2020, a year in Indian classical music: How the pandemic impacted patrons, practitioners and the art itself

Cyberspace — the space where most of this new normal is playing out — has never before had so much happening; musicians and audiences approached the space with a mix of hope and misgiving.

Lakshmi Sreeram December 31, 2020 10:34:37 IST
2020, a year in Indian classical music: How the pandemic impacted patrons, practitioners and the art itself

Screengrab from The IndianOil Now Hear Us Series episode featuring Aditya Modak

Read more from our '2020, the year of...' series.

“Do you know how the Bhendi Bazaar gharana got its name?” Pt. Yashwant Mahale chuckles. “These musicians lived in an area behind the bazaar and that got corrupted to Bhendi Bazaar!”

One of the most valuable events of 2020 in Indian Classical Music is this interview series with Pt. Mahale, conducted by Pt. Nayan Ghosh for Baithak Hyderabad, discussing the work of Pt. Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande. Mahale is a senior musician and scholar in the direct lineage of Pt. Bhatkhande and is a storehouse of information about Khayal and its history especially as it evolved in Mumbai. The discussion is invaluable for its historical and interpretive value. That an online event was among the more noteworthy ones was a sign of the "new normal" in 2020. Baithak Hyderabad is a Facebook page that possibly garnered more following this year than it did in the four years of its existence. Other Facebook pages too gathered enthusiastic following: like Artists United that offers “a virtual roof for artists, listeners, viewers and audiences” and was created in response to the pandemic-induced lockdowns during the blighted year that was 2020.

This may perhaps be the one positive outcome and an enduring legacy of the “new normal”, a world presided over by the coronavirus — virtual events being held involving people in different locations without worrying about logistics of travel, hospitality, and above all funds, to physically bring them together. The technology is not new and has been around for the past several years, decades even, but the mindset to accept it as a viable way is new.

An overview of any field of human endeavour in 2020 has to peer through the dense fog of the coronavirus . This tiny being on the cusp of life stopped the human race in its tracks; but it was only a while until we began limping back to reclaim some semblance of “normalcy”, designated “the new normal” with a mixture of hope and resignation.

Cyberspace — the space where most of this new normal is playing out — has never before had so much happening; musicians and audiences approached the space with a mix of hope and misgiving.

2020 a year in Indian classical music How the pandemic impacted patrons practitioners and the art itself

Screengrab from TM Krishna and Ashoka University's The Edict Project

In the classical music scene too, as elsewhere, we saw a spirit of innovation as musicians engaged with virtual models of presentation and interaction with audiences; teachers discovered newer possibilities and challenges of imparting music virtually; audiences discovered new talent with a mere click of the mouse and were spared issues of commute to and parking at the venue of a performance. What was not too visible to many was the inequity — while many musicians found the lockdown frustrating and an irritant, and professional musicians were impacted to varying degrees, the smaller players, as always, were rendered broke.

“At least many of us can continue doing what we love and stay connected virtually with our listeners,” reasoned musicians as they put out videos of their performances, sans any accompanists for fears of infection. Hindustani musicians used apps for tanpura and tabla support while Carnatic musicians offered concerts without any accompaniment whatsoever since there aren’t mrdangam apps. There were murmurs that one could get used to this: the violin and mrdangam accompaniment, especially when offered by less seasoned performers, can sometimes be a pain in Carnatic concerts.

Music videos were shared by all and sundry — suddenly the celebrity and the novice had the same platform and the moment was seized until listeners became tired of the poor quality-control. Who would control it anyway? Who could? Social media pages had dozens of videos of men and women barging into your world with their music. And then presenters and Facebook pages appeared to present promising talent to acknowledged talent.

“Organising events is very difficult because the SOPs we are expected to follow are just too forbidding,” Dr Suvarnalata Rao of NCPA, Mumbai, said. And she went on to ponder about the surfeit of online concerts: “You know, it is not such a bad thing to let the audiences miss the music for a while; why this craze to offer your music on cyberspace, and that too free?”

Except for very few efforts, there was no payment for the many online concerts. One catchphrase in this regard was “performing music to spread positivity”. As some musicians pointed out, spreading positivity does not fill bellies and pay bills. The challenges of monetising online music performances were met with varied strategies.

2020 a year in Indian classical music How the pandemic impacted patrons practitioners and the art itself

Screengrab from performance at Margazhi festival

Carnatic musicians such as the Ra Ga sisters and TM Krishna produced video recordings for purchase. Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan offered a “free” concert of Tamil compositions, the only price (a heavy one for some) being tolerating the overbearing presence of the sponsor. With little consideration for aesthetics or restraint of the commercial messaging, the presentation was in poor taste though Sanjay sang very well.

First Edition Arts introduced the commercial messaging with more subtlety in a well-produced video of Aditya Modak’s performance, shot at a heritage venue, the first of a series of such videos that will feature Carnatic as well as Hindustani musicians.

