Friday Review » Music

Updated: December 20, 2010 19:01 IST

In their own voice - Culture: extra fitting or essential?

Chitravina N. Ravikiran
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Chitravina N. Ravikiran.
Photo: M.A. Rauf
Chitravina N. Ravikiran.

While India has no dearth of talented children, the lack of structure and direction in the cultural policy — at least at the implementation level — results in millions of children with latent talent and passion being deprived of opportunities, for lifetimes in many cases 

For centuries, India’s primary claim to global regard has been its culture. It is in the last few decades that she has emerged as a powerful global economy and a force to reckon with in areas such as science and technology. We are gradually finding our feet in many categories in sports. But are we doing it at a cost? Are we slipping on our image as a beautifully vibrant country with diverse cultures?

These were some of the issues discussed last week with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by a high-voltage group of musicians. It was heartening to see that Dr. Singh resonated with our assessments and promised to lead a cultural resurgence across the country that would ensure the re-establishment of India’s standing in the world as a culturally rich country. The political will is a potent shot in the arm for a true lover of Indian culture but it has to be bolstered in equal measure by individual will.

Even though Western classical music is perceived to be under-supported in the West today, the percentage of patronage far exceeds the support extended to the arts in our country. The money is available – in plenty, actually. If anything, corporate support for Indian classical arts has been on the rise and so has public patronage in select regions. However, there is no structure that can provide a specific direction to the arts as a whole.

In most Western countries, classical music is part of the school curriculum for many years, which provides, if nothing else, a stronger listener base for the system. The funds are allocated at the individual school level. Well publicised county to state-level contests are held regularly and the stakes are high enough for children to invest a good portion of time and energy in music. School orchestras are not uncommon and outstanding students from these are selected to be parts of city or state level youth symphonies. These are not mere concert opportunities but also involve rigorous rehearsals. Sometimes, such symphonies invite distinguished musicians or composers from other parts of the world for collaborative projects, thereby giving fantastic opportunities to meritorious students.

Lack of direction

While India has no dearth of talented children, the lack of structure and direction in the cultural policy (at least at the implementation level) results in millions of children with latent talent and passion being deprived of opportunities (for lifetimes in many cases). Most of the children that make it to concert or even contest levels do it ‘outside’ the system – through individual gurus.

Not very long ago did I come across the term ABCDs - ‘American Born Confused Desis’, a not-so-benign reference that didn't seem to offend those at the receiving end of the 'humour'.

However, in less than the 20 years since I heard the term, it is perhaps fair to say that the label is rather mis-placed. In the present day cultural context, a healthy number of the so-called ABCDs are exceptional practitioners of classical music, dance and other areas of Indian arts. Some others have toiled hard to erect scores of tastefully designed temples in a number of cities. These spaces provide an important platform for volunteers to teach Indian languages, the arts, and religious and spiritual texts to young children. I am invariably astonished when some of these children discuss Vedantic philosophy with me!

A trip to events such as the Cleveland or Chicago Tyagaraja Festival will reveal a few hundred qualified and enthusiastic participants for competitions in various categories from all parts of the U.S. and overseas. Those competing in the advanced categories are stringently tested by leading Carnatic musicians from India. The standards are at least as rigorous as they are for similar contests within India. It is indeed heart-warming that several teenagers born and raised in the U.S. reveal not merely talent in melody, rhythm and creativity, but also an excellent temperament for handling 'weighty' classical music.

The amount of time, energy, emotion and money spent by the average NRI on Indian music and the arts is several fold that of a similarly placed Indian national today. And the results are showing in no uncertain terms.

Although there is no paucity of talent in the Indian schools and colleges, the inadequate level of single-minded purpose, commitment and discernment is a matter of deep concern. It is unfair to blame the children given the highly confused atmosphere in the country. While it is commendable to be secular and respectful of other cultures, no self-respecting country would condone its film heroes and comedians who regularly downgrade their own culture as something unfashionable, outdated and inaccessible. Especially when people from the rest of the world look up to the same culture in awe. Need there be a stronger statement about our identity crisis? Actually there is. I was witness to a shoddy tinsel show being passed off as ‘Indian culture’ with amazing conviction. The event was by none other than Doordarshan. It is perhaps time to introspect and speak of IBCDs instead.

Against this backdrop, no child can be blamed for an absence of pride or passion in our culture. In fact, they are almost groomed to feel downright disrespect and contempt for our arts. While science, technology and economic power gives a country a standing, it is culture that gives it a distinct identity. Our culture is the true bond of society in a country which is already divided by diverse languages, castes and states. In this context, the Prime Minister’s response is very encouraging but it is time for every Indian to start identifying with our culture and pass on those values to the next generation sooner than later.

Chitravina N. Ravikiran is a renowned composer-musician and plays the 21-stringed chitravina. Website: Email:



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