Traditional temple

Carnatic Music Temples

For more than two centuries, Carnatic music has had a glorious association with temples. Today we have a wide range of secular performance venues. And yet, the relationship that Carnatic music has with temples remains intact, and major music festivals are still incorporated into temple festivals.

The Carnatic music of Bangalore owes its efflorescence to the temples. For more than 100 years, the city’s temples have been home to different types of music, including Carnatic music. Ancient shrines in the city such as Kote Venkataramana Temple near KR Market, Karanji Anjaneya Temple in Basavanagudi, Someshwara Temple in Ulsoor, and Rama Mandir Temple and Venugopala Swamy Temple in Malleswaram have been an integral part of the cultural landscape of Bengaluru as prestigious venues for Carnatic Music Shows. In recent years, newly built temples have also continued to play this role with great enthusiasm. There is perhaps no student of Carnatic music who did not begin his career within the precincts of the temples.

While it is incredible that we continue the tradition of performances in temples, perhaps it is crucial for us to pause and reflect on this relationship between Carnatic music and temples in the present. The city’s rising decibel levels, modern temple architecture and a rapidly changing cityscape have had profound ramifications for how Carnatic music is produced and consumed today.

Temples in the current context represent a unique challenge for Carnatic music. For one thing, most of the older temples (which had good acoustics and dedicated performance areas), in the older parts of Bengaluru, are flooded with traffic and other noises. Maintenance, involving painting, whitewashing and internal electrification, does not necessarily take into account the original acoustic properties of the structure. Therefore, playing in these spaces can be quite difficult. On the other hand, modern temples, some of which rival the glass facades of city businesses, lack even the basic acoustic characteristics conducive to the Carnatic form. And, with spaces for public congregations shrinking dramatically in the city, temples continue to be used more frequently by sabhas (music organizations) as venues for Carnatic recitals. Some sabhas choose temples simply because they have been sacred places for more than half a century; and others use temples as locations because they are mostly available for free. Even temple annexes such as wedding halls and dining halls can be transformed into venues for Carnatic music performances.

Now imagine a typical temple environment. There are loud chants; the tune is frequently punctuated by the ringing of temple bells in pitches invariably in conflict with the shruti of the concert; there are fumes of burning incense; there is a sustained clamor and an unbridled movement of people. Undoubtedly, it can be a rich sensory experience. But it certainly changes the quality of the music that is made. Often, even the most seasoned singers may cough from sudden choking from the fumes, or struggle to stay in line with the shruti amidst the din, or close their eyes to cut out the distraction (often mistaken for a expression of piety!). Additionally, musicians may be asked to stop abruptly every 10 to 15 minutes when temple rituals take precedence. There may be rickety platforms, rain-soaked carpets, leaky ceilings…

To add to all this, more often than not, temple gigs provide the least technical support. There are situations where there are fewer mics than the number of artists. Performers are left behind with dysfunctional – possibly corroded – equipment without proper amplification and feedback; and then, a technician who considers it a privilege to meddle with the knobs of the mixer – that is, if there is a console.

In other words, musicians have little or no agency in these spaces. And an environment like this has a huge impact on the “sound” of Carnatic music. What we seem to have forgotten is that a carnatic performance is, in fact, a set of distinct sounds, timbres and tones of the voice(s) and the instrument(s) which must unite holistic way. This is quite different from devotional forms of music, such as bhajan singing, which are congregational in nature. Their purpose is essentially to blur the lines between listener and performer, and to prioritize devotion over everything else. Carnatic music, however, is essentially art music where musicality reigns supreme. With superfluous sounds threatening, Carnatic musicians are forced to compromise on musicality. They tend to compete with co-artists to be heard louder. Ultimately, the music they produce is compromised by high volume and a tragic loss of delicate musical expression.

It’s time to rethink how Carnatic music is made in these spaces. Rather than taking these infrastructures as normal or walking away believing that in temples only bhakti is paramount, it is important for us to turn our allegiance to the music itself and to build an enabling ecology where artists can occur with freedom and dignity.

It would force us, as a community, to think about musical creation and its relationship to acoustics, design, architecture and technology with reference to the socio-cultural practices of this city. By doing so, we could chart a new course for Carnatic music with an aesthetic that truly belongs in Bengaluru.

(The author is a well-known ghatam player)