A number of musicians today are focusing on fusing Indian and western styles of music as a new style of music. However, fusion music is not new and has a history dating back centuries. The Royal Carnatic Orchestra is considered to be one of the first East-meets-West experiments in India. The orchestra was once the highlight of the Mysuru Royal court but today has an uncertain future ahead.
The Royal Carnatic Orchestra – History
Mysuru was always known as a cultural hub and benefitted from the patronage of its rulers. Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV who ruled from 1884 to 1940 was considered a connoisseur of Carnatic music. His court has a number of renowned Indian musicians in residence along with several western musicians. The musicians lived here composing music, teaching and giving performances.
It is only natural thus for knowledge to have been shared. Indian musicians learned how to play western instruments like the piano while western musicians learned the intricacies of the Indian ragas. This led to the birth of The Royal Carnatic Orchestra. The orchestra boasted of 150 composers and musicians who played a unique Carnatic chamber style of music with a mix of Indian instruments and western instruments like the xylophone and trombone.
One of the finest examples of music created by these musicians is the Mysuru state anthem. The Mysuru state anthem; Kayau Sri Gowri was composed by Basavappa Shastry, a court poet. The song was written to mark the restoration of the princely state of Mysore to Maharaja Chamaraja Wodeyar by the British in 1881.
The lyrics were written in chaste Kannada and paid homage to the tutelary deity of the royal court. However, it was set to a duplex meter waltz and composed according to a single Ionian scale harmony. Thus it had a Carnatic soul and a western flavor. The anthem was performed by the Royal Carnatic Orchestra with an ensemble of percussion, string and brass instruments.
The Royal Carnatic Orchestra Today
In 1951, the orchestra was integrated with the police band as rechristened the Mysuru Government Orchestra. Today it has only about 30 members and a number of band posts are vacant.
The band members often get opportunities to accompany Carnatic classical performances or play as soloists but rarely get the chance to perform as a band other than during state functions. A number of band members are descendants of the original band members. This change is a reflection of how Southern India has been transformed socio-politically.
Deepti Navaratna’s Efforts on Reviving the Royal Carnatic Orchestra
Just as musicians of yesteryears needed the patronage of kings, today’s musicians also need the patronage of cultural organizations. Classical musician and neuroscientist Deepti Navaratna discovered the Royal Carnatic Orchestra in 2015. A year and a half later when she took up the post of regional director of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Bengaluru she began to seek out members of this band.
While talking to erstwhile and current members of the band she learned more about the history of the orchestra and was driven to find out why the orchestra was now not included in mainstream Carnatic music practice.
This quest has now taken the form of a project with the aim of publishing a book about the legacy of the orchestra and a DVD with old performances and recordings. The project also hopes to find newer performance contexts for the orchestra so that their unique repertoire is preserved.