Missing a Beat

The state of writing about Hindustani classical music

Abhishek Raghuram belongs to a triumvirate of the most popular male Carnatic vocalists. rakesh nair / bccl
01 December, 2019

In January 2014, The Hindu carried a review of a concert that Abhishek Raghuram, a leading Carnatic vocalist in his mid thirties, gave at the prestigious Music Academy in Chennai. The concert, which I also attended, would have appeared to many as a great success. The venue was overflowing: after filling all the aisles with extra chairs, the ushers still had to turn many people away. The performance took place in the evening slot, which is reserved for those whom the organisation believes are the most deserving musicians. At the end of the concert, the audience gave the young musician a long standing ovation. In the review, the writer, Veejay Sai, nevertheless wrote the following:

Abhishek lacks a sense of proportion and often overdoes his exhibitionist method, almost playing to the galleries. While Abhishek is certainly a gifted artist for his age, for now, the recall effect from his music is obscured by his gimmickry. High on technique, low on music and zero on aesthetic, to sum it all up.

Abhishek belongs to a triumvirate of the most popular male Carnatic vocalists. The other two are TM Krishna, roughly ten years older than Abhishek, and Sanjay Subrahmanyan, about twenty years his senior. He comes from a family of prominent musicians, such as the mridangam player Palghat Raghu and the violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman, which gives him considerable pedigree. Finally, those who know the Carnatic world will be aware that the Music Academy’s president, N Murali, is part of the family that owns The Hindu. The writer was not daunted by any of this.

But few people in the Carnatic world would have been surprised by the review’s forthrightness. The state of writing about Carnatic music is not perfect, but the environment has no taboos about criticising artists who are popular, powerful or well connected. A few years later, The Hindu carried another critical review, this time by TK Ganapathy on Raghuram’s concert in Coimbatore. “Though Abhishek Raghuram has all the ingredients of an accomplished singer,” he wrote, “his performance was marred by an acrobatic streak in raga delineations. His manodharma [improvisation] and vidwat [technical knowledge and ability] failed to create an impact.” The reviewers were only doing what informed, independent and fearless critics are meant to do: criticise when they feel it is warranted and back their statements with reasoned arguments. Such attitudes are normal in that half of the Indian classical-music world.