Strings attached: My journey as a modern sarod player

An unblinking look at the creative demands, power play and commercial pressures that confront a contemporary musician.
November 11, 2016 | Original article published in

My music can be described as firmly rooted in the Shahjahanpur gharana perpetuated by Radhika Mohan Maitra, but deeply influenced by the Gwalior and Agra, and to a lesser extent, Jaipur khayal gayakis, and peripherally by the early grounding in the Maihar style of sarod playing that I received as a child.

I am a most unlikely professional Hindustani musician, and an even less likely candidate to represent a sarod tradition with such a rich history and massive repertoire. Both my parents are people of science. My father, until his retirement from the faculty of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, in 1998, was an experimental chemist and teacher, and my mother taught junior college physics, although they are both deeply interested in and engaged with Hindustani music, my mother having studied khayal since the early 1970s.

I grew up in the Powai suburb of Mumbai, on the IIT-B campus, and used to tag along to my mother’s vocal music lessons since before I can remember. One of my early childhood games was to try and imitate DV Paluskar’s 78 rpm recordings. He was my favourite musician when I was three, and remains one of my favourite musicians now.

Not many years later, a debate erupted between my parents on which stringed instrument I should be taught. While my father preferred the sitar, my mother argued in favour of the sarod, and it was she who prevailed. Soon, records of known names such as Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan were added to our shelves, which, until then, consisted mostly of vocal music.

I was eventually taken to see Brij Narayan, an eminent sarod player from Mumbai, and he very kindly agreed to teach me. My next teacher was Buddhadev Dasgupta, with whom my association lasted about a decade. Dasgupta had learnt from the great sarod master, Radhika Mohan Maitra. The pace at which I internalised Dasgupta’s musical style and material was rapid, because as a teenager and young adult, I literally hero-worshiped my guru and tried to emulate every aspect of his personality, to the point of being a social disaster.

My lessons with Buddhadevji took place wherever and whenever possible. Of course, while I was still a school-going teenager living in Powai, his concerts in Mumbai were the best possible excuse to have a lesson. Buddhadevji also visited IIT-Bombay as an external examiner of MTech mechanical engineering theses. Later on, as an undergraduate at Hampshire College in the US, between 1998 and 2002, I was fortunate to have Buddhadevji visit me on several occasions, and at other times, I went over to see him wherever he stayed, during his frequent visits to the US. By this time, supplementing in-person lessons with couriered cassette tapes, telephonic revisions of lessons, and e-mailed notations had become quite the norm for us.

Unable to continue my studies with Buddhadevji, because of intrigues within his inner circle and differences between us about my future, I spent two years, from 2003 to 2005, trying to consolidate whatever I had learnt until then, and learning repertoire and techniques of the Etawah gharana of sitar, from a master musician from Mumbai, Vinayak Chittar. Vinayakbhai and I continue to collaborate to this day and he remains my friend and all-round musical coach.

A new phase

In early 2006, I wrote to the only other master of my gharana I knew of, Professor Kalyan Mukherjea, asking him for guidance. He had returned to his native Calcutta in 1990, and I was quite sure that given my reputation in that city as an enfant terrible, I would receive a curt rejection. However, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an empathetic reply from him, expressing some knowledge of the circumstances of my departure from my earlier teacher, and an invitation to audition for him. He told me later that he liked what he had heard of my music, and was impressed by my technique, but he did not appreciate the tonal quality of the sarod I had played back then.

Kalyan Mukherjea was not your run-of-the-mill Hindustani musician. Of course, his musical pedigree, as a disciple of Radhika Mohan Maitra and Dhrubatara Joshi, was impeccable, as was his honeyed touch on the sarod. But these apart, Professor Mukherjea was a reputable mathematician of the 1960s and ’70s, having contributed important papers in the field of algebraic topology.

As an undergraduate, Mukherjea had studied at Cambridge University and had received his doctorate from Cornell. He had then served on the maths faculty of UCLA for nearly a decade before returning to India and joining the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi. It was possibly due to this background that his was a probing mind that refused to accept individual assertions as answers on any musical question, and applied all the tools of critical enquiry to his study of Hindustani music, an approach that was closely aligned to my own.

Kalyanda agreed to teach me, and asked me to come back the next day “if possible, with a better sounding sarod”. He was sure that “his ego thoroughly battered, this fellow from Bombay would not return”. As he eventually told me, he was surprised to see me show up the next day with a “traditional-sounding” sarod.

