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21st Century Crises Hovering Over Indian Classical Music

In ecosystem of any art form, one individual can play multiple roles; for example, I am a student of Indian classical music, I perform very rarely and I am an avid listener.

As a listener of this magical art form and after listening to musicians from past three to four generations, I have my views about the current Indian classical music ecosystem based on some observations. Apart from this, as a part of Baithak Foundation we also organise concerts of artists, mostly in schools, for kids.

Most importantly, I am a believer who believes music can change lives. Thus this article, about music, musicians and the overall scenario, is inspired from all the positions that I have mentioned above. I am writing this not because I hate some artists and prefer some others; rather, I am writing this because I love this beautiful art form.

Are we going to wake up only when we need nine stitches?

Is everything alright with the present Indian Classical Music scene? Well, on the surface, yes. Let us ignore the impact of COVID-19 for the time being and consider the situation at the beginning of 2020. You may say, concerts are happening everywhere. Festivals are flooded with audience. Some artists are busy, doing as many as 20+ concerts a month. Even young artists have decent performance opportunities. With Skype and other tools, online teaching is also a source of additional little but steady income. More parents want their kids to learn an art form which creates ample of employment opportunities for the young as well as mid and senior musicians…….wait, wait!

I am not asking about the musicians. I am (right now) concerned about the music. What’s the state of music that is being served? What’s the quality of music being presented, what is the quality of experience that audience has? What is the quality of Taalim that is being given and received by disciples (or students?)

In cities like Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, etc. maybe, things do not look that bad. But what’s the situation other than these few large cities? Let us take an example of Amaravti, a district in Maharashtra. I stayed in Amaravati for a couple of years and when I was living there, I came to know of many musicians who could perform phenomenal music. As cases in considerations, I am sharing two videos here.

First one is a recording by Pt. Manohar Kaslikar from Amaravati, presenting Raga Gaud Sarang:

Second video features Pt. Dinkarrao Deshpande, singing a Natyageet. Some of his full length Raga recordings are also available.

In the 70s and 80s, there were at least 5 musicians of this calibre in Amaravati. Same was the situation for Nagpur, Yavatmal, and other nearby towns and fairly across the country.

What do you think is the current situation in these or similar smaller towns? Many places may have teachers but do smaller towns have musicians and Gurus of the above mentioned calibre?

I want to point out a steep deterioration which is happening throughout; it might not be visible in cities like Mumbai, Pune or Kolkata, yet. That does not mean that there is no deterioration.

In our holy field of music, some questions are never asked. Forget of asking them, even having them in your mind might be perceived as a crime. In this long piece, I am going to put aside my fears, respect and other things. When one enters a temple, one keeps out the footwear.

I think undue pompousness about tradition, teachers, rules, formalities are like footwear if one wishes to enter the temple of genuine enquiry.

I am not claiming that I am out of the problems that I am about to discuss; I might be a part of them but I am willing to stop and question. Readers are free to share their thoughts through comments on this article or by writing to me on my email.

The music field has become diabetic because everyone is sweet!

Two years back, I was sitting in front of the editor of a leading Marathi newspaper. This newspaper wanted me to cover the famous Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav. They did not want me to do facts reporting; rather, they wanted musical comments and insights.

With lot of excitement, I met the editor. The first thing he told me was not writing anything negative about any artist. To quote, ‘this is a festival and we never say anything negative on festive occasions.’ That was the clause which came before discussing anything else.

Imagine, if every newspaper tells this to their music reporter, all musicians would be maestros, pundits and ustaads.

But, I was not ready to give up so easily. I played my card.

“Okay, I understand, but can I write suggestive?” I asked.

“Means what?” the editor questioned.

“I won’t say what went wrong. I would write about what could have been better,” I answered the query.

I got an approval on that.

With tremendous enthusiasm, I wrote my first piece, taking all care that I nowhere sounded negative or even critical. I only made few suggestions which were very obvious!

Next day, when I checked the paper, those suggestive comments were simply chopped off.

Why? Why cannot someone as a listener point out what was not right? We all understand that for a musician it might be a bad day and one wrong review might spoil his or her career. But there are dozens of musicians who are consistently performing crap for decades. You can’t anymore call a spade a spade. Immediately your ‘knowledge’ and ‘humility’ bear a question mark.

And, a good reviewer can of course mention that it could be a bad day and be as gentle as possible. Today, no organiser will book an artist from reading a newspaper review. There are YouTube Videos, fancy brochures, personal recommendations etc. through which organisers make these decisions.

