Walking a treaded path

November 8, 2015

Exploring the relationship between the environment and art forms

Walking a treaded path

It is generally assumed that the environment plays a role in the artistic expression. But very little has been done to actually analyse as to how the landscape, the weather, the seasons as well as the cultural heritage affects and moulds the complexion of our expression. Jeffrey Michael Grimes in his doctoral dissertation, The Geography of Hindustani music -The Influence of Region and Regionalism on North Indian Classical Tradition for the University of Texas has attempted to do exactly that.

If an analysis of the relationship between the environment and the art form is undertaken, it usually ends up being very simplistic because it is based on a one to one relationship. By drawing a parallel, it is seen merely as a carbon copy walking of a treaded path as reflected in the expression, the form or a genre. This simplistic relationship or drawing upon an influence is often not very satisfying. A far more complex activity takes place which cannot be attributed as the consequence of any direct action.

The basic issue with the higher or classical forms is that it does not appreciate that outside factors influence its form or development. Based more on the truism of insularity, the only change that it accommodates and permits is the one that comes from within.  The change, if from within, is appreciated and its quality also valued but the outside or the external factors influencing an art form are perceived as its inherent weakness or a shortcoming. The very thought of this is almost sacrilegious in nature. Therefore, it is not taken as a cannon but ignored, denied or not given due consideration.

This is not only true of the classical forms but of all such systems that see themselves as perfect and wholesome and not weak or defective. The only justification of change is when it comes from within for it proves that an art form has the capacity or the ability to grow and germinate by the powers vested within it and not depended on an outside power or influence for it to develop and prosper.

Classical music is considered to be unchanging and organic with the capacity to resist change as against the popular forms that are at the mercy of external factors.

This leads one to the next question about specialised knowledge. There is a general tendency to rile specialised knowledge particularly in terms of music. Because of their nature and solicitation of an audience, music, film, literature and less so painting upgrades everyone to a position of a critic with equal legitimacy. The one who has specialised knowledge or is a practitioners is looked down upon as not being sufficiently  exposed to a bigger environment of  politics, history, sociology, religion, anthropology (to name only a few disciplines) and  cut off from the larger world because of  specialised approach to music.

A distinction has been made between the metonymic and metaphoric. Metonym is commonly understood as resting on the same frame of experience as the subject and metaphor is resting on similarity (perceived or felt, structural or textual) of experiences in different domains. The value of metaphoric rather than metonymic view of differences in musical styles is to characterise musical style according to the dominant use of one type of ornamentation. To couch the matter in metaphoric terms is to make a statement which comes closer to explaining why a group of people make music in the particular manner or the fashion that they do. One might say that metaphor is a mediating device connecting the unconnected and bridging the gap in causality.

The dissertation has focused on the different styles of the rendition of the Bengali and Maharashtrian music as expressed in the classical forms, both in vocal as well as instrumental music. The same analogy is drawn to understand as to why the Bengalis are more prone to instrumental music than the Maharashtrian who are into vocal music. Bengali musicians specialise in "a smooth transition of the notes", that is gliding from one to the other and this happens, according to Grimes, to be their specialization and style while the Maharashtrian musicians  specialise in what he calls "a quick turn".

One wonders whether the same criteria can be applied to the Punjab. Usually classical vocalists as well as other vocalists in the folk forms sing with a great deal of vigour. The stress at times seems to be overly on the display of craftsmanship as well as the forcefulness and strength that can be exhibited.  Since it becomes lopsided due to its emphasis, it is commonly justified on the ground that the Punjabis are forceful and aggressive and therefore their musical expression too is forceful and aggressive which in musical terms means that there is greater reliance on tayaari and laikaari.

Despite references to the peculiarity of languages and the cultural heritage of the region in the narrow sense, the pitfall in the thesis remain of being drawn too closely to the one to one relationship. Perhaps the overriding mystique of the creative process and the particularity of the medium work themselves into an equation that defies an easy explanation. If it were so, then the primacy of the creative process would give way to an analytical framework considered sufficient explanation for human experience. The mystique of the creative process leaves some portion to the unsaid and unexplainable yet fully within the realm of experience.

Walking a treaded path