It had been quite a struggle to obtain one of a vintage that would satisfy his tastes, and without my friend Naba’s help, it would have been near impossible. For the first two years, Kalyanda’s focus was on slowing down my alap phrasing and increasing the length of pauses between phrases. Simultaneous vocal lessons from Yeshwantbua Joshi in Bombay, where I continued to live, helped me internalise the volumes of information Kalyanda was throwing at me. He also spared no effort to “correct” all the gat material (compositions) I had learnt from his gurubhai, Buddhadev Dasgupta, in what he called “distorted forms”.

Finding aesthetic roots

I do not know if all the corrections took me closer to the gharana’s aesthetic root, but because I came to appreciate the aesthetics of Kalyanda’s music and that of Radhubabu’s very deeply, I now play these compositions exactly as Kalyanda and Radhubabu played them, and not how I used to play them before I became his disciple. In the first two years, he taught me the raags Bihag, Chhaya, Chhaya Bihag, Shuddh Kalyan, Jaunpuri, Samant Sarang, Saazgiri, several types of Bilawal, and Yaman. Teaching me, at this point, essentially meant loading me with fresh perspectives and challenging me to develop new ideas in a raga, while making sure that I remained within its aesthetic boundaries and played tastefully.

In August 2008, Kalyanda’s wife, Lalita, succumbed to cancer of the oesophagus. He was never the same man after this. By this point, we had become dear friends. Somehow, after Lalita’s passing, Kalyanda had become acutely aware that his time on earth was limited. Our teaching sessions grew longer, and took on fairly unconventional forms, such as him emailing PDF notations and conducting telephonic sessions almost every day, in addition to my regular visits to Kolkata.

The in-person taleem sessions lasted for eight to ten hours, at the end of which he would be exhausted and want his three small whiskeys and innumerable cigarettes. It was the excessive smoking that caused his already frail body to develop serious cardiac problems. There were days in the latter half of 2008 and much of 2009 when he would teach me several ragas and compositions in one day. Our day began with him listening to my riyaaz, followed by breakfast. We would then spend three hours learning new material or consolidating things that I had not digested properly.

Then there would be lunch, inevitably accompanied by beer, followed by a session in which Kalyanda would give me feedback on technique and suggest specific exercises to address any issues he thought needed looking at. This is especially amazing given the fact that since May 1995, my guru had been a hemiplegic, having lost the function of the entire left side of his body due to a stroke, and was, in essence, an ex-sarod player. He had also developed glaucoma in the late 1980s and went blind eventually. All that we really had at our disposal was his brilliant intellect, my desperation to learn, and his to teach. My brain was bursting with information and I struggled to cope with all that he was giving me.

My guru Kalyan Mukherjea suffered a heart attack in late February 2010. My wife Tiksha and I rushed to Kolkata, only to find him at the door, standing hunched on his walker. “I didn’t mean to alarm you guys,” he said. “I feel a little out of it, but I am not going to croak any time soon.” We spent a delightful couple of weeks with him during which, despite his frailty, he insisted on teaching me. Despite his assurance, he suffered a second heart attack on March 31, 2010, and could not survive it.

Heirloom sarod

In 2008, two days after Lalita’s passing, Kalyanda phoned me and asked me to go over. I did not expect him to give me lessons in that state, but I took my sarod along anyway. I walked into his study, where our lessons usually took place, to find Jon Barlow, a mutual friend and a disciple of Radhika Babu, sitting there with the sarod I instantly recognised as Amir Khan’s. Radhu Babu had bequeathed the sarod, in his will, to Kalyanda – a subtle protest, perhaps, from a dying man about the way his legacy was being appropriated by some.

This beautiful instrument had been my guru’s concert instrument from 1983 to 1995, when he ceased to play the sarod. Jon was busy tuning the instrument as I entered. Kalyanda joined us soon after, and we shook hands as usual – there was no foot-touching in our relationship, for he hated these displays of power and servility. He then motioned for Jon and me to sit down, and Jon handed me the sarod. “I want you to have this sarod, as Lalita had grown very fond of you, and I don’t think it will find a more able keeper than yourself,” my guru said. “If it survives your lifetime, feel free to pass it on to a similarly suitable person.”

