Staying in tune?


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‘NOBODY appreciates its great utility. People will certainly repent one day. The next decade will kill most of the leading musicians and scholars.’ In the year 1922, so wrote Pt. Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande, a seminal figure of Indian musicology, about the steady decline of Hindustani classical music in India in a letter to a close friend.1 Nearly nine decades later, despite a vastly different and rapidly changing social world, the refrain that classical music is deteriorating and suffering with each passing day, remains. Typically old is gold and the new or contemporary can certainly not meet the mark. A combination of rapid social changes and technological advances, pitted against the rather organized structure that classical music lives within, makes the situation somewhat confusing and a discussion on the future of this tradition difficult.

My thoughts, given my own practice and concerns, are centred on the world of North Indian classical music. Where does this music get located? Music in India is a heterogeneous reality and the well-known ethnomusicologist Ashok Ranade refers to this world of music as a ‘cultural federation of sorts.’ Such an aerial view might help put in perspective the present form, patronage and the manner in which this music has changed over time.2 It is, however, important to remember that this very culture of music has persisted through major changes – be it wars or the rise and fall of kingdoms. This is also a culture that has journeyed away from its ‘home’ only to be welcomed in other parts of the world. The spread of Indian classical music is reflective of its ability to thrive and adapt across time and space.


The nervousness around the falling standards of classical music is perhaps linked to a perceived purity and classicism that has come to be closely associated with this form. A connoisseur recently shared his special respect for the Kirana legend Gangubai Hangal, ostensibly because she refused to sing a bhajan in a concert: ‘Hum bhajan wajan nahi gaatey. Pakka gana sunna hai to baith jao’! But what we know as classical music today has gone through a veritable metamorphosis over nearly four centuries and continues to adapt and evolve even today. Through this period it has undergone several transitions – redefining audiences, their expectations and those of the ‘performer’. These changes become visible, to use Weidman’s categories, in performance, context and practice.3

Most documentation on the subject marks the 13th century as a period when Muslim musicians were an important force in India. This continued through the 17th and 18th centuries with musical activity in North India increasingly dominated by them. Extensive patronage by the Mughals and their nobility continued well into the 19th century despite seminal political events, including the British expulsion of the two major Muslim rulers around the 1857 Mutiny (Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta in 1856 and Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal king, to Rangoon in 1858).


The gharana was an important vantage point of artistic identity that indicated a comprehensive musicological ideology. The gharana’s emerged in their present form in the late 19th-early 20th century. The gharana system was a direct result of music being patronised in the courts of medieval India as exemplified by their names – Gwalior, Jaipur, Patiala, and other princely kingdoms. An important aspect of this tradition was the gurushishya parampara that embodied the living and learning relationship between teacher and the pupil in a very personalized manner in the oral tradition. Although notation of the cheez also came into practice more vigorously around the same time, there is little documentation of what was handed down to a student in class. Referred to as seena-ba-seena, students of Indian classical music even today learn by ear. These gharanas, tightly structured kinship groupings, monopolized the production of professional musicians until well into the 20th century.

Simultaneously however, music in the 20th century was also becoming a product of cultural modernity, of a new national identity which, on the one hand, was part of a framework of liberal secularism and, on the other, created a divide between the Hindu and Muslim music communities. The construction of the Hindu Brahminical national tradition, such as through the efforts of D.V. Paluskar, brought in ‘Bhakti Nationalism’, connecting performance with religiosity, taleem with worship. Classical music came to be viewed as an important expression of successful cultural resistance to colonialism.4

Post Independence in 1947, non-hereditary musicians too started gaining importance as performers, given the social respectability that music had begun to achieve professionally. Also some of the Muslim hereditary musicians moved to Pakistan after Partition, partly due to entrance of other musicians into a profession otherwise dominated by hereditary groups. What happened to music in Pakistan post-Partition is, however, another story, one which highlights the death of many traditions associated with it. Musicians and experts lament the impact of laws that banned various forms of classical music – often terming it as Hindu – especially during the Zia-ul-Haq years. Even through these challenging times, there were small efforts to maintain and strengthen the traditions, though they met with little success. All this is indicative of the fact that democratization of the art forms in India clearly provided the basis and opportunity for survival if not a renaissance.


