually like listening to Shivkumar, I don't much enjoy Kadri Gopalnath, and I find Anil Srinivasan's approach very promising. This is not a technically informed evaluation of these artists' respective merits. But I think musical quality is not necessarily correlated with technical purity. There are lots of musicians who follow all the rules but are mind-numbingly dull to listen to.
It seems to me, on reading Krishna's first article closely, that he is more worried about the effect of keyboard instruments on music education -- but then there are much graver problems to worry about. A scholarly article on how music should be taught would be welcome. But complaints about unsuitable instruments sound, to me, more reactionary than artistic. T M Krishna is a well-established and widely respected musician, but he is too young to sound like a curmudgeon.