Carnatic music is built around religion. Rare is a composition that is not about any one of the Hindu gods. For all purposes then this classical music is also devotional music. To borrow a word from Christianity, it was ecclesiastical.
Into my teenage years, as I started questioning religion, the agnosticism spilled over into the appreciation of this music as well. I suppose I was consistent in my approach in questioning whether one could be into the music without being in the religion.
I was provided with a wonderful real example of this puzzle--following some of controversies related to the musician KJ Yesudas. Born into a Catholic family, Yesudas took up carnatic music and was a student of one of the most accomplished musicians. Yesudas' involvement with this Hindu music drew ire from the Catholic religious leaders, who even threatened him with excommunication. The Catholic logic was that by singing bhajans and carnatic music compositions in temples, Yesudas was straying far away from the monotheism of Christianity. The excommunication never happened, but all those developments made me think that much more about religion and carnatic music even as I was questioning the concept of "god" itself.
In fact, one of the compositions by Thyagaraja clearly lays out the relationship between carnatic music and devotion:
Sangeetha gnanamu Bhakthi vinaa, San margamu kaladhe , Oh ManasaThe lyrics further note that this music is a mode of worship.
(The knowledge of music, without devotion (bhakthi) is not the right path, oh mind)
The more I moved away from religion--not merely Hinduism, but any religion and god--the more I was naturally disconnecting from this classical music as well.
Over the decades, I have pretty much lost any interest in carnatic music, and it is only the intellectual curiosities about the music that remain within me. Every time I visit India, which is almost always in December, I am often presented with opportunities to think about this question of bhakthi in carnatic music--it is also in December that Chennai hosts the huge music festival, and there are programs on television as well. One of the TV programs features Q/A sessions with musicians. Without fail, there is always a question about the role of bhakthi in the music, and every musician who has taken that question emphasizes that without bhakthi there cannot be any music. It is like listening to baseball players responding to questions when you know exactly what their response is going to be.
A few months ago, I was talking with a cousin and her husband about religion and god, and I laid out this aspect of carnatic music--she is heavily into it. I wondered if ever there would ever be a secularization of carnatic music. A reformation of sorts. She seemed intrigued!
The bhakthi is so strong that a jazzy improvisation that Susheela Raman does in her sultry voice with a carnatic classic, nagumomu, might be considered blasphemy. (Maybe I ought to ask for that cousin's opinion here.)
Oh well ... as much as an atheist that I am, one of my favorite pieces from music in this part of the world drips with religion all the way: Handel's Messiah.
All across the world, literature and the arts grew within religious frameworks. Camille Paglia has often made this point, and she has done that with her usual vast knowledge and clarity. A confirmed atheist, Paglia points out, and I am in complete agreement with her, that the works that resulted from this framework have been phenomenal, both in quantity and quality.
To fully appreciate world art, one must learn how to respond to religious expression in all its forms. Art began as religion in prehistory. It does not require belief to be moved by a sacred shrine, icon, or scripture. Hence art lovers, even when as citizens they stoutly defend democratic institutions against religious intrusion, should always speak with respect of religion. Conservatives, on the other hand, need to expand their parched and narrow view of culture.
Like her, despite (or because of) my atheistic beliefs, I too worry that in education we don't emphasize enough a deep understanding of religions. Paglia goes one more step and writes:
Great art can be made out of love for religion as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularized society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.
Maybe someday there will be a body of secular carnatic music that was borne out of the rebellion against Hinduism? You think? Nah!