Rithvik Raja, among the younger stars of the Carnatic vocal scene, has an astonishing estimate to share. Of the around 1,000 Carnatic classical concerts scheduled in Chennai this festive season, close to 650 feature musicians under 30.
The figure is stunning because classical music around the world has a grey aura, a sort of reverse ageism which says that this music is for the old. In Hindustani music, for instance, creative profundity is supposed to grow in direct proportion to age. Until the mid-1980s, the Carnatic scene was no different. There were platforms only for seasoned artistes and the audiences were old too and, worse, dwindling. For the young, Carnatic simply was not cool.
So, what brought the paradigm shift? It was the spontaneous collectivising of young musicians, a massive, energetic pushback that, in a matter of years, changed the very face of Carnatic music, creating space for young performers and pulling in young music lovers.
The Youth Association for Classical Music, or YACM for short, may sound like a colony hobby group but it had disruptor force. By the time it was in its fifth year, it had radically un-aged the Carnatic music scene. Today every big Carnatic sabha has multiple slots for the young, there are exclusive festivals for rising musicians, and the ecosystem takes pride in discovering fresh talent which often manages to zoom to the top category in four-five years.
Almost every single big Carnatic star today was shaped by YACM, and all of them have given time or energy to the cause, working as leaders, members or volunteers in their early careers. N Vijay Siva, Bombay Jayashri, RK Shriramkumar, Sangeetha Sivakumar, TM Krishna, S Sowmya, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, P Unnikrishnan, K Arun Prakash are among a handful of the big names who have worked with YACM, with the hope of no other reward than change.
“It revolutionised Carnatic music. If today, musicians are progressing faster with every generation, it is thanks to YACM,” said Raja, adding the quip, “In fact, we are starting so young now we are burning out by our 30s.”
The big idea
The YACM story started small in 1984 in Chennai, with a team of three young musicians from Vivekananda College deciding to participate in Festember, the annual festival of Regional Engineering College, Trichy. Vocalist N Vijay Siva, violinist RK Shriramkumar and flautist V Karthikeyan are leading names today in Carnatic music but back then, like all competitors, they got 10 minutes to present a ragamalika. They did well enough to bag the first prize.
But there was another, even bigger prize: the three saw a massive audience surge at every single performance, all young. “We were surprised and amazed: we thought people only came to hear older musicians, those in their 40s and 50s,” recalled Siva. “There were hardly any young professional musicians at that time. Generally Carnatic seemed to be in a state of decline: very few masters drew good crowds.” He remembers the legendary vocalist Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer writing to Ethiroli, a programme on Tamil Doordarshan, requesting that films not be shown on weekends so people would turn to music.
“We realised that the audiences were simply not growing to the same degree as the population,” said Siva. “We thought: why not develop this idea – have more youngsters perform and also get more youngsters to watch?”
The three – and soon an ever-growing circle of young Carnatic musicians – began to meet at Siva’s home to brainstorm. The idea of a forum for the young caught on quickly and started echoing.
The next year, 1985, was the international year of the youth, so the group decided to set the age limit for membership between 14 and 36 years. A half-year subscription would cost Rs 15. There were to be a president, treasurer and committee members representing every field of performance from the violin to vocal. The name and logo took shape at the T Nagar home of advertising professional Anand Siva.
“What resonated the most with me was a desire to break the barriers of elitism and traditionalism associated with classical music which were keeping people away,” said Anand Siva.
By mid-1985, with 30 members, the association held its first event – a flute recital by the R Gopinath-Ganesh duo at the now defunct Srinivasa Shastry Hall in Mylapore. In the audience were giants of the Carnatic scene, including dancer Padma Subrahmanyam and Semmangudi.
By the time the programme ended, the group’s membership had quadrupled. It was not just aspiring musicians who signed up. There were also those who simply loved music but had other career dreams.
“It was like we had found our idyll,” recalled vocalist Sangeetha Sivakumar, who had just moved from Kochi to forge a career in music. “There was this sudden, amazing realisation that this solidarity was what we had all been waiting for all along. We were driven by an immense passion. There were loud, strong voices among us, many of them women. Krishna [who Sivakumar later married] and I were in the committee and I remember Jayashri and Sowmya as selfless volunteers, always ready to help or sing. Everyone did something, we just organically stepped in where needed.”
At the time there were hardly any performance venues or opportunities for youngsters. Most sabhas that drove the cultural scene picked artistes who were well over 50.
The YACM decided to find its own spaces. Before long, it started monthly concerts featuring young artistes. There were also special music features like aradhanas dedicated to great composers and akhandams, all-day jamboorees where a single iconic Carnatic composition would be performed by many artistes. Temples, homes, public spaces, all became possible venues.
The concerts began finding growing audiences and the movement started throwing up young prodigies. But the camaraderie did not end with success. “We were helping each other grow as musicians,” said Sivakumar. “A massive cassette collection of superb recordings would do the rounds. We bonded regardless of what school of music we belonged to. Someone would ask, ‘Have you heard this wonderful GNB’s [raga] Khamboji?’, and then there would be a discussion on it, and ideas and tips shared.”
