Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Commercialization of Indian Classical Music

When the Muslim dynasties came to India, the cultural fabric of the country dramatically changed. Food, clothing, architecture were all influenced and of course, music as well. Many beautiful forms of classical music emerged from the confluence of Hindu and Muslim cultures, including the khayal style of singing (prior to this dhrupad was the mainstay of vocal music) and the introduction of tabla.

Alongside these changes, came the commercialization of music. Until that point, classical music was found only in the temples. Music and dance were for the Divine. To hear it, the king went to the temple, the musicians did not come to the court. It is under Muslim rule, that music made its way into the courts, both Hindu and Muslim courts, and the objectives of the musician began to shift.

Classical music has always been described as a yoga or path to the Divine. Through rigourous and tirelessly worship of sound, a musician purified their notes and their souls, seeking to please and ultimately merge with God. In the temples, the human audience was not of importance - they sat behind the musicians; it was for God that the musician played. The power and depth of these artists, the energy they emitted has become that of legend. Their music was their devotion.

When the musician shifted his stage to the court, the King became the focus. If a particularly type of harkat or musical pattern invoked appreciation (which was often in the form of a gold coin), then more were added to the next performance. The King was to be pleased for he was the lifeline for the artist. The goal became materialistic and coinciding with this change, the power of the music diminished.

A story of Akbar and Tansen explains the phenomenon quite aptly.

Tansen was a legendary singer and the court musician of King Akbar. His prowess is still spoken of today and his influence and contribution to Indian classical music far-reaching.

Once the king said to Tansen, "I believe you are the greatest singer in the world."

"No, my king, you are are mistaken. My music is nothing compared to that of my Guru Swami Haridas."

"I wish to hear him sing, call him to my court."

"I am afraid that is not possible. He does not travel outside of his place. If you wish to hear him, you shall have to travel with me on a long journey into the forest and that too, in the guise of a commoner."

It was an unusual condition, but Akbar was adamant to hear the person who Tansen claimed to be better than him.

The king ordered for a disguises and the two set off. They travelled far into the forest, ultimately coming near remote hut along a river.

"We shall wait here," Tansen said, asking the king to rest after the long journey.

Soon they hear the most divine notes from the direction of the hut and the king was lost in a state of ecstasy. Slowly he made his way towards the source and found himself in front of saintly man dressed in a simple dhoti outside the hut.

As the last notes faded and silence descended upon them, the potency of the music remained with Akbar.

The singer opened his eyes and greeted the visitors. "Welcome, O King of India. Your wish has been fulfilled." Swami Haridas recognized the king, despite his peasantry clothing.

The king began to offer much wealth and land to him as recognition for his art, but Swami Haridas would have nothing of it.

Taking leave of his guru, Tansen and Akbar made their way back to the city.

"You sing magnificently, but there really is no comparison to that of your Guru," Akbar pointed out.

"That is no surprise as there is one major difference between us. I sing for you, my guru sings for God. "

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