This period also witnessed major changes in the gharana system, a process that in fact continues apace. For one, the reasons behind the emergence of these groupings are perhaps less significant today; this is not to take away from their musical contributions. People are now much more open to incorporating different styles into their music.

Once the urban elite became interested in learning and demanded an expansion in the teaching of classical music, traditional modes of instruction too underwent change, generating shifts in the guru shishyaparampara. Current practitioners range from hereditary musicians to first generation ones and even non-Indian scholars and performers. The gandabandi tradition where a student is formally inducted into a system of tutelage is today almost non-existent. And while these changes are more marked in non-lineal arrangements, there is also a tendency for the noveau gharanas to emerge among families of musicians.


Another important reason for a decline in the strongholds of gharanedar singing is the impact of technology on the way we listen to music, significantly increasing the exposure to different styles of music. There are two worlds that still exist around the world of technology – one that believes in this change and the other that feels it has done intense damage to music. A noted connoisseur and collector based in Ahmebdabad, now in her ’90s, reminisces how till even as late as the 1960s, baithaks and mehfils were regularly organized in the homes of wealthy patrons. These soirees would go on till the early hours of the morning, providing artists an opportunity to present a range of time-appropriate ragas, elaborating each to the audience’s delight, and making it possible to express a more versatile and varied repertoire. She laments that the microphone played spoilsport by changing the very nature of performance, taking music out of the intimate interactive spaces to more impersonal auditoriums!

This discussion continues even a hundred years after technology first entered the world of Indian music. Recorded music came to India in 1902 with the recording by Gauhar Jan, the star of her times. Gramophone companies, initially run by Americans and Europeans and not by upper caste Indians, actively recruited the Baiji’s for their early recordings.

The gramophone record not only began to revolutionize ways in which music was heard, but gradually started to craft new social norms associated with it. Initially there was resistance from the Ustads who felt that recordings might mean giving away their precious repertoire or that it was devaluing their music by making it available to the public at large. However, the commercial success of the record made this avenue an attractive option for many musicians, both performers and accompanists.

While the gramophone companies were purely capitalist enterprises, the All India Radio started in the 1930s as a nationalist venture to further institutionalize and make music respectable. Ironically, the rules governing broadcasting, more than provide an opportunity, actually served to marginalize several popular performers of the time, significantly the Baiji’s. The Baiji’s notably had to put up with the indignity of the All India Radio, which made it compulsory that female singers be married, even insisting that they use a separate entrance to enter the studio.


Even as these changes impacted the social complexities of music, both making it difficult for hereditary musicians and attractive to other communities, the 21st century has seen a frenzied growth of technology redefining the listening experience. People now increasingly listen to music on iPods and mobile phones, even as a lot of the music is downloadable from the internet through sites that indulge in piracy and have little concern for intellectual property rights.

Technology actually has the power to create new genres – Asian Underground is one such popular and commercially successful example. The market-electronic media nexus now dictates creative spaces. There is a blurring of categories, a mushrooming of new genres (Sufi-Rock), much of which goes into one large melting pot of popular or film music. In fact we are at a point when most top-ranking classical musicians have at some point been tempted to engage with popular music – film or otherwise – to ensure visibility and to some extent impact their public popularity. It would not be incorrect, for instance, to say that a repeated appearance in a reality show as a judge, or as a columnist in a newspaper supplement which may or may not talk about music, or doing a one-off playback song for a film, gets an artist the visibility and attention which hundreds of concerts may not be able to. Reality shows and film music appear to be the only kind of music that satiates the Indian and even international palette. Today the idea of success has been converted into visibility in magazines and on television.

Then there are other faster paced changes underway, ones that can overwhelm both the performer and listener. Digital music has been spreading large and wide, giving opportunities to even non-musicians who may not have any formal learning, do not sing or perform live, to create music through machines. The popularity and commercial potential of this genre of music makes classical music a less attractive option. The use of computers has also resulted in amazing changes within the recording and music industry. Recorded sound can now be processed, manipulated and altered more than ever before. What would have been sacrilege to the purist at one time is now quite acceptable – pitch correction for instance.


Every generation needs to define its own version of the classical. Though music history in India has so far largely relied on the memories of communities of musicians, this may not always be a sound source, particularly in the context of future planning. A good starting point might be to identify what information we actually have on classical music in India. An audit of the living conditions of artistes would reveal the many difficulties faced by this community. Some researchers and scholars even suggest that information on musicians should become a part of the census data, instead of merely categorising them as ‘self-employed’.