Some musicians based in North America tried the Patreon model in which the musician offers regular performances, lectures, teaching modules and other such events to his/her patrons. The issue with this model is that few people want to listen to the same musician every month. Toronto-based sarodiya Arnab Chakravarty says, “Of course, only those who are committed to my music will become my patrons.”

Margazhi or the famous December season of music and dance in Chennai does not leave the option of not having music and dance concerts — corona or no corona. Around 3,000 concerts are mounted each year; this December it is hardly a fraction of that, but it is still a respectable number. Many sabhas came together under the Federation of Sabhas banner and presented the usual Margazhi experience with the day beginning with bhakti music, going on to junior and senior musicians and culminating a classical dance performance. All concerts were recorded and streamed online, and season passes were sold. In normal times, tickets to concerts during Margazhi are sold out, but without the restrictions of space within an auditorium, there was no such problem this year.

MadRasana, who have carved a place on the Carnatic scene as producers of excellent videos and well curated concerts, did a splendid job of offering a ticketed virtual festival.

Six classy concerts were shot at very lovely locations — by a pond on the Kalakshetra campus, a heritage home and so on. Technical issues of streaming, reception, internet connectivity, audio video sync etc. did at times mar the experience, but overall, this model seemed like a winner. The chat box coming to life with Aha, or sabhash, exchanges about the ragam being performed and complaints about not receiving the content injected a familiar feeling, creating nostalgia for not long ago when we could listen to a concert together, having to put up with each other’s coughing, humming along, exchanges about ragams and compositions, and the most irritating of them all — the wrong keeping of beats.

Short pre-event nagaswaram performances as also the tanpura artist fund that MadRasana raised were welcome gestures towards these peripheral players of the performance scene.  Too little maybe, but at least something.

The lockdowns and bans on gatherings rendered many musicians without any resources to earn their daily bread. These are musicians like the nagaswaram players who perform at weddings, temple processions and festivals, but also others who make a living out of various peripherals of music concerts — technicians of light and sound, instrument makers and repairmen, even the tanpura artist who is a distinct category of artists in Carnatic music.

Efforts like ADAA, a campaign to raise funds to help “not only musicians but also folk artists who are heavily hit by the pandemic” drew some response, raising a little over Rs 40 lakhs.  The target was to support families of such artists with Rs 5,000 a month for a period of six months.

Hindustani musician Aneesh Pradhan, who was among those who worked this campaign, says, “In general, we were saddened that not many privileged musicians came forward to support their less fortunate colleagues. In fact, one could see a lack of empathy within the field itself, so it isn’t surprising to see that happen among those outside the field. More importantly, primarily, cases of classical musicians facing challenges come to light, but the circumstances surrounding marginalised folk and other musicians are seldom spoken or written about. Needless to say, none of the governments have really acted in a proactive way to meet the requirement. We prepared model schemes that could be started by governments and shared these with authorities in all states and union territories. Unfortunately, we did not receive a positive response from any of them.”

2020 a year in Indian classical music How the pandemic impacted patrons practitioners and the art itself

Pandit Jasraj. File Photo

2020 was also a year of loss of veteran musicians in both Carnatic and Hindustani music. We lost TN Krishnan and PS Narayanaswamy, the former a highly visible presence in the Carnatic performance arena and the latter a beloved teacher who trained many of today’s front ranking performers. And we lost another brilliant performer, Pt Jasraj; Pt Dinkar Panshikar, a veteran teacher and composer; and Pt. Sudhir Mainkar, whose work on the aesthetics of the art of the tabla has been pioneering. Eminent musicologist and multi-faceted thinker, writer and artist Dr Mukund Lath passed away just days before his Guru Jasraj. Lath was a rare thinker who sought moorings in indigenous ways of thought and argument by engaging with texts — his critical edition and translation of the 1century CE text, Dattilam, is regarded a gold standard in musicology. At the same time, he was unafraid to think, question and creatively interpret these texts and the ideas in them to take forward the process of articulating fundamentals of our cultural practices.

Perhaps the most tragic of losses was that of Govind Bhilare, a brilliant pakhawaj player.  A teacher at a municipal school in Pune, he was a COVID warrior, conducting COVID surveys for the municipality. He contracted the virus and died leaving behind a young family and a music community shocked and mute with grief.

Looking back at the year 2020 is mostly depressing and yet cheering for the resilience of humans.

Sandeep Ranade’s bandish in Raga Desh, asking the disease-ridden 2020 to go away and ushering in a happier 2021 is just another such proof of that resilience. This has been sung with the accompaniment of his own invention — an AI enabled melody, harmony, rhythm and percussion accompaniment that responds intelligently and creatively to music in real time as it is performed.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at larasriram14@gmail.com

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