It is not as important to become a good artiste as it is to become a star these days, laments sitarist Mahmud Mirza.

After listening to the sitar recitals by Mahmud Mirza, and one actually meets him for a chat, it becomes clear that here is a musician who can be known from his music. Born in Delhi, Mirza was initiated at the tender age of six in the art of sitar playing by his maternal uncle, Hyder Hussain Khan, a doyen of the Jaipur Senia gharana. By the age of 11, he was performing in public and at 13, he became the youngest musician ever to join the staff of the All India Radio.

After the sudden death of his maternal uncle, Jeevan Lal Mattoo, a disciple of the Kirana maestro Abdul Wahid Khan, took Mirza under his tutelage and trained him into the Kirana tradition by laying emphasis on the purity of notes, expressive tone colour and raga architechtonics known as badhat (note-by-note elaboration of a raga). Mirza's performances are always imbued with a chaste, high-brow classicism that draws sustenance from the highest musical values handed down by tradition.

For the past four decades, he has been living in the United Kingdom but performs almost every year in India. His stay abroad has, besides broadening his vision, equipped him with an objectivity that comes only with distance. He is acutely aware of the changes that have occurred because of the replacement of ticketed performances by sponsored programmes. “Now music has actually entered the corporate sector and consequently a star system has found roots where art plays a subservient role to consumerism. Today, it is not so important to become a good artiste as it is to become a star. Only star performers can find big corporate sponsors. Therefore, a good artiste who is not a star finds himself out of the concert scene,” Mirza laments.

Musicians versus stars

Though Mirza agrees that even in the past there were stars such as Faiyaz Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Omkar Nath Thakur and Amir Khan but “they were great musicians, not stars. They were enriching the system (of music), loving it, caring for it and taking it forward by their contributions. They knew their place in the system. But the modern artiste, or rather the star, tries to go a step further into a realm where he is glorified, not the system. This is the difference between the great musicians of the bygone era and the present-day stars,” he adds.

Mirza says that because most musicians are in a tearing hurry to become stars, the period of their apprenticeship with a guru is getting shorter and shorter. Another change that he has witnessed is the breaking down of old instrumental styles and instrumentalists paying greater attention to the vocalism of khayal singing. “These days, styles are intermingling, they are coming together. People are freely taking from one another because the canvas of music has enlarged tremendously. From regional, it has become national. Today, a musician does not have to cater to the taste of Punjab or Maharashtra or Bengal or UP. He is performing for India.” In his view, “So long as the traditional system is not reviled, so long as the individual artiste does not feel greater than the system, it's fine.”