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Hindustani Music : An art in desperate need of life force

January 2, 2014

A very happy new year to my readers! I sincerely hope that 2014 will provide us with opportunities to make a difference in our individual areas of work.

Hindustani music is a space that is fast losing cohesion. As the market for "classical" music as an "aspirational" product in India expands, educated listeners who have devoted much time to cultivating their understanding of the art form find their ears increasingly frustrated by mediocre performances by media-hyped names billed as "top ranking" musicians.

As far back in history as our collective memory can retrace without resort to medieval records, India has been a poor country. We can safely state that we live in such times when India is at the peak of its wealth in the modern era and hundreds of millions find themselves economically empowered. Clearly, the demand for luxury "products" will increase under such circumstances.

However, does Hindustani music deserve to be impaled through the heart by being positioned as a "luxury good" that is available to anyone who is willing to pay the price? I would argue that such a rigorously cultivated art form should be available and accessible to anyone who pays the entry cost of being willing to learn how to listen, internalizing in the process, the driving valued of this music. Pegging this "luxury" at a high dollar (or rupee or yuan) figure is going to generate unrestrained access to the art, its economics and finally critical decision-making about its future, to the philistine that has already come to call the shots in many of the "business" aspects of this art form.

Music festivals across India over the past two decades have displayed a homogeneity of views in terms of artist selection, preferring to hire the services of a handful of "big names" who are increasingly infamous, to the cognoscenti, for thoroughly violating the core values of the art form and opting, instead, to indulge in vulgar demonstrations of self-love while on the concert stage.

(These antics include frequent performances of "newly discovered" ragas, delivery of totally rehearsed, memorized performances in fractional talas, and often the pursuit of speed and loudness as ends in themselves, with total disregard for what the music itself demands.)

The so-called "classical" music festivals in the Hindustani sphere of influence (i.e., the cultural North of India) are mostly farcical displays of artist egos, designer clothes and poor performances of raga music, and at times, music that by the virtue of its existence, defies the logic of its inclusion in raga-sphere.

How did this come to be?

As mentioned in earlier paragraphs, the current scenario has emerged out of the musician's need to monetize their work. While there is nothing that is inherently wrong with wanting to earn money doing what one does best, the first wave of commercial success (of a few) in a country that was largely poor, positioned music in the eyes of many, as a potentially lucrative career. By the time the 1990s rolled along, the number of professional classical musicians far outstripped the actual demand for Hindustani music. The two decades of economic boom have brought many previously unemployable musicians out of the woodwork and the enterprising among them have made hay under a bright, shining sun. What is worse, is that capable, well-respected musicians, rather than resisting this trend of inundating the market with kitschy pulp, have hopped right onto the bandwagon.

Due to the total lack of regulation in this market, it is impossible to put any yardsticks of excellence in place. Vocal and instrumental competence is often confused with musicianship - such definitions of musical excellence might be more sensible in the West where one necessarily plays classical music from a written score (i.e., the musician is an instrument who expresses a third person's musical ideas), in a LIVE art form like Hindustani music, it is highly disturbing to see instrument-playing automatons hailed as great champions of art!

The recent phenomenon of "youth" TV talent shows too, has done more harm than good by promoting awards and cash in return for those eying fame and fortune without the dedication and practice needed to nurture and grow the art form. With the increase in the population of "performers" and limited stage time available, even established (deserving or not) musicians form cliques where one of heir kind is given preferential treatment at venues and festivals, in return for sponsorship, network access, recommendation for government awards or reciprocal "back scratching." Music, to a large extent, appears to be the means to a larger end.

The fact that the central idea of Hindustani music, the Raga, has taken a backseat, and speed and loudness have come to dominate the concert arena, is a loud cry for help. As long as enlightened listeners continue to isolate themselves from the musical 'scene', preferring, instead, to recede into vaults full of recordings of long dead masters of music, Hindustani music will continue to die a slow, asphyxiating death while in its name, the unlikely coalition of commercially-minded professional musicians, corporate philistines and the new tribe of “designer desis” make merry.

Unless discerning listeners hijack this current trend and subvert the current state of anarchy in Hindustani music to their advantage while a handful of practitioners are still capable of bringing a raga alive, it will soon be too late to rescue a once-great art form from its nosedive into a bottomless abyss.

My resolution for this New Year and beyond, is to facilitate the entry of responsible performers into a more audible space, be it in the form of performances or recordings, and to openly protest the corruption and nepotism that is rife in the small niche market for Hindustani music.

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