Role of a Music Critic


Shri. SVK (S. V. Krishnamurthy) is a well known Carnatic music critic in Chennai who contributes regularly for the Hindu Newspaper’s Friday music reviews. He was felicitated in an award function recently.

Speaking in this function N. Ram, the Chief of Hindu newspaper that employs Shri. SVK, spoke thusly:

[…] many musicians and sabhas were “thin-skinned” and “not used to robust criticism that musicians in western countries get all the time whether they like it or not.”

“They want only favourable reviews, but that is decidedly not The Hindu‘s expectation,” he said, citing the guidelines evolved by the newspaper in consultation with critics for reviewing concerts and dance performances.

He said the critic was an individual expert rasika and writer on music and The Hindu chose “its critics and respected their musical knowledge, integrity, independence, judgement and writing style.”

Surprisingly, a voice from the musician spoke back and it was even printed in the Hindu. Carnatic musician T. M. Krishna responded thusly:

I was extremely intrigued by the comments of Mr. N. Ram published on the 28th of February in The Hindu regarding critics and musicians during a recent function in Chennai. While he has been quite scathing in his criticism of musicians, saying that we are thin-skinned and want only favourable reviews, it is quite sad to note that there has been absolutely no self-introspection in his speech about the quality of critics in The Hindu. Barring a few critics, I can say as a student of this art form that the knowledge of the critics today is abysmal. It is not about understanding very complex technicalities, even at a very necessary level it is lacking. I can back this with numerous reviews published in The Hindu itself.

For which, N. Ram responded (same link as above), the content of which, I thought, was not in order.

Now, I am neither a musician nor a music critic. I am just a music listener like N. Ram (as he says) but not even in the league of N. Ram to hold that as a qualification to attend Awards Functions, leave alone speak about the skin thickness of musicians. So, let me bare here my music listener’s brown skin. I leave it to the readers to judge whether my skin is thinner than the music-critic/patrons or thicker than the musician.

Firstly, on the tone of N. Ram’s response to TMK; Read what he says:

Mr. Krishna’s forthcomingness is useful because it illustrates the very point I made at the felicitation function mentioned above and have been making generally over the music season — because it is a long-observed problem that needs to be faced squarely and resolved. If his sweeping and dismissive opinion of our music critics as a group can be said to be representative of the opinion and attitude of professional musicians (and sabhas) to music critics as a fraternity, it is certainly a problem of being either condescending or thin-skinned or both.

The ploy employed by N. Ram, looking together his earlier speech and the above response to TMK, goes like this: First, you provoke someone by proclaiming in public something like “that guy is not nice you know; he will get provoked for any silly thing I say about him” and when that guy comes out “hey, that is a silly thing you are saying about me”, you get back at him by looking at the crowd and hollering, “see, see, I told you so, right?”.

If responding to a criticism on being thin-skinned makes one thinner-skinned, responding with a haughty editorial about what thin-skinned said about what one said makes that one what? Fair skinned?

Secondly, take what N. Ram says about TMK.

T.M. Krishna is a very fine musician with a deep knowledge of Carnatic music. We have had interesting and useful interactions with him on various subjects. But evaluating music criticism is not his strong suit — judging from the condescending tone of this polemical response and his sweeping dismissal of the competence of our music critics.

When we agree TMK is a fine musician with deep knowledge of Carnatic music, why can’t he also know about the veracity of objective statements made by music critics on such music? Is it because TMK knows only music whereas music critics critique on some other aspect? Or is it because technical knowledge and performance ability makes one objective enough to become intolerant to subjective crap passed on as objective music criticisms?

Actually N. Ram gets better. In a subsequent sentence he cites an example to support his argument.

[…] his (TMK’s) attitude is like that of a successful Test cricketer dismissing reportage and critical assessments by cricket writers by asking: ‘What does he know about playing in the middle? Has he played first division, let alone first class cricket, not to mention Test cricket?’

Exactly what is wrong with that cricketer’s argument?

If one touts to be a critic on a subject, it is only fair if others expect certain subject knowledge to accompany that title, to acquire which, the actual practice of that subject is a useful approach. I would attach more credibility to Sunil Gavaskar’s comments about a player or a game than a generic Hindu sports page columnist (who anyway apes mostly ESPNCricinfo website content). This is particularly true when Sunil Gavaskar criticizes someone.

According to the Late Embar Vijayaraghavachariar – who was posthumously honoured as recently as 2009 for his yeoman services to Carnatic music and musical discourses by the Music Academy – a critic is one who attempted to learn an art and had failed.

Sophisticated humour apart, there is that element of truth in what he said (that truth is what makes the humour sophisticated). If you are to criticise an art, know it enough to dare. Because, performing art thrives only by the performance of the artists.

