Rasikas tend to be reluctant when it comes to paying for a performance
The December Music Season has, of late, become the occasion for annual media frenzy about the classical arts. It is the time for cultural chest-thumping, with reams of newsprint extolling the greatness and nobility of the art. And typically, most of the opinion tends to take that moral high ground, beloved of us Indians! However, one feels this is also the time for some critical introspection about the attitude we as rasikas have towards the practitioners of our favourite art forms. Do we appreciate them enough?
Do we truly understand what it takes to be a consistent performer under the public eye? And most importantly, even if we do understand them, are our words backed by action or behaviour that shows our understanding?
We as a society tend to undervalue talent – be it in sports, movies or music. We deify a cricketer, an actor or a musician but bristle at the monetary benefits that such talent is rewarded. This is even truer in Carnatic music. We will sway to their music; we will talk endlessly about the greatness of the art and saintliness of the composers. But when it comes to substantiating our so-called passion by buying a ticket to a performance or spending money on a well-produced album, there is reluctance. Free concerts are jam-packed, but organisers become villains when they insist on tickets. Free entrants refuse to vacate reserved seats. A benefit programme for descendants of a famous composer living in penury draws zero attention or donations.
These thoughts were reinforced by some recent news items celebrating the immense benefits to music lovers from the use of technology to archive, store and distribute content. Broadband Internet and miniature portable devices for recording and storage have made vast private troves of artistic treasure freely accessible. The keyword is ‘free'. Downloading free content from a file-sharing website is essentially a techno-age manifestation of our love for performances advertised as “All are Welcome”!
Today we download free music on to our computers and enjoy it in the armchair comfort of our cars and living rooms. Then we log on to online discussion forums and wax eloquent about the golden age of music 50 years ago, based on the scratchy MP3 we just heard. But we protest with righteous indignation when artistes or their families object to an unauthorised recording made on a concealed device being uploaded and shared freely. Regardless of our poor understanding of their real meaning, we bristle at the mention of words ‘commercial' and ‘copyright'. If Tyagaraja could live the way he did, why not these present-day artistes, is the logic! Indeed, a few artistes who spoke up were recently subjected to vicious verbal abuse on online forums by ‘music-lovers'. This makes artistes fear alienating their fan base if they insist on enforcement of their rights.
Let us temper our verbal glorification of the art by giving some thought to how our penchant for free performances and recordings affects the rights and livelihood of the musicians. A festival organiser today cannot depend on gate collections alone to compensate the artistes suitably, defray allied expenses and yet have some left over to sustain his enthusiasm for the next year. Similarly, music labels are hard put to give artistes a fair deal and still have enough remaining to sustain themselves and produce quality recordings. When sabhas and labels fold due to such financial constraints, the biggest losers are the artistes. And we as rasikas stand to lose in the long run, because talented youngsters will drop an uncertain career choice in favour of a “settled” life – sinecures in pen-pushing jobs that maybe humdrum but ensure a steady monthly income!
There are several families of yesteryear legends and revered composers that could do with some life support. There are contemporary artistes, especially accompanists who earn peanuts for their talent.
There are small sabhas where dedicated organisers still go door-to-door pleading for support. Even a few thousand rupees a year could make a huge difference for them. Let us remember them, the next time we scan the daily schedules for that free concert. Buying a ticket or making a donation to a deserving organisation would reflect our genuine interest in the welfare of those who give life to the art we profess our love for. Respect for intellectual property lies in recognising that each artiste's interpretation of great composers' works makes every recital unique. Websites featuring free downloads can set up mechanisms whereby every user contributes a small amount. Surely, if donations can be solicited for adding mirror servers, capacity and bandwidth a little effort to help the artistes too would be welcome, with self-regulation wherein user-generated content must be screened for copyright conflicts, before making it downloadable. Our acceptance of an artiste's right to a fair livelihood through his/her talent is vital to the sustainability of the art forms.
(The author is a wireless communications engineer, writer and Carnatic music buff. He is also the director of the music portal, Carnatica)