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.

Shubha Mudgal

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.

Shubha Mudgal

Shubha Mudgal


  •    Reply
    arpitachatterjee November 7, 2006 at 11:08 am

    Couldn’t agree more! At a personal level, I used to be a journalist – since my music career was getting nowhere(!). I discovered that I don’t fit in. so then I tried education – and discovered that I don’t fit in! I’m wondering where I do fit in – cause now that I have nowhere else to go to except the world of music, they tell me that it’s a dead end. Hey! I’ve been doing quite well & have been surviving as a musician/music teacher – albeit unknown & naturally not at a ‘star’ level – but isn’t it hapiness that really counts? Besides, what’s wrong with being a knowledgable listener – how many of them does one meet these days?
    Of course music is going to survive – just as it has since the Vedic age!

  •    Reply

    Kathak danseuse Prerana Shrimali sent me the following response in an email addressed to me personally. Since she has kindly permitted me to post her comments on this blog, I am quoting the following from her message:
    “About the story in the outlook magazine,shubha ji i
    was so happy to read that you gave such astrong reply.
    Today itself one of the friends told me that ‘all our
    classical arts specialy performing arts and theatre
    are now becoming dying arts’because they don’t enjoy
    the market value. This is not the first time i am
    hearing these kind of words, many times people used to
    comment like this and gradualy the answer line is
    becoming thin day by day.
    = print and visual media has droped us long back and
    as you have said about the singers audition in AIR,
    here also one can sponsor the publicity.
    = not a single news paper or megazine feels
    responsible about the rich heritage and the
    = why do we have to ask for the favors all the time?
    = why in the yearly news round-ups classical art and
    the contribution of the artits never found a space?
    = apart from the politics, sports, films ,
    economics,and the scintific developments , you can’t
    find any news from our field. There are significant
    innovations and performences round the year done by
    artists , what happend to them? the list is long–
    what i understand is that publicity and market is so interlinked that you can’t think or improve one without other. If we all can work together towards this, then only we can fight this alarming time. Thanks for this thought provocation. Always with you
    Prerana Shrimali “

  •    Reply

    Shashikant Sharma sent us this message which I am publishing here with the author’s permission:

    Dear Shubhaji, Aneeshji & team,

    “I’m a student and ardent lover of ICM, never think of becoming star, as I learn and play and sing for satisfying my own soul.
    This news is quite disturbing to say the least. All I can say is that such people who write solely to gain some coveted interests, without doing due homework, Ma Saraswati is only one who can decide these things, no human being is capable throwing these stupid judgements.
    Ironically, don’t all gurus preach, to be original and not become a copy!!

    thanks for putting strong reply in yr blog,
    NP: you may pl. publish this, if applicable.”

  •    Reply

    The basic error of the article lies in looking at the issue from the wrong end, the end that lies on the surface (great musicians and their successors) and which is less significant for a long view of our music. The issue ought to be looked at from the opposite end, the end that does not lie on the surface and which is therefore more significant for the future. Without going into details I would simply say that Classical music is one of the fundamental modes in which Indian civilisation expresses itself. For this reason alone, I would assert a priori that it cannot perish – unless Indian civilisation itself perishes.
    We must remember, too, that journalists are notoriously short-sighted and that no journal, whatever the artificial prestige it may have acquired, is driven by the urge to seek the truth. Commercial considerations and sensationalism are the staple of journalism, some journals being more sophisticated in this than others. The views of Shri Arindam Mukherjee have therefore to be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt.

