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Notes of a different kind

Saturday, 10 May 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Friday, 9 May 2014 - 11:32pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

Sakala Sadhana Keeje Leeje Sudh/ Ram Rang Tere Dwar Khadyo/ Taal Taan Sab De ri Maayi Sharade” (With every penance to acquire that wisdom, ‘Ram Rang’ waits at your doorstep, Bestow me with the richness of Taal, Taan O Goddess Sharada! ((From the composition of Pandit Ramashreya Jha, Raag Todi).

Sitting in school orientation programmes for our children, I often find myself in a bit of an awkward spot, referring to my work — it’s usually what is seen as the ‘extracurricular stuff’! That’s the kind of thing most parents refer to as their or their children’s ‘hobbies’. Come April-May, children getting into senior school often get into a tizzy about what subjects to choose that would decide their careers and direction in their lives. While on a tour, my (very competent) sarangi vaadak was discussing the anxiety that his daughter was going through. I casually asked how much he had studied. He said that when he had to give his Class X board exam, he was offered a concert tour with a famous ustad. His choice was clear and that was the end of his education. In another situation a well-known harmonium player was called aside at an international airport somewhere in South East Asia and interrogated. Already nervous, when asked his educational qualifications — as he mumbled graduation in Commerce, he got even more hassled. You might think this is really such a common occurrence in India, but the authorities became even more suspicious about his credentials: How could he be a musician when he had studied commerce? When all that his parents had thought was he should ‘at least’ have a graduation degree even if it is music that he wanted to pursue professionally. It would help him in his difficult times. All this when our school curriculum offers music as an option for the decider — class XII examination.

Ours is an oral tradition and how viable is it really to bring music into the school curriculum? For most musicians, training is about going to a guru, or a guru coming home — the highly respected guru-shishya parampara. The wonderful idea of ‘seena ba seena’, or from one heart to the other, beautifully defines the very basis of instruction. The guru-shishya parampara embodied the living and learning relationship between the teacher and the pupil in a very personalised manner and was the very soul of the oral tradition. The parampara has the potential of inspiring the student into a world of creative exploration and feeling the greatness and magnificence of the world of music. Although notation of the cheez or composition also came into practice more vigorously in the late 19th-20th century, it was hardly enough documentation compared to what is handed down to a student in a class. Students of Indian classical music even today learn by ear, quite different to the notation system used in the West. So, though there are many texts which detail the structure and development of Indian classical music, it is interesting to note that no details are provided on how exactly to train or even how long to train for. Such points are meant to be left to the discretion of individual teachers and the capacity of individual students within the structure of parampara.

The teacher would impart music lessons to students through abhyasa or riyaaz. Riyaaz is the all-embracing art of practice, with all its associated ritual, discipline, mentorship and sheer hard work. It is an important test of any performer’s mettle. In Indian music from the point of view of the performer, the sustenance of the impressive oral tradition of music in India is embedded, to a large extent, in how the music is understood, approached, internalised and presented; and these pretty much are the tenets of riyaaz as well. It is a manifestation of an artist’s ingenuity and craftsmanship. As is mentioned in the bandish quoted at the beginning of this article, the reference to sadhana or practice is often seen in bandishes or compositions that celebrate and salute the uniqueness of sur, laya and taal which converge to complete the canvas.

But school education in India relies almost exclusively on structured ideas of ‘competencies’— mainly learning by rote, quite different from this system that needs time, itminaan (or leisure). It limits opportunities for children to exercise their innate analytical capabilities and individual creativity. Our classroom style of instruction makes it difficult for children to learn in a collaborative, reflective manner that would have at least helped them acquire basic social skills. The extremely competitive system of examination has contributed to a rush for ranks, seats, entrance exams and admissions into institutions of higher education.

Unfortunately, the pressure in the system does not allow for this kind of assimilation of arts and aesthetics.

There are many reasons why it is going to be difficult to maintain the sanctity of this tradition and to drive home the significance of it; particularly for young people, given that it is really about time, patience and perseverance. But the silver lining is clear. In a completely organic and evolving cultural tradition such as the Indian, we can already see changes and adaptations — growing popularity of ‘Skype Gurus’ for instance. Many ‘selfie’ versions of putting one’s music out in the public domain make it exciting for young aspirants. We live in times where all kinds of career options have opened up — the RJ’s, DJ’s and A&R professionals for instance are a recent phenomenon. There are now efforts to institutionalise this tradition into formal structures of education through organizations like the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT).

The idea of culture (music included) as a melting pot of syncretism could be a very powerful tool in nation-building, in helping children understand themselves and their peers better. We should be bothered about the declining awareness among our children about their own cultural backgrounds. Perhaps, the need is to find a balance between the classroom and the more personalised system. We could look at this challenge from two approaches — conceptual as well as procedural issues relating to integration of culture education at different stages of the school curriculum — finding a way really to up the glamour quotient of the extracurricular domain!

The author is a musician


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