How does one become a ‘bitten’ rasika of Carnatic music? Is it a case of “love at first sight” or is there a process of progressive evolution? I do believe that there is a process of evolution here. Musical listening is aesthetic cognition. This cognition passes through five different stages identified and described below. It does not mean that every listener will pass through all the stages or at the same speed. Like personality, rasikatva may also get fixated at any of the lower stages. The more gifted, luckier rasikas pass through to the last stage.
Stage I: This may be loosely labelled as the stage of favouritism. Some musician or songs, for some reason, attract and are just perceived as pleasant but not as representing anything. It could be a sweet voice, an attractive lyric, catchy tune or rhythm. There is intuitive delight well below the level of discussion and argument. Music is just a stimulus to a pleasant but not-understood experience. Rickshawallahs, who are said to have stopped on the road and listened to Madurai Mani’s music at the Kapaleeswarar temple, come under this category.
Stage II: From a palpable, literal reality, which evoked his interest, the listener moves on to a perception of the schematic reality in the music. He realises that in addition to realism, there is also beauty and skill in the music. Some appears to be more beautiful or skilled than others. This realisation does not diminish his enjoyment but only supplements it. However, he is still not aware how this beauty or skill is to be judged.
Stage III: In addition to the above-the-ordinary skill required to make the music attractive, the listener now becomes aware of style. He recognises that MS is MS and MLV is MLV, but is incapable of discussing any commonality that goes beyond the individual styles. He is still puzzled but has gone beyond the stage when a specific song or a tune was necessary for aesthetic enjoyment. He is looking beyond mere prettiness. Even an average piece of classical music seems more significant than a catchy film song.
Stage IV: Individuality in style and the extra significance of classical music are noticed more and more resulting in an urge to analyse and understand them. This makes him interact and discuss with other rasikas resulting in an understanding of the whole classical tradition and the evolution of different styles. He now realises that the extra significance in classical music of which he became vaguely aware in Stage III was really due to listener participation which the music now seems to compel. This is not the kind of physical participation one sees in folk, pop or choral music but a kind of aesthetic-cum-intellectual participation which instantly re-processes and re-experiences the music one hears.
The rasika has made the quantum jump from appreciating a tune to appreciating a raga. He now recognises raga and tala without knowing the technical structure behind them. He also finds that discussion and mild arguments on music are not only possible but beneficial.
Stage V: Music now becomes the basis not only of enjoyment but raising questions. He is attracted to seminars on themes like ‘The style of GNB,’ ‘What is a raga?’ and so on. While Stage IV produces a commitment to classicism, Stage V makes the commitment dynamic.
The beauty and bonus of these stages of growth for rasikatva are that the intuitive, child-like delight of stage I, far from being damaged or diluted by proceeding to higher stages, is actually enlarged and enriched and made more enduring. Thus there is an imaginative expansion of the self.
A true Stage V rasika would be capable of assessing and appreciating M.D. Ramanathan’s music with as much ease and authority as a Balamurali’s or a Semmangudi’s. He would not be in aesthetic bondage to any style or school of music. If the audience consists predominantly of stage I and II listeners, the tendency of musicians would be to convert the concert into a kind of circus or magic show. If the audience consists mostly of Stage IV and V listeners, the musicians would be compelled to live up to a much higher expectation.