May, 20th, 1991 Akhilesh Mithal

Probing the Culture Fracture
-- Appeared in The Economic Times

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Why, despite growth in population and in wealth, is India unable to provide an audience to its classical musicians and dancers?




Attending a recital is not for the thrill of being 'sent', but for recognizing and acknowledging the presence of competitors and peers and being seen where the action is taking place.



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The 1990 Sangeet Natak Akademi (Academy of Music and Drama) awards distributed from the 18th to the 22nd April 1991 provided a performance of music - Hindustani and Carnatic (vocal and instrumental), dance and plays in Hindi and English.

The most popular item was the play in English. The organiser provided two shows of this item against one for each of the others. The audience overflowed to the aisles and sat on the floor willingly and without complaint. They cheered lustily whenever possible and tittered uncontrollably when the dated jokes of Samuel Beckett's script were spoken on stage. While they may not have had perfece rapport with the English play, there was noticeable meeting ground between audience and stage and a glimmer of understanding lit up the hall from time to time.

While some of the awardees in the Indian classical idioms showed up the whole business of who gets awards and why in the poor light of parochialism and nepotism. The majority were deserving and provided excellent fare. However, no performances in the Indian idiom got anything like the audience commanded by the English play.

Why, despite the growth in population and in wealth, is India unable to provide an audience to its classical musicians and dancers?

We need to look at the whole gamut of music and dance, the performers, organizers and audience to find out what is missing and what can be done to help increase appreciation and enjoyment of the great Indian heritage.

As more and more of the westernized Indian elite believe that all music is the same, perhaps a beginning can be made by examining the difference between Western and Indian classical traditions. In the west the music is concieved by a composer who writes it down (in the form of a score). The objective of a performance is to make the composer's concept come alive in the hall. The conductor has the composer's score in his memory and before him as has each member of the orchestra. The work performed is usually famous and in the memory of the listener. Maximum fidelity is attempted by the player and guaged by the audience. The focus thus is the composer's score through which the performer and audience meet. There is no scope for creativity and innovation continuously working to create a direct link or rapport with the audience. The linkage is through a fixed score.

In performing Indian classical music, the fixed points are the notes allowed in the ascending scale and the descending scale, the dominant note (vaadee) and it smain supporting note (samvaadee) and the combinations or clusters or notes often repeated (challun) which gives the characteristic flavour (rasa) to the Raga or Raginee.

Within these parameters the performer can improvise as he or she likes or as the mood takes him or her at that particular hour and in that season. The same musician can and does render the same raga or raginee in substantially different ways at two separate performances. To evoke a Raga or Raginee is a fresh adventure each time, albiet over familiar territory.

Audience Behavior (Aadaabey Mehfil)
In western performances the conductor and the instrumentalists concentrate on a fixed score (usually written by someone else) to elicit the music. This requires the elimination of all external stimulii. The concert hall has to be utterly silent and totally hushed. Any noise disturbs and can shatter the concentrations as well as the effect being built up.

In an Indian performance the object is to render a single note, a note pattern or a combination of song, drum and string in such a way as to 'send' the listener. To make him jump out of his skin. To make him exclaim in appreciation "Waah! Waah! Waah!" or "Kya Baat hai. (How wonderful that (music/poem) is!" It is like an addict or compulsive getting a shot. The mystic experience of religion comes to devotees after long years of prayer and fasting. The listener, with the 'hearing ear' and the viewer with the 'seeing eye' can get a glimpse of Ultimate Reality when a performance comes out right!

Once the 'seeing eye' and 'hearing ear' are developed, the susceptibility calls out to be nurtured by a live performance where the two way traffic can take place and thrill after thrill experienced. As for disturbance or interruption, whatever aids perfection in performance is not only permissible but imperative. The tuning of the drone (taanpoora), of the drum, of the string instrument, i.e., all accompaniment has to be perfect throughout the performance and brought back to perfection as and when required. Whenever a slight variation occurs, the musician asks the accompaniasts to readjust the tension and get the sound right. This can, and does take place at any point in the performance, including the tempestous sequences where music tempo and beat dazzle the audience by miraculous juxtaposition.

Some great musicians like Ali Akbar Khan play on such taught tuning that string after string breaks in each performance. The late Kesarbai Keerkar used to pause in the middle of a complicated pattern of taans, turn her back on the audience, drink her tea and swivel around to catch the taan where she had left it to continue with performance as if there was no break!  The magic web that she wore covered the tea break as expertly as the darner covers holes. 