A smart thing the group did was to rope in youngsters who had skills in organising, advertising, funding, management and of course music to startegise.
The first-year bash, it was decided, would be held at the grand Music Academy. The hitch was, the hall cost Rs 2,600, a full concert Rs 36,000 and what they had in their collective pockets was Rs 1,000, Siva says. It was then that Anand Siva came up with the idea of corporate sponsorship – a concept pretty much unheard of in a system supported entirely by paltry subscriptions and donations. But for big money to come, the music had to become cool and for that, the young had to arrive at concert halls.
“I believed that to break the mindset about classical music you had to bring cinema into the picture – after all, classical music and film music had an abiding relationship and so many stalwarts had sung for films,” recalled Anand Siva. “I brought in film star Revathi to talk on cinema and music, actor Srividya [daughter of vocalist ML Vasanthakumari], and Ilayaraja, whose songs are now treated with the same reverence as kirtanams (classical compositions, religious in nature). We would also have audio montages of say raga Mohanam or Charukeshi in films. This moved Carnatic music into the fun realm.”
At the time, the words Carnatic and carnival could never be uttered together. But YACM changed that, turning the car park at the Music Academy into an extended venue for a music mela. As wild ideas began to find shape, the veterans in the field looked on in sheer disbelief.
At the Carnival, there would be game booths and interactive sessions centred on Carnatic music – dumb charades, just a minute, antakshari, spot-a-raga, sing its variations – all calling out to the young, amateur musicians as well as curious passersby.
A mad band of young musicians with crazy ideas that managed to click were somehow everywhere all at once – performing, organising, networking, evangelising with rare energy. This adrenalised face of Carnatic music brought in funds and the programmes multiplied.
From the margins, the youngsters moved to the centre stage. It was as if Chennai could not have enough of them. The grand old sabhas began to seek out these artistes who seemed to have so much buzz around them. The mini hall at the Music Academy became the venue for the annual YACM anniversary and soon the entire list of its performers began to be “exported” to bigger sabhas and festivals, as Sivakumar puts it.
“We were a bunch of very opinionated, very hot-headed musicians and very often there would be arguments and somebody would walk out,” said Pavithra Charan, a social entrepreneur who studied vocal music under the great Seetharama Sarma, as did Krishna. “But this was never about individual ego, it was always about how to take the movement forward.”
Charan joined in high school and remembers doing everything from taking music to schools, pleading with principals for lec-dem space, working on a newsletter titled Dhwani, contributing to leaflets and playing a general dogsbody with no compunction.
By the mid-1990s, one of the aims of YACM had become a reality – the stage had opened up for young artistes – so the attention shifted to improving listenership. In 1994, the team began the Build-a-Rasika drive initiated by Vijay Siva, taking Carnatic music to children and young adults. There were lecture-demonstrations in schools and music appreciation recordings for HMV.
By the time the decade ended, it was as if the massive cultural wave had found its shore. It was hip to sing Carnatic and cool to head for concerts.
What could be done to frame its resounding success? That is when the idea of a grand Millennium Concert at the Music Academy took seed. It was one of those landmark cultural events that continues to be talked about in Carnatic circles as, to use a cliché, the crowning glory of the youth movement.
With Krishna as the president of YACM, the concert was to be mounted as a sensational event featuring several recitals showcasing multiple paramparas (traditions), gurus and generations on a single stage starting 9.45 pm and ending at midnight with a surprise finale. It was, even by YACM standards, a wacky idea for a city which usually shut down by 9 pm.
“We insisted that you had to be receptive to change,” recalled Anand Siva. “We planned painstakingly, landing up at a starchy Academy meeting in jeans and T-shirts with a PowerPoint presentation for the grandees. But we were so persuasive and prepared to deal with their reservations that we walked out with a resounding yes.”
After much heartache, some disasters and standoffs, and with the blessings of MS Subbulakshmi – still in mourning over her husband’s death – the show began. Ten young stars of Carnatic music were introduced by Sudha Raghunathan, a marquee name. They in turn spoke of the legacies of the grand masters. There was the razzamatazz of multimedia, far ahead of its time.
Semmangudi, then 92, sang, and there were unusual jugalbandi, including one featuring the venerable DK Pattammal and KV Narayanaswami.
At midnight, the lights dimmed and when they came back on, the hall was flooded with around 500 schoolchildren in white, standing in the aisles, on the stage, in the midst of audiences. When they began singing Maitrim Bhajata, an ode to amity and peace, there was not a dry eye in the auditorium, musicians recall.
Among them was Rithvik Raja, then 11.
With the millennium show coming to an end, it was as if YACM’s work was done. It drifted apart as organically as it came together. Although it survives today, it is in a state of self-imposed dormancy. The last novel drive it began was Svanubhava, an eclectic performing arts festival that started in 2008.
The contemporary Carnatic scene is riven by debates on caste, community and gender. Raja, who heads it now, believes the youth cultural movement has to reinvent itself, take a different direction, perhaps become more socially and politically connected, and interact with other art forms.
“It is an ancient art but we have to keep it contemporary,” he said.
Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.