Declining spaces in mainstream media have resulted in reduced visibility of the tradition. The music critic has become a creature of the past and the limited coverage that there is to be found in supplements could well pass off for trivia. Doordarshan and AIR, which had taken on the task of regularly broadcasting classical music as a public responsibility, are under pressure to go commercial. They want to compete with other private TV and radio channels, though it is well-known that commercial or sponsored spaces largely promote only Bollywood or its equivalents. There is clearly a need for fresh ideas and more innovative programming.

While AIR and Doordarshan do make available some of the old recordings through CDs and DVDs, they are usually difficult to find and are certainly not representative of the treasures that these institutions have accumulated over several decades of their existence.

Practitioners often face a challenge from the current modern commercialization of the profession. The music industry does not offer any support to musicians for recording. Let alone commission recordings, it does not even publish quality materials that are ready for release – ‘doesn’t sell’ being a common refrain. There are, however, newer labels which have mushroomed to fill up these gaps, but though they do give new opportunities to younger musicians, they rarely constitute a commercially comfortable proposition.

Going to a music store to find a good collection of Indian classical music is becoming increasingly difficult. And this restricted choice has disappointed not just music connoisseurs, but artistes too. There is of course the potential of new technology – the net websites, blogs, chat rooms and so on – though few within the musical community seem equipped to creatively use the opportunity.


Fortunately, archiving is gaining momentum as a handful of people see the worth of preserving and documenting this music – The Sangeet Research Academy, Saptak, Jadavpur University and the AIIS to name a few. There are, however, difficulties in accessing this music – in reality there is a thin line between a private collection and a public archive. Having the music or information and not sharing it isn’t particularly useful. Ironic, given that there is perhaps less than a handful of people interested in this treasure anyway.

At a recent seminar addressing issues of archiving and copyright, a group of Manganiyar singers from Rajasthan shared at length their frustration and helplessness in cases of copyright infringement, lack of attribution and unfair use of their compositions. Take the ‘Nimbuda’ case – where a song created by one of them was used in a popular Hindi film and went on to win several popular music awards, of course, without any acknowledgement. All they wanted was an attribution, of which there was no sign. No wonder most musicians feel a need to find appropriate mechanisms to safeguard their rights since, barring a few top ranking ones, most have little leeway for meaningful negotiations.

One major problem concerns the usefulness of rights for artistes with economically challenged careers. Legal rights are complicated and if one needs to turn to the legal system, the process is both expensive and time-consuming. Also, if one litigates, the industry may well brand you as a troublemaker and thus affect opportunities. Royalties are nearly impossible to claim; it’s easier just to get a payment upfront. But even then one does not have much room to negotiate: if one asks for a written contract, the sponsor may turn to other artists who aren’t so demanding. There is a need to find newer ways of dealing with issues of piracy and copyright to protect the interests of different stakeholders. These efforts are beginning in India as well – models which allow freedom to use, share, study and publicly perform without restrictions, as long as the work is in the public domain.5


There are two sets of reaction to the democratization of music that has taken place since independence in India – one that suggests that Indian music is really ‘happening’ now across the world and the other which is concerned about the way it’s ‘happening’!

In an organic and evolving cultural tradition of Indian classical music, changes and adaptations are integral. For instance khayal borrowed from folk, film music borrows from everything – folk, khayal, qawwali. As Neuman6 points out, it is quite incredible that despite the rapid change in social contexts, our music culture continues to maintain its integrity.



1. Janaki Bakhle, Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition, Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2005.

2. Ashok Da. Ranade, Perspectives on Music: Ideas and Theories, Promilla and Co., Publishers, New Delhi, in association with Bibliophile South Asia, 2008.

3. Amanda Weidman, ‘Gender and the Politics of the Voice: Cultural Modernity and Classical Music in South India’, Cultural Anthropology 18(20), 2003, 194-232.

4. Janaki Bakhle, op cit., p. 139.

5. Report from a workshop on Documentation and Archiving in Performing Arts, American Institute of Indian Studies, May 2009.

6. Daniel M. Neuman, The Life of Music in North India: The Organization of an Artistic Tradition, University of Chicago Press, 1990.