But  this does not mean that in an Indian classical perfomance people can come and go as they like, talking loudly or releasing chairs that twang on the rise and thud s they close.

As fewer and fewer Indians belonging to the elite feel at home in temples, dargaahs and Mutths, it is no surprise that they are uneasy at recitals.  Hardly any of them is exposed to someone learning classical music or dance in their home" the 'seeing eye' nd the 'hearing ear' is not developed.

The growth of wealth for more and more people means that basic needs are fulfilled and plenty is left over for luxuries.  The prices of paintings, sculpture, textiles, antuques i.e. anything to decorate the house have grown exponentially.  the most popular musicians and dancers can ow charge five figure fees.  Their performances drraw the keeping-up-with-the-Jones'crowd.  Attending a recital or performance is not for the thrill of being 'sent' but for recognising and acknowledgng the presence of competitors and peers nd being sen where the action is taking place.  To be seen just as it is at a wedding or a funeral.  To have attendance marked and noticed.  Thus arriving late and disturbing the hall and especially those occupying neighbouring seats or leaving abruptly with seats banging  and stomping out aredone without acare in the world as to the effect produced.

The worst culprit is clapping by the ignorant.  When the musician and precussionist are 'duelling' for showing mastery over tempo and beat, many illusions are created of the end having come of a complicated movement pattern.  This is often not the end of the movement but a trap laid by the musician.  The drummer escapesfrom the snare of the musician only to find that the audience has fallen into it and is clapping.   He and  the musician then have to hurry home to the completion so as to catch up with the audience!  This reduces the performance to a shambles.

Another failure of contmporary performances is  caused by insensitive organisers.  This is in the shape of music(including dance accompaniment) being delivered at an  unbearable pitch of loudness.

The senior traditional musicians like Aminuddin Dagar or Gangubai Hangal can sing for very large audiences without artificial amplification.  In any case, was there no performance before gadgets like microphones or amplifiers?  /the listener should have to 'listen' i.e.exert to hear.  This helps concentration  and communication.  If decibles cascade onto eardrums unable to cope the need to concentrate is lost and the mind wanders.

The musicians themselves no longer balancevoice, drum,string and drone as the theatre electrician takes this function over and makes a sorry mess of it.  A few masters like the late Zia Mohiuddin Dagar Who spent a lifetime improving the sound of his instrument (Rudra Veena) knew how to adjust the force of his plucking and distance between his instrument and the microphone to get the right effect.  This competence is by no means general.  Most musicians are ignorant of gadgets.  When they put their heart out in a performance and get not response. they assume that it is the sound which is to blame.

Photography is nother juisance of which organisers are resposible.   Photographers bounce in and out of performances.  Some have large camera bags with zips.  They assume a prominent position and proceed to unzip their case,   take out the camera body and screw on lens after lens till they get the composition they want.  This applies to all photographers, including those without flashguns.   Those with flashguns are a bigger nuisance and a disturbance to a much greater degree than the variety without.  They go on flashing away either from between the front row and the stage or from the musician's pit.  Photographs are for record and can surely be taken in the green room, at the commencement of the programme or at the end.   Why must there be disturbance and nuisance during the performance?

If the Indian classical heritage has to survive with some semblance of dignity, a whole new educational and training programme will have to be undertaken of the audience.   Before the programme begins, the announcer must highlight the salient characteristics.  First the Raga itself.  Its main note and major supporting note (vaadee and samvaadee).  The notes used in the ascending and the descending scale.  The cluster of oft repeated notes which is the characteristic of the Raga (or Raginee).  Then the Rasa of the particular composition as spelt out in the song (Bandish).  The song should be enunciated clearly and translated.

If this education and training is undertaken by AIR and Doordarshan and by Spic-Macay in their excellent lecture demonstrations at school and colleges all over India, we should overcome some of the problems of  audience illiteracy.

Musicians and dancers should realise that they are losing their audiency.   Some of them ape the showbiz character of the West by having fuzzy hair and spectacular clothes which they change as often as they can.  While this may make them popular, it does not serve the cause of preservng the heritage.  It would be much more effective for them to return with their priceless talent and skill to the temples and dargaahs wherein these froms arose.  By Offering their song and dance to the gods and saints, they will renew and reinvigorate their spirit.  Also, the other devotees will hear and see great music and dance in the course of everyday life.  

Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1998. All rights reserved.
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