Jon and I have become closer friends since then, despite our considerable age difference. I consult him on many technical matters, for he has some deep insights into sarod construction and maintenance, as well as into the music of Radhika Mohan Maitra.

Addiction to speed

It is necessary to state that while sarodiyas who have received comprehensive training in the Shahjahanpur gharana have impeccable technique, we do not chase breakneck speed for the sake of it. The reason for avoiding a romp in the park, so to speak, in every concert, is primarily aesthetic, although some of us are known occasionally to break the mould. Another aspect of Radhika Mohan Maitra’s musical style is the aesthetic placement of tihais and their sparing use – avoiding the use of such devices to excite the philistine.

One of the specialties of my gharana, the Shahjahanpur sarod gharana, is a type of gat called the Ferozkhani gat. These gats are played at a medium speed, almost invariably in Teental. The nomenclature in this case refers more to an approach to organising the salient features of a raga into a gat, rather than a particular rhythmic pattern, which is the basis of classifying the Masitkhani and Razakhani gat types. Ferozkhani gats are usually played between 130 and 200 beats per minute, and to quote from an article published in 1980 by Radhika Mohan Maitra, “are generally played in medium and medium-fast tempo rather than in fast tempo like Razakhani Gats”.

It is also marked by smart jumps from one octave to another with a surprise movement and is generally composed of at least three cycles of a tala movement. Sometimes the sthayee and the antara portions do not have different identities, but are coalesced into one unified entity.

My own composing has evolved along these lines, and the lines between the sthayi (main line), manjha (middle section) and antara (third and concluding section that goes as far up as the fifth note of the third and highest octave and back) in my own gats are often blurred, leaving the listener with an entity that strives to highlight key phrases of each tonal centre of a raga while integrating them into a rhythmic structure over several cycles of a tala.

My musical thoughts

The six years since my guru’s passing have given me the time I needed to thoroughly internalise and organise much of the material he has left me with. Yet there remains a vast trove of taleem that I am yet to study in depth and make my own. I hear from many performing musicians of comparable, greater or less ability, that they have stopped listening to other musicians in order to keep their musical thoughts “clean”.

I cannot fathom the meaning of this, since listening to the great masters – and recordings are becoming more and more available now – of the past and present often triggers the memory of something I was taught by my gurus, and gets me working, comparing notes, and reasoning through my own ideas.

The past masters that I regularly listen to are Ustad Faiyaz Khan and the entire Agra clan, Kesarbai Kerkar, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Rasoolan Bai, Siddheshwari Bai, Begum Akhtar, Nisar Hussain Khan, Mogubai Kurdikar, Mallikarjun Mansur, Padmavati Shaligram, DV Paluskar, Yeshwantbua Joshi, Gajananbua Joshi, Nivruttibua Sarnaik, Krishnarao Pandit, and several others. These are the benchmarks against whom I often cross-check the material I have learnt. I often adopt design changes to phraseology imparted to me by my guru, based on these vocalists, whom he admired.

I believe that an instrument keeps evolving and becoming more and more capable of musical expression, so every generation of instrumentalists in the Hindustani music tradition must evaluate how much closer they can bring themselves to the vocal idiom, and try to beautify it further by using unique aesthetic capabilities of their instrument.

In terms of the development of alap and jod phrases on instruments, I consider Vilayat Khan and Radhika Mohan Maitra the gold standards in terms of how they have conceived design, texture, dynamics and timing, and imparted cohesion to them. Among my colleagues, Vinayak Chittar excels in these aspects.

A bulk of my instrumental listening, therefore, consists of these three artistes, although I keep my ears open. In terms of raga content and attractive use of meends, I am deeply influenced by the sitar playing of Mushtaq Ali Khan (1911-1989) and the last great beenkar Asad Ali Khan (1937-2011), and this creeps frequently into my playing.

The contemporary vocalists, among whom are recently deceased artists I had encountered personally, who compel me to think about my view on a raga, and thereby impact my music subtly, are Kishori Amonkar, Mukul Shivputra, Dinkar Kaikini, KG Ginde, Ulhas Kashalkar, Arijit Mahalanabis, Lalith Rao, and very recently, Arun Kashalkar and Aditi Upadhya.