Blind subjective criticisms loaded with personal likings, undermines the confidence of the already “thin-skinned” performer. It just kills the golden goose, which is already thin-skinned. Also, it confuses the listener who reads such reviews. One should critique for progress, for which, like Lord Rama, one should practice the art of madhura mozhi especially when one is critical.

The critic is an objective mirror for the artist and an educative lens for the patron or listener.

Poets and Musicians, artists and creators have remained thin-skinned. Insecurity and discontent are the flip side of creativity and competence. Even Lord Shiva in the garb of a Poet helping Dharumi to secure wealth was insecure and thin-skinned when queried by Nakeerar. A Sikkil Shanmughasundaram, nadaswaram champ (modelled on the real life personality of we-know-who) from Thillana Mohanambal was so thin-skinned that he stopped performing for the inattention of the listener due to cracker bursts. There was a sage in that situation – at least in the movie — to assuage the patron about that free-spirited nature of the musicians. I only wish we had such wisdom to surround patrons with a power to pen editorials.

Thirdly, I wonder how many of the music critics from Hindu actually practice the tenet of the selection code highlighted by N. Ram:

Para 10 of the Guidelines reads: “Finally, the critic is an individual expert rasika, and writer on music. […] We choose our critics and respect their musical knowledge, their integrity, their independence of judgment, and their writing style. It is your review and we know a subjective element forms part of this. It does not matter if you are alone in your musical judgment — as long as you make clear to readers the basis of this judgment, write insightfully, fairly, and interestingly, and comply with our deadline and word length requirements.”

For instance, even though many of us — including TMK, in his comment — agree on Shri. SVK’s musical acumen and frank criticisms, I wonder how many of his reviews are “clear to readers the basis of this judgment, write insightfully, fairly, and interestingly, […]”.

As a music listener, this is what I have as opinion about Shri.Man. SVK:

Respected for his age and undoubted Carnatic music knowledge, at times SVK is spot on with his critique about a musician. However, most of the times he cloaks all his judgments inside muddle challenging his readers with a writing style presumed by himself and a few others (who are all dead for the past fifty years) to be in the league of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and even Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is my humble prediction that his collected works would someday replace the Voynich manuscript for the teasing muddle and delectable incomprehension.

To support my opinions, here is a sample from the second paragraph of one of SVK’s review of  Lakshmi Rangarajan concert

Exceptionally feminine in measuring the lyrical dimensions of ragas, the delineations revealed the essential difference between skill and flamboyance.

How is one to measure the “lyrical dimension” of a raga? Agreed, a raga may not be made of one or two or three dimensions. Agreed it could not even get defined on a Lobochaveskian space-time continuum or on the n-dimensional hyperspace conceived by over imaginative arm chair mathematicians. But to measure the raga using a “lyrical dimension”? Only Lakshmi Rangarajan can do it, in the imagination of Shri. SVK.

Further, she not only measures the raga in lyrical dimensions, she does it in an unique way. An “exceptionally feminine” way – as it is normal of others to measure the raga in a lyrical dimension through a mediocre feminine way, or, say, a poor, botched-up eunuch way.

The next part of the sentence is a “revealed the essential difference between skill and flamboyance.” One is always stumped of such a remarkably well directed googly of a sentence as having read that sentence in full, one is now left to wonder whether the singing of Lakshmi Rangarajan is skill-full or flamboyant or both or neither and whether all these are essential while giving a Carnatic music concert.

The rest of my re-review of that review by SVK is here: What a waste of intellect and ink.

This is not an only instance. Here are five more of my re-reviews of reviews of Shri SVK.

Go through any or each one of them, if you find the time. Afterwards, you would begin to understand why even good musicians reviewed by several of those “objective critics” can only remain thin-skinned to honour their self-esteem. As TMK writes, “it is not about only negative reviews; even positive reviews are bad.”

If you are tempted to dismiss my re-reviews because of my possible personal grudge against SVK and my opinions in support of TMK because I like him, here is an instance of exchange between Sowmya and a Hindu music critic. Read those exchanges as a music listener/reader and judge for yourself. As for me, that critic — at least, in that issue — remains until today thick skinned and bone-headed for good measure.

When critics of music or an art form are not objective and educative in their analysis and worse — couch their personal opinions as objective criticisms – any competent musician or artist has a right to reject that criticism. Similarly, a listener/reader has also a right to reject such a music critic – by being subjective and biased, the critic is doing a disservice to the art form. Calling that right of the musician and listener thin-skinned is elitist.

After that award function for SVK, the speech of N. Ram there and the impassionate, objective and academic way he has responded to a “thin-skinned musician”, I for one can understand why many music critics and their patrons, the former in their objective garb of sagacity and the latter in their connoisseur cloak of maturity, can afford to remain thick skinned.

On the other hand, if N. Ram comes out with another haughty editorial on me for my brown-skinned opinions — as he honoured TMK above — I would be delighted to realize after all, patrons of music critics are also thin skinned.