Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Preserving Indian Classical Music Part 1: Creating an Audience

One concern that I have seen come up regularly is the about the future of Indian classical music. As maestros pass on, there is a growing lack of artists who can be compared to their Ustads. I won't tackle the question of why Indian classical music is dying, but rather will look at what can be done to ensure that it is preserved. The answer I believe is two-pronged. Musicians have to be cultivated and just as important, audience have to be cultivated. For the music to continue, there is must be people who can produce it and those who shall appreciate it and listen to it.

Audiences are most definitely changing. Only 20-30 years ago, a music concert by one artist could very easily be 3-4 hours long. Today in a span of a 2 hour concert, two to three artists will perform solos. Guruji often speaks of concerts that began at 8pm and ended in the wee hours of the morning. No one would move, let alone get up to get water or use the restroom during a concert, that was the level of involvement of the listens.

To listen to Indian classical music requires training. I am a perfect example of that. When I first began learning tabla, I knew VERY little about Indian classical music. When we would gather for music listening sessions with Guruji, the other students would be completely engrossed, reacting to taans and the way an artist render a raga, while none of the nuances were registering for me. I would catch myself zoning out and I'll admit it - falling asleep. Even within a year that has changed. I still don't know all the nuances and don't expect to understand them all in a year, but my comprehension is increasing. I am beginning to appreciate the music and the artistry of the musician more; and I'm not falling asleep. That is called training. I am being trained to listen to Indian classical music. As musicians would say (translated) - m y ears are opening.

Another example of audience education can be given in a geographical context. Kolkatta is considered the heart of Indian classical music. The toughest and most discerning audience is found in this city. Amdavadis is comparison don't quite live up to the mark. What might appeal to the music audience here and having them show their appreciation might not invoke the same reaction in Kolkatta as the expectations are higher. Kolkatta audiences are more trained. This is not surprising as the city is and has been home to many high quality musicians.

Training an audience will not happen on its own. It requires a concerted effort and is a valuable endeavour. If audiences are not trained to distinguish poor from mediocre, good from excellent, the artist has one less reason to push themselves to become better and better at their art (where this is the correct thought process or not is a different topic). When you gain widespread appeal for subpar or mediorce work, the market incentive to do better disappears.

The question then arises of how? Well, its not easy. Getting someone who only listens to modern Bollywood music (which can be quite poor in musicality) to listen to an alaap of Bhairavi is not going to happen overnight. But in small amounts, an appreciation can be created. One can say that today's well-done fusion that incorporates Indian classical music is one way of training in small doses, but it has to continue from there.

One way that Guruji has tried to tackle this issue is through his contemporary tabla ensembles, which we call "tabla fusion". Why tabla fusion because tabla traditionally is not performed as group so the presentation style is different. Also, the compositions, which are all his own, are made keeping a mainstream audience in mind. So you have all the facets of tabla playing that will make the common man give appreciation. BUT at the same, the essence of all the compositions is classical tabla playing. The intricacy and difficulty of the compositions is such that only his senior disciples can play them. The nuances of classical tabla playing are all intact. The presentation style though is such that even a person who will run at the name of a tabla solo concert will be asking when the next ensemble performance is. It is after all, 2 -5 tabla players playing super fast pieces in complete synchronization. Imagine the power of 5 tabla players playing dha at one time. (If you don't want to image, watch the video of his latest tabla ensemble - Tabla Ecstasy). His ensembles have performed all over and its a common response to see people inspired to learn tabla or come to tabla performances afterwards.

So how can audiences be created? By education, by exposure to this music. Its as simple as one person encouraging their friends and family to come to a show, giving them music to listen to. More concerts, more workshops, more access.

The benefit of the virtual world is that it has made it easier to find music, there are videos all over youtube, etc; but it has to be filtered. Again, poor should not be passed off as good. How can you tell? By building your personal database (mentally) by listening to more and more stuff and hopefully having a more educated ear to guide you. As you listen to more, your references grow and hopefully your discerning abilities as well. But ultimately, I think you do need a guide to this world of music to educate you about it.

A concerted effort has to be made to bring and keep Indian classical music in the forefront of society's music preferences. If the audience demands it, high quality Indian classical music can continue for a long time.


Ankita said...

Thanks for this Heena!
I'm so glad you've chosen this path -- it inspires and motivates me. Hope you tour in the US sometime soon!

Chitra said...

To be a bill board painter you have to be a damn good painter first! That's the simple rule. I've heard that most of the so called "semi-classical musicians".... by that i mean famous and established musicians like ghazal singer Jagjit singhji are actually HIGHLY TRAINED CLASSICAL MUSICIANS !!! To many fusion music may sound easy but only a master, a Guru, knows how to blend music and still retain its classical essence and make it appealing too!
Saw and heard the video! Its incredible! Looks like there's lot of hope for Indian classical music ! Keep writing Heena.Bye