In 1926, Bangalore Nagarathnamma was not allowed to perform at the annual tribute to Saint Thyagaraja – because she was a woman – despite constructing his temple at her personal expense. It was 1941 before men and women could perform together at the Thiruvaiyaru Thyagaraja Aradhana. Now the armed forces have men and women, co-educational schools are the norm, workplaces are gender-neutral, and unisex restrooms are increasingly common.
How has the gender dynamic evolved on the Carnatic stage during this time?
“While it is undoubtedly better now, it is unfortunate we have to compare our state with women of over 50 years ago, instead of the men of today – consoling ourselves that things are not too bad after all,” says vocalist Nisha Rajagopalan. “It is understood, and accepted by all, that the senior-most generation of currently performing artistes does not play with women,” she clarifies. Vocalist Sangeetha Sivakumar says categorically, “There is no woman who has not faced this discrimination.”
The public rarely registers this fact though, since they do see some men and women performing together at concerts, and statistics, such as the publicly available list of Sangita Kalanidhi awardees, show significant progress. Arguably the most coveted title in Carnatic Music, the Sangita Kalanidhi is awarded annually by The Music Academy in Chennai. Between 2010 and 2023, eight of 16 (50%) awardees were female versus just nine out of 80 (11.25%) in the previous 80 years, between 1929-2009.
However, what happens unbeknownst to the audience is disheartening. Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar awardee, and veteran ghatam player, Sukanya Ramgopal was turned back at a concert venue from performing because the mridangist (now a Sangita Kalanidhi) refused to play with a woman. An accompanying violinist was told that the mridangist objected to women on stage – she stepped down. Mridangist Rajna Swaminathan, a student of Sangita Kalanidhi Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, was questioned on her competency by the male vocalist she was to accompany – who then recused himself. A male violinist about to play a solo refused to have a female tambura player on stage – without demur, the organiser (a female) sent the already-arrived lady strummer back home.
A system of rewarding misogynistic musicians
The women themselves rarely discuss this elephant in the room openly. Sukanya Ramgopal says, “They will be ostracised from the performing scene if they speak out.” The community is small and the misogynists’ networks run wide and deep. Fear of backlash is high – especially for younger musicians. Musician activist T.M. Krishna says, “Not only are seniors who have nothing left to achieve tight-lipped about this, but they also encourage other musicians to stay mum as well.” Mridangist composer K. Arun Prakash says, “When society as a whole does not decry this practice, individual ladies cannot point it out. Those who do will be avoided.”
The system, worryingly, appears to reward misogynistic musicians, encouraging future generations to follow the same path. Among the Sangita Kalanidhi awardees, for example, only a few male vocalists, like Dr. S. Ramanathan and M. Balamuralikrishna, appear to have performed with women throughout. Otherwise, most of the other recipients (vocalists and instrumentalists) are either artistes who have never shared the stage with women, or those who initially did so and then stopped, or those who included women only after receiving all major awards. With a long history of the name and fame of misogynists rivalling that of egalitarian musicians, gender segregation has earned legitimacy, appearing necessary to achieve pinnacles of glory – some musicians as young as in their 30s have boycotted women.
Thickly shrouded in tradition, Carnatic music lays heavy emphasis on age and longevity in the field, automatically legitimising seniors’ actions, even those that are obviously wrong. The segregationist actions of senior and senior-citizen musicians, deified for their on-stage artistry, resulting in women being seen as dispensable and substitutable, giving them negligible bargaining power for prime slots, co-artistes or remuneration.
Performers depend on public perception. Comments like ‘This new musician MUST be good because senior XYZ is performing alongside’ are common. Between foisted competence on the younger artiste and the senior’s own fan following, audiences automatically mushroom, propelling the aspiring artiste’s visibility.
Nisha Rajagopalan says, “Most upcoming male artistes perform with these senior artistes and get a leg up for advancement to ‘main concert slots’, whereas most women spend years and years struggling to make their way up the ladder.” T.M. Krishna confirms, saying that he and other male artistes indeed got/get headstarts in this manner. Sangeetha Sivakumar, also Krishna’s wife, has seen this play out before her eyes. “Since women do not receive this opportunity, it begins a gap between otherwise equal musicians that keeps widening with time, setting women up for permanent second-class status.”
Seniors frequently say they perform alongside ‘younger musicians’ to encourage them – whether that is true or a shrewd strategy to ensure ongoing relevance in a highly competitive artform is anyone’s guess. What is a fact, however, is that this ‘encouragement’ is reserved only for men. Vocalist, vainika and scholar, Dr. S. Sowmya emphasises, “If a male child sings, they will play, but however seasoned a female artiste, they will not. It is absolute chauvinism and still happens.” Musician and scholar R.K. Shriramkumar says, “It is very sad that people have such views – many meritorious women do not get the recognition they deserve as a result.”