Frankly, the world of Indian Classical Music has a history of honest reviews. If you do not believe, sharing two reviews written by veteran journalist Mohan Nadkarni – here and here . I am sharing these reviews just as examples of how critical a reviewer could be. I have heard of far more pungent reviews written about artists of the stature of Pt. Kumar Gandharva and Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and the likes. Many of these reviews were out of hatred; some of them had a point. The point that I am trying to make is, there was no pressure on a journalist that he needs to sound sweet.

Honesty is the new Aprachalit Raga

We often hear many anecdotes about how great maestros of the old time shared their frank opinions about music of fellow musicians. At times, these opinions were born out of a sense of competition and jealousy but, in general, musicians shared what they felt about the music presented. To take this a step further, even accompanists were quite open about sharing their views about the music of the main presenter and vice a versa.

Recently, the only feedback that artists give each other are nice, very good, kya baat hai, bahut badhiya! We never hear something like –

“I liked your performance but the tanpura could be tuned more precisely” or

“I like the vilambit rendition but I found the drut rendition a bit gimmicky which hampered the bhava of the Raga.” Or something as simple as –

“I liked your last month’s performance more than today’s.”

Lack of constructive feedback, from fellow musicians, from accompanists, from audience, from organisers is damaging not only the field of music but also the journey of musicians.

Is Sincerity the Lupta Raga?

Well, for this particular point (by God’s grace) there are exceptions. I request you to prove me wrong by pointing out more and more talented and sincere young musicians. But, I am talking about the overall scene here.

We are always told the stories of dedication, sincerity, riyaz etc. of artists of the yester-years. Keeping aside the details, we can safely conclude that they were utterly serious about what they were doing. We have the story of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan Sahab wearing a kurta made of the thread which he used for the javhari of his tanpura and we also have heard the story of Kesarbai Kerkar who would return ticket money of audience in the last rows, if they were not able to hear her clearly. She stopped singing when she had huge following just because she could not sing up to her own standards.

And then, we have musicians who share recordings of concerts where they are out of tune for 90 percent of the time! Being surel is very difficult and is a life long journey. What bothers me is, can a musician not avoid posting it? Don’t post it. I understand, one wants to be ‘seen’ and hence one uploads them. But please, do not DM your audience and tell them how beautifully you have sung. At least be humble!

Many times, artists do not even cut the patches where they have fallen flat on their faces; or record it on better quality devices. At least, learn a bit of technology to ensure the music that goes out is worth a listen.

I am not writing this sitting on a pedestal. I know I am far from being surel. What bothers me as a listener and as a music lover is this casual attitude. It makes me think of a salesman who sales rotten tomatoes with broad confidence on his face. It might be working for artists; but it is damaging the art for sure.

Today, lack of talent is not the problem knocking on our doors as much as the lack of sincerity and the burden of publicity. Somehow, we have lost fresh air which is very essential for an ecosystem to flourish.

One might argue that in spite of all this, the art form is becoming more popular and I am being pessimistic. Well, let me tell you a story.

Let’s hope Indian Classical Music does not end up like that coffee company…….

Once upon a time, there was a company which sold the finest Arabica coffee in the world. Their sales were growing exponentially. Their newly appointed CEO came up with a strategy to take profits up through the roof. He proposed to blend the Arabica coffee beans with the much cheaper Robusta beans. They did trials; some packets had pure Arabica while some had the blend.

Their study showed that most of the people are not able to make the difference and within a month, all the packets going out consisted the blend. The profits increased almost three to four times. Everyone was proud and happy. After 15-20 years, the sales started dropping crazily.

A team of consultants was hired to find out what was going wrong. The reports from the consultants said that only the people from earlier generations who were addicted to coffee drank coffee. The next generation stopped considering coffee as a drink of choice.

The company realised their mistake. By blending cheap coffee, they made huge short term profits but this new blend could not capture young consumers. They liked other options much more than coffee.

The company immediately banned the blending. It took them a generation or two to get back to their earlier size of consumers.

Let’s hope our rich tradition of music does not end up like this coffee company!

By Mandar Karanjkar

Mandar Karanjkar is author, motivational speaker and consultant based in Pune. Mandar works with handful of organizations helping them with strategy, communication and culture. Mandar is trained in Indian Classical Music over a decade. He is a classical singer and flute player.

Mandar has written columns for many reputed newspapers. Engineer by profession, he conducts workshops and delivers talks on subjects as wide as strategy, innovation, online marketing, spirituality, Kabir, Zen etc.

Mandar is a published author.

2 replies on “21st Century Crises Hovering Over Indian Classical Music”

You have captured many realities that I cannot corroborate from personal experience, specifically live concerts. However you have summed it well.

I strongly believe it is the by product of what brought Hindustani music into our lives: the social and intellectual liberalism of Bramhan scholars around the start of the 20th century.

Would love to share a more in depth response. But not here. Feel free to contact me.

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