  •    Reply

    Hindustani Classical Music is in Good Health
    A Response to Arindam Mukherjee’s Article
    Lalit Uniyal

    Before we can comprehend the so-called crisis of classical music we must first appreciate the deep presence of music in our culture.
    The film ‘Gandhi’, produced by a foreigner, was technically outstanding and won international acclaim, and several awards too. Yet, though the film was about a revered personality, it did not prove a big success in India. Most Indians found it dry, i.e. lacking in rasa. The reason is that the film is wholly devoid of music and does not have a single song or bhajan in it. In the West there is the art of film-making, and there is the art of music, and the two meet only occasionally in proclaimed musical films. In India music is the primary art form: it provides the ambience for other art forms and supports them. By definition, music in India includes the dance and abhinaya; hence by extension the tamasha and even film-making. A film without music is regarded as an aberration. It is mandatory for every film to have several songs; and there is a separate category of Music Director, who is often better known than the regular film Director himself. Of course the music in a film may be good or bad, for which the Music Director is responsible, just as its use in the film to enhance the narrative may be good or bad, for which the film Director is responsible. But without music a film simply cannot be.
    Art is compulsorily taught in all our schools, music is not; yet music is overwhelmingly popular, art is not. No painter in India can hope to become a household name, except through notoriety, whereas an ever-growing number of musicians continue to acquire the status of household name.
    Where, then, is the crisis of music – or of classical music?
    The first reason suggested by Arindam Mukherjee is that other forms of music than the classical are gaining in popularity and have become a source of far greater incomes. But the space available to music in our culture is not limited, and the advance of other forms of music does not encroach upon the domain of classical music, which remains the foundation of all.
    The statistical theory of probability will confirm this point. Let us suppose that the number of persons who were engaged in all forms of music 50 years back was only 5,000. Let us also agree that human nature is such that only 1% to 2% of those numbers would have taken up the deeper and more serious pursuit of classical music. In that case, the number of those engaged in classical music 50 years back would have been between 50 and 100 persons. Please note that the actual numbers are not at all relevant to the substance of the argument and have therefore been taken arbitrarily. Now the number of persons engaged in all forms of music today has gone up. For the sake of convenience, let us suppose that that number today is 50,000. It is fair to assume that human nature has not changed in these fifty years. Hence it is reasonable to conclude that the deeper and more serious pursuit of classical music will have attracted only 1% to 2% from out of those 50,000 engaged in all forms of music. In that case, those engaged in classical music today will number between 500 and 1,000. That is to say, the absolute numbers of those engaged in classical music today has increased significantly, even though a similar increase in those engaged in other forms of music might give the impression that classical music is on the wane. But that impression is not justified. Mukherjee’s first point is therefore proved to be without foundation.
    The second reason given by Arindam Mukherjee is that there has occurred a decline in the traditional gharanas and of the conventional strenuous modes of learning classical music within the guru-shishya parampara, which also entail personal service to the guru. In order to understand where the error of this unhistorical argument lies, it may be useful to look at two realms other than music, which too are undergoing change. I refer to cricket which is not a sadhana, and to yoga which is.
    The classical form of cricket is the leisurely 5-day test match. But social and economic changes have caused the introduction of the One-day match and the still shorter version known as the Twenty20. Purists lament the decline of real cricket and speak of the disappearance of sound technique. But in fact more test matches are being played today than ever before, and the players themselves regard the 5-day classical match as the true test of a batsman’s skill. So long as they do so, classical cricket will hold its own. Moreover, almost without exception, batsmen with an essentially sound technique tend to flourish in the quicker forms of the game as well.
    There is only one way in which the immense popularity of cricket can result in a decline in quality: if, instead of clarifying the core of sound technique, there is rigid insistence on conforming to old methods, such as the interdict on cross bat shots and lofted strokes, which were appropriate to olden days but are no longer so, for these restrictions might make it impossible to play effectively in the newer and quicker forms of the game. The core of sound batting technique is (i) the presentation of the straight bat to meet the oncoming ball, and (ii) the employment of appropriate movements of the feet, which are called footwork in the language of the game. This technique is founded on two facts: (i) the direction of the ball is in general more or less fixed at the point of delivery, whereas the height of the oncoming ball varies from moment to moment after its release by the bowler; and (ii) the ball is most easily played either where it pitches or right back where its height stabilises. Once this basic technique is established, other innovative strokes may be super-added to the repertoire of the batsman. It is foolish to grumble about innovative cross bat and lofted strokes, or the reverse sweep, just because these were not prevalent in the olden days.
