R. Seshasayee tells city-based pianist Anil Srinivasan that contemporising an art form does not mean its destruction

A couple of weeks ago, I had written an article in which I had quoted from the New York Times’ article on the ‘fading away’ of the classical arts (“Fitting a Changing Mould”) and what we need to do to rectify this situation. In response, interesting people from different domains share their thoughts and perspectives. R. Seshasayee (Executive Vice Chairman, Ashok Leyland) needs little introduction in the corporate world. He is also known to be a great classical music aficionado. The following excerpt is taken from a freewheeling chat we had at his gracious home.

“Classical music is one of the early influences in my life and thinking. The ideas of rigour, process orientation and ‘getting to the kernel’ by peeling away layers of consciousness are applicable in other domains as well. Attention to detail, subtlety and nuance come with a honing of one’s listening skills, and musical training teaches you these things.

Attention spans have indeed decreased over time. Just as in cricket, the need to present Carnatic music in shorter capsules is more acute now than ever before. I agree that the proliferation of game shows and contests have indeed made it more promising for young people to veer away from more rigorous classical orientation.

Classical music in its pristine form is a means to achieving spiritual realisation through a deeper, inward consciousness. Despite changes in tastes and preferences and aspirations of each generation, classical music has always been a refuge through the ages. We have to attribute this to the fact that the form (and not the substance) has constantly evolved.

‘Embrace change’

Change is the only constant, however clichéd it sounds. The concert “format” as we know it today is not even a century old, while most of the compositions that you hear today have evolved over the past five centuries or more. The format was an innovation in its time and became an attraction for the audience. We cannot become averse to changes in this “format” especially if it aids both the performer and the listener.

I believe there are two important dimensions to consider. First, a “critical mass” of listenership and patronage is essential for the classical arts to flourish. This has always been the case. Whenever we speak of “spreading awareness” or “educational initiatives”, let us remember that we cannot hope to achieve universal support for any creative endeavour in today’s world.

This ‘critical mass’ cannot be achieved without diversifying the manner of presentation. Innovations in the format of presentation, rather than be condemned as ‘debasing’ the classical tradition should be seen as means to attracting different types of listeners. Once hooked, the listener will start on his or her own quest towards the substance of the musical form.

‘Focus on the young’

Our focus must shift towards the young, specifically those in their early 20’s and 30’s.

Second, we must diversify the target audience. No tradition or art form will survive if it is held captive by a minority. In time, it will become fossilised. Thinkers and composers across the ages have always thought this through. This explains the variety of compositional forms in existence today.

It is also imprudent to discourage young people from listening to semi-classical or popular compositions, especially those that have a classical base. Some of those who are captivated by a “Mannavan Vandanadi” in raga Kalyani might eventually get hooked on to experiencing the spiritual beauty of “Kamalambam bhajare”. Formats of presentation that can use the “known” to get the listener to the “less known” should be encouraged more and more.

By no means am I saying that we must cater to the gallery rather than focus on what inspires us. However, diversification of programming will be essential to achieve the ‘critical mass’.

Contemporising an art form does not mean its destruction. On the contrary, subtle changes to the form and style of presentation can bring about tremendous patronage. Indeed, it will only increase the relevance and importance of the ‘substance’ therein.

On this, the need of the hour is becoming aggravated by a society that places a premium on time and pace.”