When I was driving on I 75 listening to a composition in “khamaas” sung by D.K. Pattammal, my mind went back to the early eighties, when I regularly attended concerts at the Central Lecture Theater as an undergraduate student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai (then Madras).

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I wondered what it was that made us undergraduate students attend kutcheris (karnatik music concerts) regularly? What was it that attracted us to  classical music performances?

By and large, the popular genres for the undergrad populace were western popular music and Indian film music. So, what was it that attracted a number of us to the Indian classical genre? Were our minds wired differently?

I recall the common rooms at the dorms filled with rock music collections, an occasional symphonic recording, lots of Hindi film music, some Tamil film music, Lalgudi’s Dance of Sound—Tillanas and a handful of other Karnatik music LPs.

It is worthwhile noting that Indian classical music connoisseurs constitute only a minority of the population. The entire kutcheri attending population during the Tamil music season would only be a fraction of the people that sawVishwaroopam during its (delayed) opening weekend. And even within thekutcheri attending population, tastes differ widely.

Some people find classical music downright annoying. A friend of mine during my college days used to get irritated every time I listened to an elaborate “todi alapanai.” It didnt matter that it was played by a leading violinist; it apparently made his ears bleed!

Now there is nothing wrong or unusual about this; We all have particular tastes. It is as simple as that.

The actress Sumitra in the K. Balachander classic movie from the 1970s Nizhal Nijamagiradu insults Kamal Hasan’s supposed ignorance of classical arts with the phrase “kazhudaikku teriyuma karpura vasanai?” (Can a donkey appreciate the smell of camphor?). In retaliation Kamal Hasan puts out his best bharatanatyam dancing foot forward and exclaims to a disbelieving bespectacled Sumitra “karpura vaasanai terinja kazhudai” (this is a donkey that can appreciate the smell of camphor!)

In fact my good non-classical-music-inclined friends have been my best gurus. They were the ones that reinforced my belief that everyone’s “favorite genre” is not necessarily the same and that one needn’t assume that one is better than the other. Like everything else in life.

Again, so what was it that drove us as youth to listen to classical music? My batchmate Ajai T. says that he was called to those concerts although he had had no formal training in music. The music simply attracted him; it had a fair degree of complexity and it was profound. Yet another friend Suresh K, holds that eclectic tastes and inclinations are the result of the vasanas accumulated through the numerous cycles of life and death.

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Then to explore further, why do some strains of music, sequences of notes and scales appeal more than others? My great grandfather who died in the mid 70s, a self taught violinist, never liked any raga that was not derived from “sankarabharanam.” “Kambhoji” was an exception. He would turn the radio off if a raga such as “simhendra madhyamam” was being played. I could understand his affinity for the kith and kin of “Sankarabharanam;” he was probably enthralled by the sweetness of the major scale; but I could never discern his dislike for the rest of the ragas.

This takes us to the question “Why are certain ragas often featured in performances and others not?” Is it with the belief that the jana-ranjakatvam(ability to please people) will be enhanced? “Hamsadhwani” and “nattai” are oft repeated features at the onset of kutcheris while “yaman” and “bhup” feature prominently in evening concerts in Hindustani music. One rarely hears a kutcheri begin with a raga such as “nayaki” or “purnapanchamam” or “rasamanjari.”

Popularity depends on several unexplainable factors. Certain ragas are more popular than others, although if you asked a musician what their favorite raga is their answer would most likely be “I love all ragas; there is something in each one of them.” Regardless, some ragas are liked by all—some are liked by very few. Some have stood the test of time, some have been popular in their time. You could even compare it to religion. Some temples are visited by almost all (say Tirupati), while some do not enjoy the same popularity!

Going back to my great grandfather, he loved the violinist Chowdaiya but not any other leading violinist in the 70s. Why? It was his particular taste; it was the way his brain was wired. Not every artist has the ability to please everyrasika (or make a rasika out of a non-rasika).

The ones that have the uncanny gift to tap into the wiring of a majority of minds and please them are truly blessed.

Kanniks Kannikeswaran is an internationally renowned musician, composer and music educator, whose award winning research on the Indo-colonial music of Dikshitar is beginning to influence Indian music pedagogy. Kanniks is considered to be a pioneer of the Indian American choral movement. He teaches Indian classical music at the University of Cincinnati.www.kanniks.com

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