As we walk around the pond in the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi during a film shoot for the BBC, the well known Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti is amazed at the Raagi singing continuously and even more so when told there is music being performed nearly through the day at the Gurudwara. The strains of the Gurbani, the sweet smell of the Kada Prasad and the whiteness of the marble fuse to create a sense of calm in the atmosphere as the sun is beginning to set in the evening. Informed of the various genres of music in India, she asks me about the spiritual connect in Indian music — even the classical has such a deep spiritual feel in it, perhaps it does have to do with the fact that much of it is based on improvisation, on how the artist chooses to fill his/her canvas with music. Nicola says she misses that in Western classical, the music she practices. As we discuss the scope for improvisations offered in the cadenzas by the great composers Mozart, Vivaldi, Brahms and so on, it is evident that Nicola too is very attracted to the idea of how evolved North Indian music practice is, in that it allows the artistes to improvise generously around the grammar of the art form. And while she is discussing the details of the structure and performance of classical music in India, at the back of my mind I feel an unease at how symphony orchestras are such matters of national pride, nurtured and supported through State or public-private patronage.
Nicola (herself a prodigy, winner of Best Female Artiste at the 2012 Classical BRIT Awards and an MBE) was here to play with the 65 member BBC-Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBC-SSO) that toured across India in April with concerts and workshops in various cities. The BBC-SSO was formed in December 1935 and is a key contributor to the BBC’s broadcasting and cultural role. The manner in which the BBC has set up this initiative and uses all its media outreaches is so doable, replicable and fascinating. The Symphony, therefore, performs to large and eager audiences and carries out a busy schedule of broadcasts and concerts throughout the year. The performances are planned out in a nearly 360 degree fashion — live concerts, radio, television and Internet. In addition, it has established strong links with local communities through its thriving learning and outreach programme. It is also a major partner in Big Noise, Scotland’s innovative project for social change through music. The BBC-SSO appears annually at the Edinburgh International Festival, as well as at other major festivals throughout the world. A look at the website suggests an incredibly hectic concert schedule. The concerts in India went to a full house and usually met with standing ovations. Quite something then to have a public broadcaster patronise a classical music ensemble and conservatoire for close to 80 years!
My unease in all of this gets iterated from a feeling of helplessness that is burgeoning in the artiste community across the country. In India we often seem to reach a roadblock with the pet peeve of how globalization has taken over our aesthetic experience. In this milieu, culture and entertainment have coalesced, thus becoming synonymous. That today the arts must entertain and amuse in the manner largely determined by Bollywood, and that they must be part of organised industry is the clear and unambiguous message conveyed by this shift.
While mass media — largely television — is this ubiquitous creature that has usurped most of our attention span, it is also true that art and culture in the more conventional sense of live performances are gaining a glamour quotient and audience time. Even if the IICs and NCPAs continue to be popular, there is a lot more imagination one sees in programming and venues. Can we then revisit, consolidate and encourage treasure-troves of our culture? Can we stop lamenting about how everything is deteriorating? Perhaps not until we have answered the big question: Whose responsibility is it really to safeguard this cultural canvas? Who will be the patron? Where is our patron? If the nation believes in preserving its rich cultural heritage and is proud of its artistic traditions, why is it so difficult to get patronage for classical and folk music?
Again, when I look at the Symphony, such a large ensemble, it is so evident that nurturing and promoting this music is a considered an investment. The attention to perfection is admirable. Yes, ours is a soloist tradition so the challenges are perhaps a little different, but importantly it is about providing an atmosphere that supports and encourages that single-minded pursuit, so critical to our training. For artistes who, in an ideal world, create art driven by an artistic urge or by that inexplicable creative charge that propels them towards their forms of expression, this shift from being able to immerse in their art form to toeing the line of the market, of ‘saleability’, has had a far-reaching impact. Perhaps, the only institution that has come close to providing this environment is the ITC’s Sangeet Research Academy. Till not so long ago the public broadcasters like Doordarshan and All India Radio had complete monopoly on presenting music and dance, including other art forms, and so there was a lot of it one could see and listen to. Unfortunately, for ‘TRPs’, they now also want to follow the market. It’s unfortunate that markets dictate government organisations and public broadcasting channels as to what is ‘cool’ Indian music or what is culture; take for example the Coke studio, why should it be telecast on DD?
Living in 21st century India has meant growing up with satellite television and glossy magazines, where corporate social responsibility is about promoting ‘Active Lifestyles’ (that is encouraging young people to take on football). Added to it is a profusion of information through the Net. It is ironic then that very little is left to the imagination, a situation that has happily only helped disinterested audiences regale in their iteration “classical music is boring”!
The more pertinent point, however, is that you wouldn’t want classical music to struggle it out in an increasingly crowded musicscape from a vulnerable position, by talking about just patronage. For it to become inherently stronger, you need more people to listen to it. Not the story of just classical music in India — Vishwanathan Anand said something similar about chess as well! A connoisseur had once lamented about artistes succumbing to commercial pressure “now if MacDonald’s starts sponsoring classical music, artists will be willing to sing Raag hamburger”. It’s OK if McDonald’s sponsors a classical music concert, as long as they don’t insist that the likes of MS Dhoni or Katrina Kaif should MC the show or dictate how long (or short) the Bada Khayal should be!
The author is a musician