Margi and Desi Sangeet: a perspective
by Tara Kini
Margi and Desi sangeet have been differentiated with a range of definitions. Classical music, derived from Vedic chanting, particularly Samgana from the Sama Veda, is given the status of Margi sangeet. The music of the common people, that arises from their daily living, their surroundings, the very soil from where they have emerged, is termed Desi sangeet. This differentiation of the classical from the common has its use, but the general opinion of the classicist that Margi Sangeet is superior to Desi is questionable.
As I pen this note, I am listening to a workshop by a classical violinist who has just proposed that any classical musician would be able to sing a light piece with ease, but ask a folk musician to hold the beat when a classical musician sings a composition, would he be able to do it, does he have the scholarship, the expertise? His statement is greeted with applause. I want to stand up and say, if the Ravanhattha player from Rajasthan were to sing his melody that evokes the desert and sand dunes in a trice, you could perhaps analyse the notes and sing an identical melody, but would you invoke the same spirit? And even if you could, how does that make the music any lower? Does easier equate with simpler and therefore become lowly?
I would like to present two reasons why I would disagree with this perspective that I encounter very often.
The first point I would like to make is against the need for any hierarchy between these two streams of Sangeet. While the differentiation of music into these two streams may be necessitated by our desire to categorise evolutionary strands of music to understand the development of nuances in each, creating hierarchies is problematic as I do not quite see the use of such a layering in knowledge or practical terms. The Margi Sangeet practitioner / scholar credits the art with an abstraction that he considers the result of high intellectual pursuit. Desi sangeet, on the other hand, deals with concrete activities of daily living, festivities, seasons, is organic, spontaneous, imbibed from the atmosphere, not learnt. It comes from the heart. Why should one
be considered higher than the other? Are they not equally significant, each in its
The second point is based on the purpose of music. Self expression leading to a discovery of Self is an oft vouchsafed goal. That music is to the soul what medicine is to the body, is my personally experienced truth. Margi Sangeet states unification of the individual soul with the cosmic soul as the ultimate goal of music Sadhana or practice. Desi Sangeet may not have any such lofty ambitions. But what does a song from the heart do to the singer and the listener? Is the experience any less because it is not learnt, analysed and perfected in a complicated, coded system? Does simplicity imply that it cannot be a path to the ultimate?
Music touches when it emerges straight from the heart, regardless of whether it is Margi or Desi. Such demarcations leading to hierarchies are not just useless, but could be harmful, not just in the context of music but also in many other contexts. That which binds, leads us to universality. That which creates infractions puts us further back in our journeys.
The eminent Carnatic vocalist Shri TM Krishna's reponse to the piece:
One of the problems is how we have understood Margi and desi and tried to equate that to classical versus folk. There is a misunderstanding of sophistication and inability to aesthetically discriminate artistic traditions and the experience of each. Subtlety and sophistication are only intra-artform ideas and not inter-art form tools of comparison.
Sarangdeva's Sangitaratnakara, a text of musicology from the 13th century, has some early definitions:
Gitam (vocal melody), vadyam (playing on instruments) and nrttam (dancing) are known as sangita which is twofold, that is marga and desi. That which was first discovered by Brahma and practised by Bharata and others in the audience of Lord Siva is known as marga, while the sangita comprising gitam, vadyam, nrttam that entertains people according to their taste in the different regions is known as desi.
Sangitaratnakara of Sarangdeva; Text and English translation; Vol 1; R.K. Shringy, Prem Lata Sharma;
Fifth edition 2013, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd www.mrmlbooks.com
Tara Kini is an independent consultant in Education and Music and works with several reputed institutions in Bangalore, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi and Ahmedabad, developing curriculum, and training teachers and trainers. Tara has been a teacher and administrator in Mallya Aditi International School for twenty four years. She partnered in setting up the Centre for Education, Research and Training in the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. She has trained intensively in Hindustani classical music, composed music for theatre, and directed music shows. She is the founder director of a music group called Sunaad that has presented over sixty shows of Classical Music across the country. She has taught in Stanford University and presented research papers on music and education in Sheffield and Helsinki.