Finally, teaching is another way in which I revisit material and learn new things. I have been very fortunate to have had a number of very intelligent and musically engaged students, mostly adults, who are curious about both content, technique, and how to put them together in a presentation. This keeps me in touch with the most basic things about playing music on an instrument, and compels me to practise many things that many seasoned musicians might take for granted.

One of the reasons I have kept growing musically is the fact that I am not afraid to slow down some of the most basic technical exercises to a “beginner speed” and play them for hours, if needed, in order to correct some unseen errors, or to teach my fingers a new set of skills, or perhaps to acclimatise them to the scale of a new raga.

So while I have received much musical material from gurus, friends and by listening to numerous great musicians, the onus is finally on me to be my own teacher, and listen very critically to myself, be on the lookout for weak spots in my playing, and keep finding exercises, technical, rhythmic and melodic, that will help me clean up those aspects.

A good student, therefore, can be an effective teacher. But for this to happen, certain conditions must be met. Of these, the most important, as demonstrated by the case of Kalyanda and myself, is motivation. A student must be motivated to learn and a teacher must be motivated not only to teach, but to try and find ways to customise that teaching.

It is as a consequence of this extraordinary teaching relationship that I am able, today, to negotiate music on my own terms and see it for what it is, and totally ignore the flash, fluff and mystical claptrap that the commercial world of music sometimes places before us.

This is the second of a two-part series.

Strings attached: Masters of the sarod, from 1820 to the present

In India, technology and music have evolved in tandem, each propelling the other to greater heights.
November 10, 2016 | Original article published in

Despite the dominant rhetoric about the antiquity of Indian classical music, many instruments used in performance, not to mention some of the repertoire, are fairly modern. For instance, the first sarods were played only around 1820. The sarod tradition, like many other aspects of Hindustani music, is, in fact, the Indo-Gangetic plain’s response to its brush with modernity and its most palpable fruit: technology.

The sarod, sometimes spelled sarode, to rhyme with ode, is considered one of the few instruments capable of expressing Hindustani raga music in great detail, and is known to possess an appealing sound in the hands of a capable player.

This instrument came into being as a result of a chance synthesis of the Afghan rabab and the Indian sursringar. As the images below show, the primary difference between the sarod and the Afghan rabab lies in the material out of which the fingerboards and strings are made – the rabab has a wooden fingerboard whereas the sarod employs one made of polished steel. The rabab uses gut strings, while the sarod, like the sursringar, uses metal strings.

These are largely what distinguish the sound of the sarod from that of the rabab. Add to it the technique of sliding on the string with fingernails, a sursringar legacy, and you have sarod music as we know it.

The sarod shown below is about 130 years old, although its tuning pegs have been modified recently to include a planetary gear mechanism instead of traditional friction pegs, enabling swift and precise tuning as well as giving much greater stability.

The instrument shown below, the one I use, is of modern construction, built in 2013 by the master sarod maker, Nabakumar Kanji of Kolkata. It is inspired by the venerable older instrument, although with several modern tweaks that allow a sarod player to play with greater efficiency and ease, and perhaps attempt things that, even a generation ago, were considered technical impossibilities.

A few of these improvements are a balanced action height; a slimmer, more navigable neck; and a less voluminous second barrel, enabling greater ease in accessing the third, and highest, octave. Consequently, today’s leading sarod players are able to play supple slides up to an octave without losing sustain, and taans covering the entire three-octave range with ease, leading to interesting melodic possibilities. Unlike most modern sarods, this one has gear-operated tuning pegs.

While we Indians love to glorify our past, and despite the great music produced by past masters, the sarod continues to become more capable and expressive as an instrument, and with this, the music can surely not be held back for long. Technology and music have evolved in tandem, each propelling the other to greater heights.

Early sarod masters

There have been considerable additions to the sarod’s repertoire over the past century or so. The grand old masters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries relied primarily on rapid-fire stroke work to make their point musically because the sarod lacked a sustained voice despite the improvements in its technology. A “sustained voice” is the ability of an instrument to play a phrase as close as possible to how it would be sung, with as low a stroke density as possible, with precise, contoured slides.

In the first half of the 20th century, the style of playing did not change much, as recordings of players in this period shows. For example, in the following recordings, while each master has unique personal features in his playing, one can safely state that there isn’t a wide stylistic disparity.

Listen to Chunnu Khan of Rampur (1830-1912) play raag Bageshri-Bahar, recorded in 1906.

