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Indian Classical Music is dying …. or is it a Mirage bestowed by the fear of change?

Submitted by on August 7, 2011 – 2:02 am3 Comments

These days when you attend concerts, or discuss music, you hear familiar sound bites such as;

Indian Classical Music is dying …. No one wants to hear Indian music anymore … Young singers are not committed to classical music anymore …Young artists do not understand the meaning of tradition and parampara in music, they deviate from age old proven structures … I don’t understand this thing called Fusion …

These are conversation bites I have been hearing off and on from many people as I navigate from one concert to another, and from one music festival to another and amongst social circles.

These kind of discussions and fears, seem to add fuel to the notion that Indian Classical music is dying.

My views are to the contrary. To get to the heart of the answer, we need to first understand the dynamics of listenership today. I believe that Hindustani Classical & Carnatic Music will diversify into 3 branches. These branches will be more of an evolution with respect to time and will be a function of the generation of the listeners. So let me attempt to explain this.

The first branch will be the classical music in its purer form as it exists today. This will always have its place, have an enthusiastic following, even though it will be more favored by the baby boomer generation. It is very much like old Hindi film songs, it will always have its appeal. But, let’s be realistic here, that this branch of music will possibly experience a flat growth and overtime may also see a small drop.

The second branch you will experience in this evolution of Classical Music will take a form that retains it’s own older heritage feel, but will be vastly different from the way this will be delivered to the listeners. For example, Carnatic Music will see an infusion of Hindusthani Ragas, the traditional depiction of Ragam Thanam & Pallavi in concerts will be shadowed by bigger influences of smaller items like Thukudas, Abhangs & Geets (song).

In a similar way, Hindustani music will have much shorter Alaaps and more speed that will bring out the complexity of Raga’s through Taan’s. This speed and mixture, is what is more likely to appeal to the younger audience, and will be an important element for the growth of the music as well as the success of the performers.

Even though, I personally enjoy purity and convention, I think this evolution brings a fresh new breeze to Indian Classical and must be encouraged and not shunned.

The third branch will be the continued evolution of Fusion & Jugalbandhi’s. I am sure this is an area where my musings and thoughts are likely to provoke and generate most discussions, disagreements, and conversations. But, like it or not, Fusion and Jugalbandhi’s are here to stay, will appeal to a wider audiences and will be needed to propagate the Indian Classical music beyond the existing boundaries. So let’s delve a little more on this.

Fusion – defined as a combination of two or more voices, instruments and percussions – can be possibly defined as an outcome of music constructed using a raga as the basis and mixing it with the confluence of two or more voices or instruments, along with a mix of improvisation. Fusion can also blend the ancient forms of music and instruments to present day modern forms. The big advantage of this is that it not only attracts the millennial generation, but also revives the interest in many instruments that may otherwise be buried into becoming history.

Similarly, Jugalbandhi’s are getting increasingly popular, and can be seen in one form or the other in almost all music festivals. This can take the shape of a combination of two styles of music such as the Carnatic & Hindustani, two different instruments or even a conversation of music between a vocalist and an instrumentalist. Jugalbandhi’s are less controversial, though many view these concerts are very below par.

One of my respected friends in the music circle pointed out that, Jugalbandhi’s are meant to be a conversation between two musicians, performed in unison, but what happens in today’s concerts, are that they end up as two individual performances just taking the same stage at the same time.

One reason for this and to a large extent, I agree with him, is because artists don’t coordinate properly before the performance. In fact, I have first hand witnessed the artists deciding on the format just before a concert. It is really upto to the listeners to call the mediocracy out strongly, otherwise this could impact the long term value of our music. However, the good news is that it is attracting a lot of the younger generation to listen, which I think is what is most needed.

So why do critics scorn this type of music? Did not Indian Music in its present classical form transition and shape itself from its own journey encompassing Vedic Hymns, Dhrupads to the now popular Khayal’s? Generations and evolutions bring change, change for anyone is hard to adopt or accept and so we tend to resist. Take the example of Bollywood music. The earlier generation who loved and grew up with old hindi songs, felt them melodious and evergreen. Then came the beat oriented music popularized by A R Rehman. I still remember so many people never gave it much appreciation the first time they heard his songs, but then the rhythm and freshness of voices got to them and they kept coming back, wanting more and this then became the household music that today is loved by young and old.

Looking into the present generation of Bollywood songs, you see a lot of fusion. Fusion of English lyrics mixed within an hindi song, fusion of old hindi songs and passages mixed and blended with the new, fusion of classical taans and more. In spite of all this we seem to love them, listen to them dance to them. In spite of this liking we still love the good old melodic hindi songs. That’s not lost its luster to us. The point I am making is that with time, we add and adopt to newer kinds of music that the present generations resonates with, but this is in addition to our liking of old songs and traditional genres of music.

We need to accept the same, when it comes to indian classical music too. We should encourage youngsters to learn classical, be able to learn and appreciate traditional forms, but at the same time encourage them to ideate and innovate to the needs of the present generation. This will not only avoid their isolation from either forms, but will help them keep the music live and popular.

