Through all the dramatic changes experienced within the Hindustani traditions of Northern India, the classical traditions of the South remained largely content to remain within the secure confines of “tradition”.
A style commonly regarded as a “purer” expression than its North Indian Hindustani counterpart replete with a vibrant history of cosmopolitan interactions, the South Indian Carnatic tradition boasted a grand legacy of diverse styles and schools that nevertheless prided itself on the idea of “authenticity” to tradition and lineage.
By the 1950s and 1960s, however, the tradition had begun to gain a considerable following internationally as a series of Carnatic recordings released by that grand trove – All India Radio – began to capture the world’s attention.
Singers such as the august DK Pattammal, the glorious MS Subbulakshmi and the dramatic ML Vasanthakumari were critically acclaimed and admired, as were such instrumentalists as the violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman and flautist N Ramani.
World audiences appeared to be drawn to the seeming austerity of Carnatic music: its intricate rhythms and elaborate melodies were distinct, as were the tradition’s patterns of regulated meter and fluid improvisation.
Mostly, it seemed, that much of the devotion the tradition inspired was largely a result of its very faithfulness to innate strictures.
There was little transposition of styles between the classical, devotional with that of the folk, hardly any interaction with its Northern Hindustani counterpart and experimentation with Western styles was not only hardly heard of but quite patently regarded as unthinkable.
Even as film music gained great popularity in South India and within the South Indian diaspora, few classical musicians were seemingly inclined to making the “crossover”. Purity, it appeared, was what audiences and performers aspired for.
By the 1960s and 1970s, however, the tautness of tradition began to loosen. The coming together of the great voices of Carnatic and Hindustani music – M Balamuralikrishnan and Bhimsen Joshi signalled a breaking down of the strict boundaries within the Carnatic tradition.
An emerging generation of instrumentalists, helmed by the brothers L Subramaniam and L Shankar, possessing such technical wizardry that reaching further out was only inevitable, paved the way for experimentation with even instrumentation itself – the likes of Mandolin Sreenevasan and Kadri Gopalnath, introducing such instruments as the mandolin and saxophone within the Carnatic idiom.
By the time the supergroup Shakti was formed, Carnatic music, in all its perplexity had emerged as an indelible presence in the world musical language – the Carnatic sounds of L Shankar and TH “Vikku” Vinayakaram featuring in the ensemble alongside the tablist Zakir Hussein and the British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin.
Among vocalists, meanwhile, a new generation of performers began to exploit the opportunities afforded by the moderation of attitudes within the Carnatic tradition: stylistically, and in terms of repertoire, vocalists moved with increasing liberty between forms and song styles.
Among the foremost of this generation was the fluid presence of Bombay Jayashri. Of Tamil origin, her path to Carnatic music was itinerant and cosmopolitan.
Born in Kolkata, she was raised amidst the buzz of Bombay – the eponymous name adopted by the singer.
Her musical was rounded and encompassing. Absorbing the Hindustani traditions of the North, she was also trained in the stringed instrument of the veena, lending her subsequent vocals a distinctive scalic facility.
While deeply rooted in the ardours of Carnatic style- demonstrated mostly in her capacity for moulding tone or, in Carnatic terms swara, Jayashri nevertheless encapsulated the spirit of adventurism that was permeating Carnatic music.
Her cross-cultural collaborations with the Egyptian singer Hisham Abbas and the Senegalese vocalist Theone Seck demonstrated a conviction that the music of tradition contained within itself an expansive and pervasive capacity for connection.
Among her most moving and inspiring collaborations have been her reaches into poetry. Setting to orchestra poems from the great tradition of Sangam literature, she attempted to explore the interplay of sound and language itself.
Her efforts of crossing into the music of film reflected a desire to bring out the inner versatility of forms such as folk music. This resulted in her collaborating with the composer Mychael Danna to deliver Pi’s Lullaby in the Ang Lee-directed film The Life Of Pi (2012) which hinted at the folk traditions of India and won her an Oscar nomination.
Yet, for all her forays into the widest realms of musical exploration, testing the longevity of classical and traditional music, it is to tradition that she has always returned. Here, audiences witness the deepest intensity and attachment.
Her voluminous recordings of devotional music reveal a deep understanding of the contours and musical possibilities that lie in the seemingly simplest of compositions.
“With each passing moment, I realise how tiny a particle I am, in this unfathomable sea of music,” she once said. And in this concession is the exalted, the transcendent, the faithful that remains the music and inimitable influence of Bombay Jayashri.