Listen to Allauddin Khan (1880-1972) play raag Lalit, accompanied on tabla by Ali Akbar Khan, recorded in 1934.

From 1940 to 1970

In this period, we witnessed a dramatic change in the playing style of Allauddin Khan. He and his family attribute the shift towards a strong melodic bias to his comprehensive training on the sursringar under the rudra veena master Wazir Khan. Wazir Khan was the chief musician at the court of Nawab Hamid Ali Khan of Rampur, and as per family history, a direct descendant of Saraswati Devi, Tansen’s daughter. Allauddin Khan also effected considerable changes on the sarod’s physical structure, making his instrument louder and more resonant, and perhaps capable of a greater tonal range.

Listen to Allauddin Khan play raag Alhaiya Bilawal.

Hafiz Ali Khan (1888-1972) of Gwalior did not record early in his career. His latter-day recordings reveal a strong preference for a highly vocalised idiom in alap and jod, and a predilection for long meends (a glide from one note to another). Such preferences necessitated modifications to the relief of the fingerboard and to the string action setup, which Hafiz Ali Khan achieved through collaborative design work with Govardhan Sharma of Darbhanga, a legendary sarod maker. Sharma’s family eventually migrated to Howrah, across the river from Kolkata. Hafiz Ali Khan, having learnt traditional sarod material from his father and uncles, also became a disciple of Wazir Khan, and studied the sursringar as well.

Radhika Mohan Maitra (1917-1981) was a pupil of Mohammad Amir Khan (1873-1934), Hafiz Ali Khan’s nephew. Given how Amir Khan’s sarod does not lack sustain or possess any sort of limitation that would prevent implementing vocal ornaments, it is safe to assume that Maitra had a head start as far as instrument technology is concerned.

It is no wonder, therefore, that in Maitra’s earliest recordings, made in 1937, one hears a considerable preference for khayal ornaments, in contrast with earlier sarod players with vocal leanings, who were usually rather demonstrative of their purported dhrupad antecedents and did not publicly embrace the khayal form.

Throughout his career, in order to improve the acoustic properties of his instruments and enable greater melodic emphasis, Maitra collaborated with instrument makers, such as Govardhan, his son Gopal, and his nephew Durgaprasad, all of the famous Sharma family of Howrah. Maitra also studied rudra veena and sursringar with Dabir Khan, the grandson of Wazir Khan.

The recordings of Ali Akbar Khan, whom everyone knows and reveres as a genius; Buddhadev Dasgupta, my second sarod teacher; Kalyan Mukherjea, my final guru, also a disciple of Radhika Mohan Maitra; and Amjad Ali Khan, show that the instrument has shaped the player’s personal idiom. In four of these cases, musical intent, which is the desired character of the music as defined by the techniques one needs to be able to execute on an instrument, also shaped the final form of the instrument adopted by these players.

The exceptions are, for a variety of reasons, Ali Akbar Khan and Kalyan Mukherjea, both of whose sonic horizons were shaped by their instruments, rather than them creating an instrument to suit their needs.

Gayaki ang, or vocal idiom

In all modal music, and especially in Indian music, instrumentalists have aimed since as early as our collective memories will recall to “sing through their instruments”. This is a euphemism for generating the fluidity and versatility of expression from a plucked instrument that one generally associates with the human voice.

Many Hindustani musicians refer to this focus on imitating the voice as the gayaki ang, whose literal translation would be “vocal aspect or idiom”. In the context of Hindustani music, instruments with the longest sustain enable a closer imitation of the voice. Plucked instruments, by default, have a shorter sustain than bowed or wind instruments.

It is, therefore, a combination of technology and technique that enables a musician to play music that has identifiable analogues in vocal music. The conquest of the technology and technique required to make one’s instrument “sing” imparts prestige to a musician’s reputation, impelling many to claim credit for inventing or adapting the gayaki ang.

The truth of the matter is that making an instrument “sing” is primarily a function of a given musician’s temperament, and then their willingness to grapple with technological and technical challenges and their ability to overcome them. One such genius was Vilayat Khan, the legendary sitar player, whose work was to revolutionise how subsequent generations came to see instrumental phrasing. While Vilayat Khan’s “vocal” ornamentation drew heavily from the filigree weaves of thumri and khayal phrasing, the baroque vocalism of sitarist Mushtaq Ali Khan’s (1911-1989) been baaj was equally noteworthy.