    I have dealt with the technique of cricket in such detail because the point about core technique is relevant also to the realm of yoga, to which I now turn. Of course I do not refer to the purely physical yoga which is so popular today, but only to the truer and deeper spiritual yoga. Traditionally, yoga was learnt under a highly demanding guru who, even more than in music, sometimes exacted extreme personal service. But the modern masters, especially Vivekananda and Aurobindo, who were also modern men in every sense, have changed all that. Vivekananda’s basic opposition to traditionalists of all religions was expressed in his saying that it was good to be born into a religion but bad to die in one. He almost preached a religion appropriate to each individual, to be discovered by each one himself. Each soul is potentially divine, he declared; the goal is to manifest this divinity within. Doctrines or dogmas, or rituals or books, or temples or forms, are but secondary details, he asserted. Aurobindo was influenced by Vivekananda, had a life span double that of Vivekananda, and had opportunity to fully articulate the humanistic and integral yoga that Vivekananda had first suggested. All the traditional yogas are specialisations, said Aurobindo; they demand an abnormal concentration on some facet of the personality or a certain aspect of life; generally they take us entirely away from the world. A complete yoga, he declared, must make us all-embracing: outwardly active and committed to life like everyone else, but inwardly surrendered to the divine. In other words, the core practice in yoga is to surrender to the divine, and in this is also implicit the end or goal of yoga.
    This is not ‘yoga made easy’, because it is an extremely difficult sadhana, requiring the paring off of layer after layer of the personal self. What it accomplishes is of great consequence however. It focuses on the real intent of yoga and not its traditional trappings, like mechanically repeating a given mantra one lakh and eight times at one sitting. The effect of this clarity is to cut through masses of confusion and needless torture and unnecessary hardships. Consequently yoga comes across as a meaningful activity, acceptable to contemporary man. Moreover, both these great yogis maintained extremely informal relations with their disciples. It is well known that in their letters to Aurobindo, his intimate disciples addressed him as “Dear Guru”. The traditionalists have not dared to censure either of these great yogis because of the immense spiritual authority they possess and the reverence they universally command.
    We may now return to the realm of classical music, which is our main concern. Here too the real issue is to meet the challenge of change with wisdom, by laying emphasis on the core of the musical sadhana, not its conventional trappings. The traditional gharanas were not quite what the purists make them out to be. At times they were less interested in the advance of classical music than in the jealous concealment of their special excellences. Similarly, personal service to the guru was always liable to gross abuse and could be destructive of the personality of the student. It is a common error in the understanding of the guru-shishya parampara to suppose that personal service is a right of the guru. Wherever a relationship is authentic, personal service will flow automatically out of the love and devotion of the shishya, once he has become conscious of being the recipient of treasures of incomparable value. The spiritual apprenticeship of Vivekananda under Ramakrishna is a prime example of this truth. In an authentic relationship, it is for the shishya to take the decision to undertake personal service, not for the guru to command it. To say that the student today does not offer personal service is to confess that there are no teachers capable of giving out treasures to their students. Classical music will be threatened only if two things happen simultaneously: first, if the core sadhana of music is forgotten in the midst of unintelligent efforts to blindly uphold traditional but non-essential details; and secondly, if non-classical musicians begin to imagine themselves musically superior to classical musicians and the latter succumb to this humbug.
    What is the core of the musical sadhana?
    Music is built out of the notes produced in a certain order. But those notes are fixed, hence non-living. The sadhana of Indian music aims to impart life to those notes by penetrating into their inner, living side, which is called swara. The process of seeking the swara transforms a person’s inner world and takes him deeper into his own true self, towards what is unique and indestructible in him. Therefore the acquisition of the swara by a musician, or his entry into it, gives his music an altogether different quality of integrity and certitude and imparts to it an undying appeal.