Music, be it in any form or language, touches different people in different ways, so as long as it is pleasurable to hear, I believe it should be encouraged. At the same time it is important for young artists to not shy away from traditions and parampara, as these provide them with firm grounding and foundation for achieving everything else.

So it is my firm opinion that classical music is not dying but certainly is and will undergo stages of transformation, where the foundation of tradition and concepts will still be firmly rooted and will stand the tests of time. However, I also believe all of us can contribute in a small way to ensure the growth and glory of classical music.

Music organizations can help by taking encouraging youth and rewarding innovations in music. I don’t see very many organizations calling out or giving awards for innovations in classical music. As a result, I don’t think the young performers make any serious attempts to ideate, experiment or introduce anything new in their concerts. It is time that Music and cultural organizations introduce such awards and encourage the young artists in this area.

I personally have seen some organizations making real headway to encourage young artists. The Indian Academy of Performing Arts (IAPA) is one such organization based out of New Jersey, who on an annual basis conduct a morning festival called Sangeet Prabhat. Here they focus on exclusively inviting only promising young artists to perform and this over the last few years have years have resulted in some really excellent finds who show promise as torch bearers of Indian Classical. This year they introduced Manoj Govindraj (Vocal), Partha Sarathi Chatterjee (Sitar) and Rajesh Paranjape (Vocal). Each of them entertained the audience to brilliant standards.

promising artists capable of innovation and ideation to promote Indian Classical music

I also saw LearnQuest Academy in Boston bring many young artists this year to the table during the Spring 5 day music festival.. Fielding many new comers from both Hindustani and Carnatic styles, we were introduced to many talented artists such as Roopa Mahadevan (Carnatic Vocal) , VK Raman (Carnatic Flute) and Anupama Bhagwat (Sitar) to name a few.

Similarly in the Carnatic area the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana festival is renowned for its week long annual concerts, where they also encourage youngsters by holding the country’s biggest music competition, under various categories.

But, even as we see so many organizations providing a platform for youngsters, I am yet to hear of any organization giving awards to youngsters to in the field of music innovation. I think they should.

Much said about organizations, now we listeners and music lovers also need to do our bit. We need to stop shunning away from new ideas being experimented, encourage young artists who try to bring forth new ideas, and in situations such as Jugalbandhi’s etc, we should call out artists who don’t prepare themselves well. Encourage artists to cater to present day needs in an innovative way, that retains the roots and fabrics of the glorious past.


  • marged says:

    Dear Dileep, I can speak for Hindustani music as I know the situation a little better. What you point out is a very crutial matter and you could say a similar situation is true for Western classical music in the West to my knowledge. Seeing this with the eye of the ethnomusicologist I can say that no musical tradition can be alive without evolving (the same goes for a language). Thus, calling a tradition ‘classical’ is, anyway, an insurance to death in my opinion. As a Hindustani music scholar, though, I feel that a tradition has to retain its meaning, values and coherence in order to evolve in a healthy way. I personally feel that fusion and jugalbandis are sometimes promoted because of money and fear of ‘boring an untrained audience’, which are not good enough reasons to make good music. I am open to change, in a good and healthy way, as long as changes have a meaning. For example, the only jugalbandis I appreciate are those of artitsts who have performed together before a lot or those of artists who always perform together. This allows such a good understanding between the artists. The mistake that most people make with art music is that they believe ot should be promoted for the masses. You cannot retain the art’s features when you want to make the music ‘easier’. Art music has never had a big audience and I don’t think it should be meant for that. As long as this music will be taught and available to learn and listen, there will always be an interested audience, but it will not be the masses.

  • Dileep says:

    Thank you for the very well articulated response. I fully agree with you on your comments related to tradition and evolving of music. Coming from a musicologist, I think your points are very apt in today’s context. Personally, though, I would like to promote music to a wider audience, though I don’t necessarily mean the masses. I feel, a wider audience then today, will help creativity and sustained interest in these genres and the instruments that otherwise could become distinct.

  • marged says:

    hehe… you are talking to someone who would introduce Indian classical music everywhere, but what I mean is, sometimes excessive promotion might corrupt an art form, we are facing this on many art forms in a globalized world. It should be done in a very careful and smart way, otherwise the tradition might get lost in the attempt of pleasing those who ‘cannot understand’. I noticed, while in India, that except for places like the South, Maharashtra or Kolkata, people only go to the concerts of very famous names, other concerts are only attended by elderly people. Most of the people are bored by the alap portion and are waiting for the fast taan-s and layakari-s, even in India. I especially enjoy alap-s, vilambit tempo etc. as much as I am excited by the other portions and this is probably because I am used to that music and traind to recognize it… This makes some artists perform according to this wider audience and will change the music itself. Still I know that most artist are happier when they can perform for an audience of conoisseurs. I have noticed this already with kathak. I love the subtleties of abhinaya, I cannot stand too much gymnics. I still believe the best things are for the few people who can appreciate them.

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