The world of Indian Classical Music had (and has) musicians full of whims. These whims vary over a wide range of notoriety – from as harmless as expecting the host to feed them Sabji they liked to as nuanced as expecting a host to provide them Nivea cream right before the concert begins at 7 am when all the shops are closed. These whims are often substantial topics for long discussions among musicians, hosts, and people who are madly in love with Indian Classical Music and I often sense an urge in young musicians – one day, I will be such a good performer that my hosts and audience will also tolerate my whims as they did with these great maestros.
In one such discussion, the topic of our discussion was a great musician with great whims. Mundane and insignificant whims were already covered and someone had to raise the bar.
“You know what, once she actually slapped her Tabla accompanist on stage in middle of the concert because he didn’t play the correct theka!” Said one of the participants in this discussion over the coffee.
“Yes, that actually happened. It is not good but when I heard her Yaman, I was like, everything is maaf for you,” said another member of the party.
The discussion went on but I could not stop thinking about this accompanist as well as the main artist who slapped him. More than that, I kept wondering about the whole ecosystem where all of this is considered to be okay.
Whims of an artist – especially the atrocious like the one mentioned above do not make their art less great but at the same time, greatness of art cannot be an excuse to accept such actions. An artist in position of power and authority doing this and an accompanist who is probably in a state where he has no option than to accept this kind of behavior represent that the system is not healthy.
An artist, especially a musician who weaves subtle web of notes and can tap into the most sensitive core of the audience, how can she or he be so insensitive? Such behavior certainly indicates unaddressed issues – like trauma, prejudices, suppressed feelings, unexpressed anger accumulated over years and years. Isn’t it sad that there is no ecosystem to address and resolve such deep rooted issues?
Being a musician is a tough task, especially for those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is tons of handwork without sure returns. By the time a musician becomes famous, he or she has already gone through a lot – I am specifically talking about the era when instant celebrities did not exist. Most of the musicians have been forced through brutal hard work in their childhood by their musician parents who often looked at their future generation as a way to the glory they themselves dreamt of. As a result of this all, addictions, stress, mood swings, whims are common among musicians. I am not justifying the whims but just trying to explain why they exist.
Unfortunately, with artists, these issues are not identified and resolved. Imagine an IT project manager who slaps his junior team member. We would not give excuses and justify the whims stating very high performance by the manager. We would take action and more important than that, we would provide required help to that person so that his or her behavior can change. Why don’t we do that with musicians? Why no-one tells a musician that he or she needs help?
When a musician excels in his or her art, that same greatness is transferred to the personality of the musician. When I remember the incident of this musician slapping her accompanist, following possibilities come to me – she was trying to go very deep in her exploration and the accompanist playing wrong theka acted like a speed-breaker in her exploration within and out of anger, she slapped or she could not tolerate incompetence of this level from a musician who was part of her performance or it was just a whim – to show how great artist she is and how the world – including her accompanist does not deserve the great music she produces.
No matter what might be the reason, none justifies this kind of ghastly act. The purpose of writing this article is not criticizing someone but to clearly state a problem with music ecosystem – musicians do not have a support system where issues are brought to their notice and help is provided. More important than that, often, musicians consider themselves ‘above the notch’ and are themselves okay with their whims. Accompanists, especially in old days, were solely dependent on main artists and bringing up these issues would have lead to unemployment or lack of opportunities. Hosts and organizers are thirsty for good music and often do not care about these issues with the artists.
How do we solve this problem? First of all, it is very important that awareness about mental and emotional well-being is created among the artists. We should stop equating greatness of art with greatness of whims. As a community, artists including accompanists, hosts, organizers and audience should openly talk to the artists about the issues that they observe and should offer required support as per their capacities.
When musicians gossip together, everyone discusses these issues which means that these issues do not escape the observations of fellow musicians, hosts etc. The problem is lack of healthy communication among artists about these challenges.