The automatic assumption that veteran stalwarts perform alongside the most competent musicians, coupled with a lack of awareness of the deep-rooted gender bias, results in male performers and ‘male music’ being considered superior. The corollary is reduced expectations from women. Brindha Manickavasakan recollects one concert vividly. “I had sung some kanakku (mathematical permutations and combinations in kalpanaswaras). After the concert, a few people came up and said all I was expected to do was to sing in tune – there were male musicians to do kanakku.” Such ingrained perceptions probably also explain why female musicians are rarely chosen to showcase arangetram (stage debut) candidates.
“This also means that if male musicians perform with women, they can call attention to it as ‘socially conscious’,” says another musician. When vocalist Aishwarya Vidhya Raghunath enquired about a performing opportunity, the organiser said he had numerous male alternatives available (naming several contemporaries). Whether headliner or accompanying artiste, every woman is affected. Sukanya Ramgopal thinks the situation has worsened in the past few decades, “More musicians have pre-set teams, leading to fewer musicians that they collaborate with. Females are the first casualty.”
In early careers, musicians perform with a large set of co-artistes, often including women. With increased fame, they become more specific. That is understandable as certain styles and personalities just jell better. However, some are highly restrictive, such as the vocalist who performs with only one particular violinist and one particular mridangist and another violinist who plays with only one vocalist. Nor is this confined to men and/or senior citizen musicians.
The total number of female accompanying violinists of the highest skill levels is in the single digits and even lesser with percussionists. Sangeetha Sivakumar finds this unsurprising, given the lack of satisfying opportunities and multiple barriers for female accompanying musicians. Of the bare handful of such violinists, one performs only with a few female headliners and just a couple of males. Another plays only with a handful of exclusively male headliners. Such uber-choosiness further exacerbates the situation.
Many women prefer performing with men. Sangeetha Sivakumar opines, “Male or female, all artistes are trying to gain standing and advance in the field and will collaborate with whomever will most facilitate that. Since the entire system is weighted towards men, it becomes natural for many to prefer performing with them.” T.M. Krishna agrees, stating, “As in any other field, people imitate those in positions of power.”
Segregationist artistes boycott female performers with impunity but continue to be kept on pedestals and recognised at the highest levels. This reveals how entrenched sexism is. Krishna says, “If this happened in any other sphere of life, the office, for example, everyone would be up in arms. But Carnatic music is decades behind.” Arun Prakash says, “Organisations are hand-in-hand. If a male artiste says no to women, no questions are asked. He is fixed with other male artistes automatically. His prestige would even go up.” Some segregationists told Arun Prakash that if he became male-only, they would take him for their concerts while others asked why he demeaned himself accompanying women.
Misogynist musicians’ reasons for boycotting women performers are nebulous and contradictory. Violinists cite women’s higher pitches as detrimental to the longevity of their playing careers. Yet, they do not accompany women performing at lower ‘male’ pitches whilst accompanying male solo instrumentalists playing at ‘female’ high pitches. Mridangists say they cannot play with abandon due to women’s ‘lighter’ voices.
But, as Sangeetha Sivakumar says, there are men with lighter voices too just as there are women with heavier ones. Some perform with female family members or alongside sibling duos where one sibling is male. Seeking to avoid women’s interfering husbands has been mentioned as an issue – Dr. Sowmya remarks that they never performed with single women either. Others cite old beliefs surrounding menstruating women – however, they performed earlier with younger women and then later stopped, not playing even with post-menopausal women.
T.M. Krishna says these are all mere red herrings. “Men fear that they will not be noticed if a woman is on stage with them. They believe all the attention will be on the woman since she is sexualised – objectified.” The hypocrisy of ‘exalted’ segregationist musicians extolling the female divine, being feminist in words but entirely chauvinistic in action, is an especially despicable aspect of Carnatic music, particularly in its mecca of Chennai.
The female musicians spoken to, in one voice, acknowledged their satisfaction with those artistes who do collaborate with them gender notwithstanding. One has to wonder though, whether some, or all, will eventually boycott women – as many of their predecessors have. Can women call out the discrimination unitedly? Can the men show their support by performing only with co-artistes who do not gender discriminate? Can corporate sponsors set gender equity guidelines for what they fund? Can organisations recognise and back artistes who have, sans fuss and fanfare, practiced gender equality? Most importantly and, perhaps, most effectively, can rasikas observe for such facets and openly question artistes and organisers?
The Navaratri Mandapam Music Festival in Thiruvananthapuram shows organisational change is possible. Women were barred from performing at, or attending, this festival – one of the oldest in the country, with centuries of history. In 2006, Aswati Tirunal Rama Varma, a scion of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore, opened up the festival to women. Since then, there has been at least one female performer every year and women are welcome to attend all the concerts. “Navaratri is a festival celebrating the female Goddess; it was illogical to disallow women,” said Rama Varma to this writer.
Right now, however, what rather damningly holds in Carnatic Music is an adaptation of George Orwell’s caustic line from Animal Farm. All musicians are equal but males are more equal than others.
Lakshmi Anand is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2022 and 2023. She is an associate editor on the Editorial Board of the Indian Journal of Performing Arts Education and Research, published by the Tamil Nadu Dr. J. Jayalalithaa Music and Fine Arts University.