Vivek Narayanan

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over two years

Vivek Narayanan proposes to research and write a novel on the rise and fall of Carnatic music as a dynamic social form from the mid-1920s to the end of the 1960s. He primarily wishes to explore the forces that by the1980s had ossified a once-innovative cultural form into some kind of symbolic repository of Tamil Brahmin high culture. This is only an overarching framework, however, and there are many different strands within Carnatic music culture in Tamil Nadu that interest him and which will go on to inform the novel. One is the figure of the musician himself. Vivek wishes to explore the lives of some of the stalwarts of Carnatic music and its revival, like Flute Mani and Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. “Part of my problem with Carnatic music has always been with what seemed to be the unbearable purity and goodness of its musicians,” writes Vivek. He is interested therefore in uncovering the personalities behind the music, and the peccadilloes and controversies associated with these often colourful figures. This is especially important for the novel because it will be written in a mock-memoir form, in the voice of a narrator who is a failed musician and self-appointed Carnatic music critic. This mode of investigation will also uncover an important aspect of the social history of Carnatic music – namely the formation of Brahmin self-identity in the 20th century.

One element of this history, Vivek points out, is the Tamil elite’s absorption of the English language, their entry into what he calls “the English public sphere”. The popularisation of the English language as a secular vehicle and a means of economic self-advancement, meant that the Brahmin elite could embrace English and begin to fashion themselves in the colonial image, while at the same time developing a new propriety and editing out more difficult histories. Vivek is particularly interested in replaying in his novel the specific English prose style of critics in mid-century Tamil Nadu. He will also explore some of the debates around the music during this period and the specific innovations that took place within it. Vivek is conscious of the fact that this music did not develop in a vacuum, that there were, for instance, other cultural developments taking place, like the creation of theatrical movements in Tamil and English. Further, Carnatic music was being reshaped in response to cinema and the gramophone. He feels that there is no one academic thesis that can make sense of these larger developments and that fiction offers the means to explore the connections between them in a more holistic way.

Vivek sees his research as crucial to the writing of the novel but he is at the same time anxious to emphasise that the novel will not only be written with the aim of intervening ongoing discussions on Carnatic music. He is clear about the autonomy of the novel and its ability to reveal peculiarly novelistic truths. He is excited, however, about combining historical and anthropological research with the writing of fiction because, with an academic background in anthropology and an interest in creative writing, he has written both academic papers and short stories but never combined the two forms. So even though some kind of position will inevitably emerge from the novel with regard to the music and the possible reasons for its decline, Vivek expects to encounter enough possibilities here for playfulness and subversion, something academic genres do not offer. It will be interesting to see how this will be achieved.