The sarod, while possessing a greater range of sliding than other plucked instruments, has had wildly variable sustain across models. As a result, the stylistic idiom of the sarod has largely been biased towards greater stroke density and syllabic patterns. Such a musical idiom, while attractive in its own right, veers away from the Hindustani musician’s ideal of delivering vocalised extemporisation on an instrument. Even so, musicians like Radhika Mohan Maitra and Hafiz Ali Khan were, for their time, delivering outstanding musical value in terms of vocalised expression.

Another approach, of course, was that of Ali Akbar Khan, which entailed internalising the distillate of vocal phrasing without really attempting to reproduce all the details verbatim. With every passing generation, sarodiyas’ access to technique and technology has increased considerably, allowing subtle increments in their ability to claim greater gayaki pedigree for their music.

While the ability to loosely imitate the melodic phrasing of khayal and thumri, is not alien to modern sarod players, in today’s context, a gayaki approach to the sarod essentially means a desire and ability to use phrasing from established khayal and thumri bandish material, and in some cases, the bandish material itself, in a form as close as possible to what is sung.

By extension, the sarod music that might have been considered gayaki ang 50 years ago might very well seem, to our ears, examples of “orthodox” instrumental playing, and with further refinement to sarod technology in a few decades, what we play today might seem “stroke-biased and orthodox”.

Sarod players and knowledgeable listeners consider a player to be less conventional and more modern if the execution of his or her melodic phrasing is more fluid and the stroke-density lower. The point here, however, is that none of these terms used to qualitatively describe music are absolute and static.

The contemporary scene

Most modern sarod players have a very refined technique and are all capable of speed, accuracy and power, despite practising far fewer hours than we read about in the biographies of legendary musicians, after accounting for obvious exaggerations in these accounts.

But many of today’s musicians lack the width and depth of erudition and repertoire possessed by musicians of the earlier period, especially the likes of Ali Akbar Khan, Radhika Mohan Maitra, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Kalyan Mukherjea. This is because the ever-improving quality and user-friendliness of their instruments allow players to be more efficient about their practice.

This makes acquiring a world-class technique on the sarod easier and less time-consuming. One might have imagined sarod players using the time freed up to think about music. But some neglect investing in thinking about the music precisely because their excellent technique now allows them to more easily win undemanding and not very knowledgeable listeners, who tend to dominate audiences today.

The development of a wide repertoire necessarily entails spending long hours listening, decoding, emulating and composing. Since the primary focus of a contemporary Indian classical musician seems to be to practise technique and polish performance material, this “polishing” often leads to premeditation in musical ideas, which in itself, in large doses, is antithetical to the values of Hindustani music. Such an approach to practice impedes the creative process, which should ideally go beyond polishing memorised and orchestrated pieces for performance.

Some performers’ focus on technique and polishing music to a fault could be the result of anxiety about what they believe the market wants. But commerce and creativity do not necessarily have to be in conflict with each other. The onus rests on musicians to balance the two.

Taking audiences for granted and assuming that dumbing down is a prerequisite for commercial success are ideas that drive the engagement strategies of a majority of the visible “mainstream” of Hindustani instrumentalists today and also of a visible minority of vocalists. However, the increasing appetite among listeners for serious, uncompromised art music reveals that such a strategy is deeply flawed and harmful to the music. ­

From my purely subjective perspective, the most technically fluent sarod players of the current period are Prattyush Banerjee (46), Debashish Bhattacharya (54) and Abhishek Borkar (24). All three players have worked with Kolkata-based instrument makers Nabakumar Kanji and Dulal Chandra Kanji to arrive upon instrument designs that facilitate greater speed. Neither has compromised on sustain – all three players can be said to possess a complete command of instrumental technique.

Banerjee has mastered the art of playing into a microphone, thereby, obviating the need for a very loud instrument. Abhisek Lahiri (34), another remarkable virtuoso, plays on a sarod that is equally amenable to deft handling at high speeds, but given his predilection for quick staccato taans and strong rhythmic bias, the focus of his instrument design is more on enabling rapid-fire stroke work and fast linear taans.

This is the first of a two-part series. In the second part, the author will take a look at the creative demands, power play and commercial pressures that confront a contemporary musician.

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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