Interview As he turns 85, Pandit Arvind Parikh reflects on what Indian classical music has lost and why artistes need to take up greater responsibility.

It was on the occasion of the 85th birthday celebrations of Pandit Arvind Parikh — held at the Tata Theatre of the National Centre of Performing Arts and attended by a large number of musicians, including Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Zakir Hussain, Shujaat Khan, his admirers and disciples from different parts of India and abroad — that I got an opportunity to visit him at his aesthetically done up home overlooking the vast Arabian Sea in Mumbai. He had just returned from Pune, where he was felicitated at the Sawai Gandharva Festival after the ITC Sangeet Samman was conferred upon him at the recently held ITC Sangeet Sammelan in Kolkata earlier this month.

The reputed musicologist and senior-most gandabandha shagird of Ustad Vilayat Khan says that classical music seems to have lost its sense of direction.

“A performance is like telling a story that has a beginning and unfolds gradually paragraph by paragraph before reaching the end,” explains the veteran sitarist. “There seems to be no such proper format in the present day, and the performance proceeds haphazardly. There are, in fact, two main aspects of music presentation — bawat (content) and tareeka expression. The focus these days seems to be on expression only. Lack of substantial content has reduced music to ‘excitement’ rather than introspection and meditation.”

Interacting with the musical world at various levels — he is President of the Indian Musicological Society and Chairman of the ITC-SRA Western Zone, besides coordinator of UNESCO’s International Music Council for the Indian subcontinent as well as founder of the Music Forum in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and New Delhi — he puts his finger on an important factor leading to this situation. One reason, he thinks, is corporate sponsorship, where the target consumer is of average taste. The result is that fees of artistes have gone up from 5 to 10 lakh but the standard has drastically come down.

Citing a personal experience, Arvind Bhai, as he is fondly addressed, recalls how one organiser requested him not to play the introspective alap-jod and straightaway start off with the section accompanied by the tabla. Earlier there used to be a mehfil format, he explains, where there would be a good number of connoisseurs. The audiences have soared up to thousands now but the connoisseurs number the same, hence their percentage has gone down.

He shares an interesting anecdote from one of his performances at a mehfil in Surat. There was a carpet spread in the seating area for the audience, but only a few sat there. When he asked the organisers the secret behind this, the reply came, “That carpet is for the ‘Wah Wah mandali’.” He was amazed to see that this unspoken law was adhered to with such sincerity.

“Our music is not pre-composed; it is inspired spontaneously by the reactions of knowledgeable listeners. This give-and-take prevalent in those mehfils is totally missing in huge halls, hence the sanctity, spiritualism, introspection and vision have vanished and music has become gross entertainment. I don’t fault the public or organisers. It is the responsibility of artistes to give the audience not what they want but what they should want,” says the leading light of the All India Musician’s Group (AIMG), an association of classical musicians from Carnatic and Hindustani traditions to create greater support for classical music.

A committed guru, Arvind Bhai takes forward the legacy of the Etawa Imdadkhani gharana through is nearly 70 students from different parts of India and as well as other countries. On what he feels on his 85th birthday, he “God has given me much more than I deserved in life, both in business — he is a known businessman — and music. In music we start with sthayi, proceed to antara, then we do the sanchari; all over the melodic canvas we have painstakingly painted over these three stages, and finally comes abhog, which means satiation, contentment and a move towards repose. I think I have reached the abhog stage of the raga of my life. At this stage I remember what my spiritual guru told me: Arvind, think that you are playing the sitar for Him and that He is playing through you’.”