Both the audience and the method of appreciating classical music has undergone a drastic change

At the just-concluded festival to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, santoor maestro Shiv Kumar Sharma made two very pertinent observations. He recalled that the traditional way of appreciating a musical performance was to listen with rapt attention and, when the performer attempted something new or unique or aesthetically appealing, to encourage him by just uttering “wah!” or “kya baat hai!” or “bahut khoob!” When appreciation came at the appropriate moment, the musician felt enthused and tried to perform even better. However, clapping has replaced this mode of appreciation and when it comes at an inappropriate moment, it disturbs the artiste. Moreover, when an instrumentalist is playing alap or jod, the audiences wear a deadpan look but the moment the percussionist joins with a fast rela on his tabla, they burst into uproarious applause. The veteran musician requested the audience to try and revert to the old style.

In fact the problem is much more serious than what the santoor maestro would like us to believe. It has something to do with the changing nature of our music that is increasingly becoming rhythm-oriented. For example, Hindi film music, over the past two decades, has nearly completed its transformation from being essentially melody-based to becoming rhythm-based. Hindustani classical music too has not been able to escape this trend. Earlier, it was chamber music and the artiste had to please and impress his knowledgeable patrons or other connoisseurs while performing in a private space. He did not have to satisfy the aesthetic needs of uninitiated or uninformed listeners. He was appreciated if he performed well and criticised if he did not.

In the olden days, when music was performed in small, private mehfils, the unwritten rule was that very senior and knowledgeable people were seated in the front row, followed by those who were less senior and less knowledgeable, and the last row was given to those who were uninitiated. Those sitting in the front row wielded such authority that if the performer was very disappointing, they could stop him even in the middle of a performance.

However, now the situation has undergone a fundamental change. Classical music is not confined to the salons or drawing rooms of wealthy patrons. It has taken its place on the public concert platform and people come to a performance in hundreds and sometimes in thousands. Only a small minority understands classical music and its nuances while the rest enjoy it at the experiential level.

The practice of giving tabla players a chance to play solo for a few minutes and also to engage in a playful dialogue with sitar was started by the late Ravi Shankar with very good reasons and intentions. Trained as a dancer in his early years, he had tremendous command and understanding of the rhythmic aspect and wanted the tabla players to enrich the overall performance. He also wanted to give them a chance to display their art. As his instrumental style was primarily dhrupad-based, he would sometimes ask a pakhawaj player too to join in. The late Durga Lal, who was a consummate pakhawaj player besides being a top-notch Kathak dancer, accompanied him several times. However, even Ravi Shankar would not have imagined the consequences of his well-intentioned initiative.

Today, tabla players have been elevated to almost an equal status. Nowadays, in a large number of concerts, one finds the amplification for tabla unduly high and many a time it overshadows the sound of the main instrument. As pointed out by Shiv Kumar Sharma, whenever the main performer keeps himself to repeating the melodic line and allows the tabla player to play solo sequences, the audiences enthusiastically respond by breaking into an applause. And the trend is becoming stronger by the day. Instrumentalists are also going along with it. It has become a common sight to see an instrumentalist having two tabla players or one tabla player and one pakhawaj player as accompanists irrespective of the fact whether his style of playing needs such an arrangement or not.