“We need a programme to expose Indian children to music and dance quite early in life”

Gen X, gen Y and gen Z are all passe. Meet the Facebook gen, or gen FB for short. The gen that knows no borders and is more aware of Hollywood and the Grammy awards than, say, who the the Sangita Kalanidhi is this year. The gen that prefers an SMS or a tweet to sending emails. And if you are still writing letters, well, you must be ancient!

I tried Googling ‘world music festivals' and got pages of results, mostly about western music and dance, jazz and rock, with even a beer fest thrown in. Only a few results hinted at Chennai's music and dance festival which is several decades old. Not surprising, given the fact that the world is so West-centric but it set me thinking. Here we are, in the midst of an astoundingly huge and vibrant festival — one of its kind — which the world doesn't seem to have heard of. And some of our own gen FB is part of this world.

True, the Margazhi festival is largely privately crafted and run; mostly voluntary in terms of sponsorship and participation; a series of uncoordinated, self-governed or loosely governed events without any central authority or regulator. And yet it happens unfailingly year after year, with the local police station not even needing to step in except for some assistance with traffic. That is some achievement, indeed!

But Gen FB couldn't care less. In fact, they don't even know they need to care. Nobody told them.

If they haven't heard about it we must ask ourselves — as Indians and parents. We do not celebrate our heritage enough. The virtual absence of youth in the audience — especially the teens — is proof enough. Among the performers, perhaps one can still count quite a few. But in the audience, hardly any are seen.

Having been an avid member of the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth (SPICMACAY) in college, I know how difficult it is to persuade the young to walk into a concert of classical music. It is just not the ‘in' thing: it is not ‘happening' enough and certainly not associated with having a good time. I remember how a few of us had to go around literally dragging students into the hall for a baithak and then seeing them transfixed once the music began. They would later admit sheepishly that they were really missing something. One of these worthies told me, after an unforgettable evening of khayals and bhajans, “forget hearing Bhimesen Joshi, I hadn't even heard of him”!

That was the last millenium; this millenium, I am not all that glad to tell you, is only a mite different!

Globalisation

Gen FB is mostly from the best schools: they are urban, elite, suave, know their mind and speak out. But they are almost fully lost to globalisation and what this has left half-done, Bollywood has faithfully completed; music from the West and dance from Bollywood. If I were a vidwan I would have said: “besh, besh”!

Gen FB is so busy ‘globalising' (which is confused with westernising), learning French, Salsa and playing the guitar, that it is happy to remain ignorant about our cultural heritage. This ignorance of our cultural past and our musical and dance traditions among the elite is shared by the disadvantaged sections who are equally at sea but for a different reason: they rarely have opportunities to listen to, learn or appreciate our music. This, I think, is the real tragedy: the lack of awareness about our rich cultural heritage in general, and music, in particular. And the reason is that we don't take pride in our heritage as much as we ought to. And we don't expose children and teenagers to the joys of our classical traditions.

Carnatic music is among the greatest musical systems of the world and its tala framework is easily the best, most comprehensive and complete. So, a nation that has produced some of the greatest forms of music is now forced to come to terms with mediocrity being passed off as ‘good' music. I shudder to think what would have happened if someone had not called the bluff. NRI children on the contrary, seem relatively more proud of their culture and music and it is a pleasant surprise to see them so well grounded and trained in Indian classical music in spite of their upbringing in a foreign land. In this, perhaps, lies the clue to a possible solution.

Arts in education

We need a programme to expose Indian children to music and dance quite early in life. Once children hit their teens, they have their own notions of what they think is ‘done' and what is not. So, starting at that age is likely to fail. Introducing classical music and dance as a part of the school curriculum would be a good way to start. Many private schools arrange classes post school and if it were part of the curriculum, perhaps sensitisation would be much better. But this still doesn't absolve parents of their primary responsibility of ensuring the right exposure at the right age in non-school and informal settings.

Ravikiran, chitravina artiste, some years ago, launched a great initiative to spread awareness about music: to document, train and sensitise government school children. Recently, a group of senior musicians headed by sitar artiste Arvind Parikh, formed the All India Musicians Group. The AIMG is an association of 12 classical musicians drawn from the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions to create awareness and support in government, industry and the media, for Indian classical music.

Another option could be to introduce a ‘minor' stream — similar to the West — in all courses under which students can choose subjects not related to their major or main subject of study. This will ensure that, given our obsession with ‘professional' courses, we don't leave behind the liberal arts, humanities, languages and the like which are vital to national pride and belongingness. It would be a natural way to ensure that these ‘unpopular' streams get nurtured and scholarship reaches the critical mass. Engineering with music or medicine with dance, perhaps?

Also, private sponsors tend to put money into events which are touted as ‘fun' and ‘youthful'. I have never understood why only western music or dance shows qualify.

Perhaps this tends to reinforce an association of the Indian classical arts with the ‘dowdy' and ‘old', and western music with ‘young' and ‘fashionable', and crowds out funding of programmes featuring classical arts. Our media — especially the visual media — needs to give more space to culture and the arts.

Today, we rely on western scholarship to tell us more about our own history, scripts and archaeology. It will be a sad moment indeed, if we have to go abroad to find experts in Indian music and dance. And that moment may be here sooner than later.

We need to collectively act fast before that happens.

(The author is a bureaucrat and student of classical music)