In the web of gross desires

Thumri in demand: Vocalist Vidya Rao performing in front of a packed house The Hindu

Thumri in demand: Vocalist Vidya Rao performing in front of a packed house The Hindu  

Standardisation of ragas, the debate over purity and the return of thumri marked the decade of synthetic music

At the turn of the last millennium, the term ‘2K’ had brought with it a frightening word ‘crash’- albeit related to the cybernetic world. Ironically, down two decades, on the threshold of welcoming the year 2020, one realises that while the universe of the Internet, rightly named ‘world-wide-web’, has caught the entire human existence in its net, it is the value-system which has faced the brunt of ‘crash’; what was slipping out of our fingers slowly – is now falling apart with resounding repercussions – some good, some bad, as usual for every dark cloud comes with a silver lining.

This is a known fact that cultural activities (music in particular) are hopelessly intertwined with social, geographic, economic and political changes. To admit that music world has gone through a sea change in the last decade will not be hyperbolic at all. The global market has been successful in fanning the ‘taamasi vritti’ (gross desires) of artistes to a great extent which alienates their art from its spirituality – the root of all Indian arts for ages.

What was to be learnt ‘seena-ba-seena’ (one-to-one), has given way to distant leaning through skypes and streaming; what was to be ‘heard’, has definitively become a show to be ‘seen’ on stage or on the net; looks, mannerisms, and fashion statements, therefore, are important now; what was ‘sadhana’ for many, has become a mere means to earn name and fame only; what was supposed to be ‘traditional and pure’ so far, has started losing its ground.

Driven by his passion for ‘standardisation of Ragas’ to arrest the ‘impure treatment’, Milon Debnath of Lucknow was running from pillar to post when one introduced him to ITC SRA gurus and several other eminent musicians of Kolkata.

Predictably, ‘impossible’ was the answer from all; because each gharana has its own way of looking at a raga, a typical Indian ‘fluidity’ that baffles ‘logic-driven’ gen-next with global vision. To solve the issue in his own logical way, an undaunted Debnath launched his “Classical Voice of India” in 2011 to give a ‘permanent, standardised, fundamental, complete raagroop to the participating contestants. His net-savvy team has reached it to every nook and corner of India and in the wake of several different music genre-based reality shows on the TV, this commendable, nationwide classical music contest gained momentum. By 2020, the preliminary round of this contest will be held in the web space.


This is but one of the innumerable such projects that are swarming all over the Internet. With easy access to digital equipment, the same applies to the field of recorded music – so much so that it is impossible to spot gold from the dross. Social media sites are flooded with ‘riyaaz sessions’, seeking comments from ‘friends’, while traditionalists insist that riyaaz is not to be shared.

Streaming of live programmes is on the rise which may lead to lesser footfalls in auditoria and change the total panorama of cultural events. With such vast connectivity, innovative ideas are multiplying in leaps and bounds. Every other musician, big or small, is trying to dish out something new in the garb of serving the tradition which, unfortunately, eludes most Indians – thanks to the persistent presence of McCauley’s education policies.

As such ungainly fusions have gained momentum in every walk of life – just like socially accepted strange bedfellows in live-in relationships without any commitments. Even committed musicians, who used to sneer at these ventures not long ago, tend to compromise with the intrinsic character of their chosen raga and tala to toss-up exhilarating new taste. This, along with the great influx of artistes on the performing arena, has inspired duets, quartets, and ensembles. Kolkata witnessed a whole night soiree based on jugalbandis in August this year.

Audience reaction

Heartless city culture with resultant restive mindset has changed the listenership which looks for excitement, essentially churned out of numerical permutations. The obsession for breakneck speed during taans and jhalas, the growing popularity of tabla-solos and instrument ensembles prove this point. Very few care for an introspective raga elaboration. But this is also indisputable that several instrumentalists along with dhrupad maestros Gundecha Brothers and Uday Bhawalkar know how to keep their listeners glued to their alaap.

Change within tradition

For this magic, the dhrupad exponents changed the technique of voice-throw that is very different from the members of the Dagar clan of yore. They also rely on rhythm-play, clear enunciation of select Dhruva-pada, especially one thrillingly speedy composition towards the end of their recitals. On the other hand, most new-age khayal exponents have developed a synthetic style that incorporates best of all gharanas according to their aptitude and limits.

The Victorian values, that developed a love-hate relationship of social police with the tawaif clan who preserved the art of thumri, were on the decline since classical music and related genres entered the living rooms of the masses. The so-called erotic lyrics started radiating a new spiritual inference when educated ladies adapted them in their repertoire. Legends like Siddheshwari Devi, Begum Akhtar, Girija Devi and many others took this genre to dizzy heights but groomed very few torchbearers.

This decade saw Vinod Kapur, the lifeline of VSK Baithak, resuscitating Purab Anga Gayaki in such a way that almost all khayal vocalists, who abhorred thumris on stage earlier, have started giving exclusive concerts. This gayaki infuses elements from dhrupad, khayal, ghazal, tappa, folk – even bhajan!

Frankly, the mighty river called classical music has been fuelling different genres, contemporary fusions borrow heavily from it even now. This leads to collaborations between the ‘godly’ classical artistes and ‘commoners’. This is a healthy trend that should bridge the gap between the two worlds.

‘What is pure?’

Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar

Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar  

Veteran vocalist Ulhas Kashalkar puts the change in perspective. While facing the question of raga-standardisation almost a decade ago Kashalkar had asked, “Who will decide what is pure?”

Even now, after regaling listeners with his tradition-bound delineation of Kafi Kanada, he reiterates, “Music keeps changing its trends like a living river, it is not an object like gold which is evaluated as 24 or 22 carats. A musician needs to follow the principles and raagroop of his gharana as handed down to him by the guru. For example, Agra gayaki ka matlab keval Ustad Faiyaz Khan nahin, it should have nom-tom alap, rhythm-play, layakari. Jitendra Abhisheki too belonged to Agra, magar alag (but he is different); apne andaaz se (in his own style)!”

“Aur dekhiye, Bhaskar Buwa Bakhleji trained with three gurus belonging to different schools and evolved his style. So did Ustad Amir Khan. ‘Pure’, magar hat-ke jab tak nahi hota, we remain copy cats. Who remembers the clones of Lataji or Ashaji? My music evolved with age; I slowed down the tempo of Gwalior. This provided space and peace and led to other changes. Yehi hamaara tradition hai (this is our tradition),’ he emphasises.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 8:20:46 PM |

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