    Obviously, the first step in musical training is the development of certain essential skills. The notes must be practised in sequence up and down the scale, and then in various altered sequences. The intention here is to train the voice inter alia to move smoothly from one note to the other, without any abruptness or ‘jump’ in the movement, and to open up or ‘stretch’ the voice so that it can proceed to the highest as well as the lowest notes of the scale with relative ease, and in different ascending and descending combinations. Next comes the bandish (sutra or proto-raga), which requires the accompaniment of the tabla. Finally, there is the entry into the realm of the raga proper and its exploration and elaboration.
    All this is extremely hard work, but it is still not sadhana proper. The wrestler too works untiringly to develop his skills, but no one supposes him to be engaged in sadhana. Sadhana is activity leading towards transformation of the inner being. What transforms the musician is the relentless pursuit of the swara, the inner and living side of the note, and this pursuit is the true sadhana of music. The distinction between skill development and sadhana can be understood by means of an analogy from yoga. In yoga practice too there are skills to be learnt, the first being physical techniques by which the restlessness of the body is overcome. Then there are the mental techniques, loosely and popularly called meditation, which are intended to diminish the restlessness of the mind. A person may become reasonably adept at these techniques and yet not be doing the sadhana of yoga. This will happen if, for example, the person’s aim is merely to become an effective executive or to become better equipped to face the tensions of daily life. But when a real aspiration for the divine exists the sadhana of yoga is truly set in motion. To be sure, techniques or skills do indeed present pathways, but proficiency in them does not by itself make one a genuine yogi or musician. For the path is in fact traversed only when there is a motive force driving the person ahead. And that motive force lies in the sense of the divine, or of the swara, and the insistent seeking for it. The pursuit of the swara through all changes of history is the great strength of our classical music. Since this is an inner process, it is not under threat from external forces, but only from within. If the sadhana of music gets lost in the dreary sands of dead habit, then indeed all will be over with classical music.
    Classical music has always been subject to change. Dhrupad is on the decline; Khayal and Thumri have become far more important, and some people prefer the Drut Khayal to the Vilambit variety. All living activity has its ups and downs: there are times when several great musicians seem to emerge out of nowhere, and there are times when the truly great are few. This is not a cause for despair.
    Arindam Mukherjee makes much of the absence of successors to the top musicians of the day. Why the children of the great are not great is a question that has interested philosophers: Plato discusses it in the Protagoras. But where achievements based on sadhana are at issue, we need not ask the philosophers to explain the reason to us, because the reason is obvious. The actions and effects of sadhana are all intimately personal and cannot be externally transmitted by another person. Therefore this is a realm where greatness cannot be thrust upon anyone. Being ultimately an inward quality, greatness in music has always to be achieved by each musician through his or her own sadhana. It is slander to declare that the newer generation is not willing to take up the sadhana of music. Many of them have much the same passion for music as the earlier generations, only they face a unique set of new difficulties, which demand a response at the state-social level. It is certainly a good idea to have a DD channel dedicated to classical music. But difficulties will not stop the real seeker.
    The fact is that new talent is emerging and is there for all to see. Arindam Mukherjee has himself mentioned certain names, though he has done so grudgingly and with a miser’s reluctance to give credit to various other well-known younger musicians. The newer generation is in certain ways better than its predecessors. It is more sensitive to the words around which the music is wrapped. This enhances the delight of the listener. Some among them have also displayed a capacity to assimilate folk music into the classical, which not only shows respect for the folk but enriches the classical, thereby enlarging its appeal.
    Despite the pessimists, new talent will continue to emerge at all times, for the simple reason that classical music is fundamental to our culture and to us as a people. Deep cultural forces have a subterranean existence, and they are at work continuously and in the depths. So their consequences are difficult to predict. But it is those forces that produced a modern Tansen (Bade Ghulam Ali Khan) and transformed the son of a wrestler into the creator of tender flute music. So long as India lives, those same cultural forces will continue to throw up new talent. It is regrettable that Arindam Mukherjee should have sought to project sensational half-truths about Hindustani classical music instead of the full and sober truth.

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