This is yet another year in which the Madras Music Season coincides with an intriguing cricket Test series. And to people who love these two sublime art forms — Test Cricket & Carnatic music — with a passion, the travails faced by both strike a similar emotional chord. Test cricket faces multiple challenges in India: dwindling spectator interest, apathy from an officialdom more interested in the golden T20 goose and most importantly, a decline in the number of talented youngsters with the skills, patience and mental toughness required for the hard voyage to success. The Carnatic music scene, of late, has started to exhibit some of these same tendencies, raising pertinent questions about the long-term sustainability of true classicism.
To examine the first of these concerns: Sure there is substantial audience interest for Carnatic music, but one feels it is fuelled lately by increased media hype around the Margazhi season, by competing publications and channels eager to fill pages with the ‘new’ and ‘happening’. How much of it is serious, substantive and meaningful? Most coverage tends to be of the Page-3 genre, reducing a classical art to glamour and perceived star value. It is punctuated with sound bites and tired cliches from the same dozen artistes year after year, half of them established names and the other half wannabes and ‘experts’ pontificating on everything from Kedaragaula to Kashi halwa.
Dearth of talent scouts
Carnatic music, unlike Test cricket, is not beset by apathy from officialdom; in fact, there is an overdose of interest, not all of it informed or sincere. But there is a certain laziness in discharging what is one of the central duties of an organiser, namely, talent scouting. With the mad rush for concert slots, would-be performers and pushy parents try every trick in the book to get that coveted opportunity. The sabha secretary really doesn't need to hang around concert halls the rest of the year to identify good talent. They, with a few very honourable exceptions, no longer have a knowledge or understanding of what constitutes good music. Slots are easy to fill through recommendations, donations and word-of-mouth, much like how our matrimonial system works! And there is always the simple option of outsourcing the crucial tasks of talent-spotting and scheduling to someone smart and musically knowledgeable.
That brings us to the third and most important worry: how committed are young performers these days in acquiring and honing the basic skills needed for a long-haul career of sustained quality? In the mad rush to pad one’s resume with quantity over quality, where is the time to introspect on one’s music?
The music season is a great opportunity to listen to the performances of veterans, seniors and peers and take cues for one’s own musical development. But that is well-nigh impossible with a packed schedule of performances. Plus of course, leftover time has to be devoted to updating Facebook, sending separate e-invites for each concert and touching base with visiting overseas concert organisers! With concert opportunities plentiful and media-fuelled stardom almost instant, it is easy to forget that almost all of the top-ranking performers today — be they veterans or popular stars — have taken the long, hard road to success, starting out in an era where TV reality shows and instant fame were unheard of. And the competitions they participated in were tough tests of both music and character, where respected senior vidwans grilled them ruthlessly, with none of today’s whinging and sniping from parents and SMS-enabled TV audiences eager to promote their precious snowflakes...
The long-term sustainability of the classical arts, therefore, needs responsible behaviour from all stakeholders: audiences that show respect for art not with empty words but by positive actions such as buying a ticket rather than looking for the “All are Welcome” sign; spending on a legally produced album rather than skimming the internet for bootlegged MP3s; organisers who pay as much attention to grooming talent as to wooing sponsors; established artistes who play not to the gallery but to their own conscience and uphold the time-tested values that define classicism; and finally, youngsters who have long-term musical goals and focus on the shruti rather than the slot!
(The author is a wireless communications engineer, writer, photographer and Carnatic music buff)