A response to Arindam Mukherjee’s “Heir Gloom”
Last month, out of the blue, the media came up with a pleasant surprise for classical musicians. Outlook (Issue dated September 25, 2006) featured “Heir Gloom”, a cover story on Indian classical music, a subject shunned by most Indian publications on the grounds that readers no longer find it of any interest. We are informed that the escapades of a Rakhi Sawant, Mallika Sherawat or Mikka find favor with readers who no longer wish to receive information about Indian Classical Music. Consequently, it comes as a pleasant surprise when a national weekly carries a story on classical music, and instead of the pinup girls or blood-and-gore images that find pride of place between its covers, the issue carries photographs of the great pandits and ustads of classical music. The downer though, is that the story, authored by one Arindam Mukherjee, declares in no uncertain terms that the future of Indian classical music is in jeopardy as there are no worthy successors to inherit the mantle of the great goliaths of Indian Classical Music, many of whom are now in their seventies and eighties. We (and I include myself in this milieu) are therefore a pack of unworthy mediocres who can never hope to reach the pinnacles of mastery and wisdom that our elders have attained. I am not aware of Mr. Mukherjee’s interest in or knowledge of Indian music as it is the first time I have found him writing on Indian music, (his other pieces for Outlook are on subjects as diverse as BSNL tenders, Microsoft’s crusade against software piracy, hip schools aiming at holistic education, rain in Surat etc) so he can be forgiven for his buffoonery, and his irresponsible, badly researched piece. But I am baffled by the endorsements his views receive from stalwarts such as Girija Devi and other greats. For a brief moment I hoped that at least one of them would issue a denial clarifying that their views had been distorted by yet another irresponsible journalist. No such clarification has been forthcoming, and I am left therefore, with no choice but to respond to some of the statements made in Mukherjee’s article. It is a conscious decision on my part to place this response in the public sphere by blogging it as opposed to sending it to Outlook for favor of publication in a “Letters to the Editor” segment. I hope other music lovers, students and musicians (many of whom were outraged by Mukherjee’s feature and called me to discuss the possibility of sending a joint response) will add their views and comments.
Is there really any need to discuss “successors” and “inheritors of the mantle” ? There is almost a touch of the feudal in these terms that leads one to wonder what we are discussing here – the future of Indian classical music or dynastic rule? Haven’t we seen time and again that genius and even brilliance can hardly ever be replicated in any sphere or discipline. This is why you won’t find successors for a Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, or a Subhash Chandra Bose, or a Raja Ramanna, or a Khushwant Singh, Mahadevi Verma or Premchand. Why then do we expect to find successors for Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahab, Vilayat Khan Sahab, Siddheshwari Devi and Begum Akhtar? Originality and genius have never been available at a well stocked super market, where objects are kept in stock and replaced efficiently at regular intervals. Originality comes and goes of its own free will, and therefore in due course of time mavericks will appear again in Indian classical music, some that will take inspiration from previous masters, and others who may reinvent, rejuvenate or create afresh.
Besides, no system of music can ever be held up on the shoulders of individuals alone, even if they happen to be maestros such as those mentioned by Mukherjee, who has not bothered to look beyond the all too obvious line of star musicians. The contribution of a Firoz Dastur cannot be ignored simply because he does not enjoy the cult status of a Bhimsen Joshi. The contribution of a Padmavati Shaligram cannot be undermined just because she did not achieve the diva like public stature of a Kesarbai Kerkar or Mogubai Kurdikar. If indeed Mukherjee wanted to write about the future of Indian classical music, he could have tried to find out a little more about the hordes of unsung, unrecognized people who serve the cause of Indian classical music devotedly – the gurus without any designer gurukuls, the students who continue to learn patiently even as gurukuls on television channels make overnight stars out of their contemporaries, the ordinary office goer/professional whose one passion in life is music, the record collector, the instrument maker who remains anonymous while the artiste playing it receives a Grammy, and many more who act as links in a chain between the past and the present. It is they who form a continuum, not just Mukherjee’s heirless stars! And that makes me and others like me a part of this continuum too. Our contribution may not be earth shattering or worthy of mention and yet we form an important part of a chain. Poor Mukherjee cannot be expected to understand this stressed as he must invariably be in order to meet deadlines. All he could do was to make a few phone calls to the few undoubtedly dazzling names that he could think of, and who, unwittingly expose quite a few chinks in their own armours.
For instance, Hari Prasad Chaurasia is quoted as having said : “There is a lack of proper taleem because a lot of today’s gurus are top performers and have one foot in India and the other in the US all the time. When will they teach?” One may ask then why he himself chose to set up a designer gurukul called Vrindavan in Mumbai? We know for a fact that Hari ji is one of India’s busiest and most sought after performers of classical music. He is also a Green Card holder to the best of my knowledge and therefore has to perforce spend a stipulated amount of time in the USA to be able to retain his Green Card. He also teaches for several months in the year at the Conservatory in Rotterdam. Why did he then put in so much effort setting up the Gurukul, possibly seeking subsidies and aid from the state as well as corporate sector if he knew he wouldn’t be able to find time to teach?
Similarly, here is what Girija Devi says to Mukherjee: “Bismillah Khan went on performing even in his old age. Why didn’t he push his disciples forward? Why didn’t Gangubai let her disciples come up with her?” We know for a fact that Girija Devi herself has groomed many talented disciples and regularly presents them as vocal accompanists to her singing at concerts. While many of them have been wonderful accompanists, we have yet to see any of these undoubtedly talented youngsters burgeoning into fine soloists in their own right. So here is an occasion where the good taleem-good guru- good student formula fails. Why? Because originality cannot be taught, it can only be nurtured. And so far, these talented disciples of a great guru have not shown signs of being originals. What is surprising is that when it comes to endorsing the ITC sponsored Sangeet Research Academy where she is a guru too, Girija Devi speaks of the future of Indian music as being secure and the SRA being the breeding ground for future greats of Indian classical music. Why the sudden turnaround for Mukherjee?
And look at this little chink in the media’s armor that Mukherjee himself exposes: “There are, of course, star children and star disciples, but in many cases, their talent does not live up to the publicity blitzkrieg surrounding them.” Some truth at last! So who’s selling space for publicity blitzkriegs these days? Us worthless good for nothings, or the mighty newspapers and magazines themselves on which star children and star disciples buy space?
Since magazines like Outlook wake up to the future of Indian classical music only at the passing away of a stalwart like Bismillah Khan Sahab, I am going to hope and pray that their next story doesn’t come soon. We love our great musicians and we want them around for as long as the good Lord permits. But the fact remains that even if we lose more of our great musicians, the edifice of Indian classical music is unlikely to come tumbling down. Because there are too many passionate, dedicated, junooni people who will continue to teach, learn, perform, write about, research and listen to music irrespective of Mukherjee and his ilk. I cannot speak for the others who were outraged by Mukherjee’s feature, but I can speak for myself when I say that I love music too much to bother about Mukherjee’s premature obituary for classical music. Let him write his obituaries while I and many others love, learn and care for the music he mourns for.
PS: Psssttt, Hey Mukherjee, you slipped up on your research too! The Outlook in the past featured me and several other contemporaries as being torchbearers for Indian classical music in the next generation! And no, I am not going to tell you which issue it was. Go find it yourself.