'bANi' in Carnatic Music

Vimala Sriram

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[Editor's Notes: 1) The following article was among several entries we received for the Carnatica Global Essay Contest. As promised, we are featuring a few of the articles on our website 2) Views and opinions expressed in these articles are entirely those of the respective authors]

"Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn..."

[Charlie Parker (1920–1955), U.S. jazz musician. Quoted in Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain, “Afterwords,” Ed. - Michael Horovitz, 1969]

Any art form, not only music, is the artist’s experience, his/her own thoughts, his/her own wisdom.  These find expression in what the artist’s style is, be it painting, music, sculpture, in fact any art form.  This being so, it is but imperative that each artist, develops his own style of expression, the simple reason being that his thoughts, his experiences, his wisdom cannot be expressed in somebody else’s words as in writing, notes as in music and strokes as in painting and so on.  Any serious student of art is able to recognize at a glance, a Van Gogh, a Da Vinci, a Michelangelo, a Salvador Dali.  A music lover instantly identifies a composition of Mozart, Beethoven, and Muttuswami Dikshitar. Each of these works of art has the artist’s stamp on them. In the context of music, in Indian vocabulary, we call it the bANi, or style.

Perhaps this term bANi can be explained in simpler terms   with an everyday example.  Each of us, with a discerning tongue can immediately identify our mother’s cooking.  The ingredients which go into the dish may be the same but the blending, the proportion are unique and hence the taste is unique.  Given the same ingredients, two cooks produce, the same dish each with a distinct taste.  That is his bANi, his signature on his chosen art form, in this instance, cooking.  In any endeavour that involves creativity, it is imperative that there is a style, if it were to be distinctive.

Extending the same principles to music, let us take some examples among musicians with different bANis.  Both Maharajapuram Santhanam, and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer were disciples of Maharajapurm Viswanatha Iyer.  Yet both developed very distinct styles of their own, after imbibing the essence of Carnatic Music form their guru.  Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, to start with was rather handicapped by his voice, which had a restricted range.  With intense sAdhakam, and fully aware of the limitations of a voice such as his, he developed a style where he could produce a very distinctive and distinguished way of rendering.  So did Maharajapuram Santhanam.  These two stalwarts or Carnatic Music are standing examples of how bANi distinguishes one artist from another.  G. N. Balasubramanian, on the other hand had a voice that could handle b.Rgas effortlessly and hence he developed a style where he put this to maximum use to enrich his rendition. If Nityashree, the young granddaughter of D. K. Pattammal, who learnt music from her grandmother, had blindly followed her grandmother’s style, she couldn’t have made a niche for herself. She would have just remained another good singer, not a distinguished one, albeit with a great heritage.  It is possible for a musician to evolve his own style or bANi only when he has mastery over art and the medium of expression.

When we look at the situation today, it is a fact that technology is in a way deterring young and aspiring musicians from developing a bANi of their own. Though it sounds like a sweeping statement, it is true to a great extent.  Today it has become possible to learn music with the help of tapes and CDs, and even from the Internet, unlike in the olden days when the disciples spent years with their gurus and learnt the art at their feet. They were not exposed to various singers, till they reached a certain level of maturity.  Their foundation was laid strong and when they were ready, they could choose a style which best suited their shArIram, or voice range.  But when one learna from CDs and cassettes by just listening to them and reproducing them, it becomes a parrot-like repetition.  Hence in one kriti they sound like MS, in another like MLV and in third like Pattammal! There is no depth to their music.  This is no way a mean task in itself, but the chief ingredient which distinguishes talent from genius, namely creativity is missing. In short, a bANi is sadly lacking.  This is one great pitfall aspiring artists should avoid if they were to make their music and thereby themselves, immortal. A serious student of music should learn the fundamentals of music, from one single capable guru and having mastered them, should go on to evolve their own style based on this knowledge.

Madurai Mani Iyer is a classic example of how a musician develops his own style of singing.  Both he and Madurai Seshagopalan were students of the Harikesanallur house of music.  But no two styles could be more dissimilar!  When both make svara sancArAs, Mani Iyer always uses the simple sarva laghu pattern, but Seshagopalan with his mastery over laya, likes to use that skill in rendering kaNakkus.  Nevertheless, Mani Iyer's singing of svaras is so unique, it is his stamp.  Nobody else could imitate that style effectively. It is his bANi!

In Hindustani Music, there are gharAnas or houses, which have their own distinctive way of rendering.  These have been preserved very carefully, passed down from guru to shishya down the line, so that the distinctive way of rendering is kept alive.  In a way it can be called the bANi because the style is unique to their creativity.  But this cannot be confused with the individual bANi of their musicians, as even within the same gharAna, musicians managed to retain the originality of their rendering.

Now to the question of how important bANi is to music. It is like asking how important one's features are to one's looks!  Just as our features are what give us an identity, a face in the crowd, it is bANi which gives a musician his identity. Without it his music lacks life. Whereas our features are ordained for us, a bANi is consciously and intelligently developed by the musician keeping in mind the plusses and minuses of his voice. Without bANi, his music lacks individuality.  It is like a beautifully decorated corpse.  bANi is what breathes life into his music. The bANi evolves from his mastery, his understanding of the music and his own abilities. When one's knowledge of his craft is shallow, one can never build on it.  To rise above a certain level, one needs that extra spark that is his style. This is true of any art form and particularly of any form of music. Take the case of that living legend in film world, Lata Mangeshkar. In her long innings as a playback singer, there were at least half a dozen people with a voice as attractive as hers. It was particularly so because they were trying to imitate Lata’s way of singing, instead of concentrating on developing one of their own.  They remained just that - poor imitations of the original and imitations have short lives, never for posterity.

Can one consciously develop a bANi or is it inborn? The answer is yes and no. It is fifty percent conscious effort and fifty percent inborn. Rather with the given voice a person can consciously develop a style to suit the same, but the intelligence to do so is inborn!  That intelligence can also be called creativity!

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