The existence of any classical art, it would seem, is necessarily concurrent with moans about its decline and imminent demise. I recently read a snippet of a pessimistic letter written by Lionel Fielden, the Indian controller of broadcasting 70 years ago. “The impact of the West in our time is strong enough to make it clear that the younger generation is drifting into an easy acceptance of Western harmonies,” Fielden wrote, echoing sentiments we still hear today. Then, even more familiarly: “(T)he youth of India is in danger of forgetting its own musical language altogether.”
Sometimes that sort of hard-wired gloom is well- deserved, but sometimes it can also blind us to the good times. At least with Carnatic music, many of its glory days came after Fielden wrote his letter. Veteran listeners will squabble over which decade was particularly golden—the 1950s, 1960s, or the 1970s—for its quality of performers. The 1990s and 2000s have not been very far behind. But in terms of simpler, less subjective metrics—the crowds at concerts, the verve and reach of today’s musicians, the number of interested or even passionate youngsters—I cannot imagine days more halcyon than these.
Part of the reason I say this has to do with the humdrum business of just making a living: Musicians have learnt to escape the stereotype of the starving artist in his garret. They negotiate their album contracts harder; they build their brands; they tour entire continents at a jogtrot for lucrative tours that can last a month or more; they give lessons over Skype to students abroad. This applies, admittedly, to only the slim top layer of performers, and even they don’t become wealthy in the conventional sense of the word. But their success has shaken the perception that one can either be a musician or own a home, but one cannot do both.
The other signs of a healthy art lie in the audiences that we see at concerts in Chennai and Bangalore today. In a few weeks, auditoriums will swell with concertgoers during the December music season in Chennai. There will be lengthy queues for seats, and for really top-flight artistes, the organizers will sell extra Rs20 tickets to sit on the extreme ends of the stage itself. A very significant proportion of this typical audience is acutely knowledgeable; another significant proportion is eager to learn. Most encouragingly, there are youngsters scattered throughout the audience, many of them students but some also sheer enthusiasts.
The south Indian tradition of sending children to music classes is stronger than ever, as I discovered when I moved to New Delhi and began to scout around for a teacher to resume my own lessons. I found one easily, but it was much more difficult to figure out when she would be free to teach me. She teaches every day of the week and many hours every day. A few of her students are over 60; some are working professionals like myself. The really rapidly advancing ones, though, are in school or college, avidly soaking up the music and helping, in the most elemental way, to keep it alive. Lionel Fielden would, I think, have been pleasantly astonished.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org