Is India an ancient civilization on the cusp of modernity? Or is it actually a 3,500-year-old civilization in an advanced state of decay? We believe it’s the former, and middle-class Indians take pride in their belief that we are living in one of the world’s greatest cultures.
Fading notes: Amjad Ali Khan and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the NCPA.
Manmohan Singh loves to quote the famous lines of Iqbal: “Yunan-o-Misr-o-Roma, sab mitt gayay jahan se: Ab tak magar hai baqi naam-o-nishan hamara” (ancient Greece, Pharaonic Egypt and Imperial Rome are all dust, but India lives on).
Iqbal wrote that poem, Tarana-e-Hindi, commonly known by its opening lines Saare jahan se achcha, when he was quite young. He would change his opinion about Greece and Rome after studying in Heidelberg.
To return to our question: Are we advancing the culture we inherited or is it in decay? The only way in which civilizations advance their culture is through their arts.
What is the state of our arts? Let’s look at Time Out, the most comprehensive events magazine in the world. Every performance is listed. I asked a friend to send me copies of the magazine from New York, London and Hong Kong. This will help us understand where we stand culturally.
In its issue of the week of 22-28 October, Time Out New York listed 65 classical music concerts, including 15 operas. Of these concerts, eight were free. New Yorkers watched 51 classical and modern dance shows (two free) and attended 86 museum events, of which seven were free. All of this is high culture. Then there were 412 live concerts of popular (including jazz) music, of which 25 were free. New York City has eight million people.
Also Read Aakar’s previous Lounge columns
In two weeks between 16-29 October (Time Out is a fortnightly in India), Delhi had eight classical concerts, including one Western classical performance. Every show was free. That is an average of one classical music performance every two days for a city of 12 million. There was a Spic Macay festival and that was also free. There were 10 shows classified under rock/pop/international but of these only two were free. In two weeks Delhi had six classical dance performances including three Bharatanatyam, one Kathak and one Odissi. All six were free. Incidentally, there were 11 listings for salsa and jazz dance classes, none free.
In one week between 15-21 October, Londoners saw 101 classical music concerts (eight free) of which 12 were operas. They saw 45 dance performances of which six were free, and they heard 278 popular music concerts of which 32 were free. London has seven million people.
In two weeks between 16-29 October, Mumbaikars saw 12 concerts of which nine were free. But the three concerts Mumbaikars paid to watch included one playing Bollywood songs and a performance by a South African Western classical group. Meanwhile, there were 23 events in pubs and discos, of which seven were free. In 15 days, Mumbaikars watched two dance performances, including one Bharatanatyam. Mumbai has 19 million people.
In two weeks between 14-27 October, Hong Kong had 14 classical concerts, none free, and the cheapest ticket was $100. There were another five classical concerts listed under “Events” of which two were free. It had 33 popular music concerts of which nine were free. Hong Kong’s population is seven million.
In 15 days between 16-29 October, Bangalore had six concerts, three Carnatic, two Western classical and one fusion. All six were free. Bangalore has seven million people.
Two things become clear, and they’re related. One, that we have few events. Two, these are free. Why? Unlike Europeans and Americans and Chinese, we don’t pay for culture. We pay Rs100 to watch a film, and Rs 200 to enter a pub with a DJ, but do not pay to listen to a Hindustani concert. Why not?
The answer is simple: Because it’s not entertainment.
Classical music is not watched out of enjoyment, and that is why it has withered, because it is irrelevant. This is a loss because it is one of the world’s great art forms.
The thing about Hindustani music is that its audience has always been small. The various gharanas are actually quite recent, and emerged with the scattering of Mughal musicians after two sacks: Nadir Shah’s in 1739 and Colin Campbell’s in 1857. Why were all the musicians in Delhi? That’s where all the patronage was: India has no tradition of public performance.
Aspen in Colorado has a population of 6,000 and a fine classical music radio station that often showcases live events. Because there aren’t enough professional musicians in the town, listeners are often introduced to concert quartets featuring a photographer playing violin or a librarian on the harpsichord. This is unthinkable in India. Every high school in the US has a marching band with dozens of kids who can fluently read music. And classical music isn’t even as popular in the US as it is in Europe (as the listings for London show).
Meanwhile, how many of us can identify ragas? We nod our heads when Rashid Khan sings, but can we tell a good rendition from an average one? Not really, and that’s why newspapers have stopped reviewing Hindustani concerts entirely.
No culture is sustained much less advanced by such a poor audience. We assume that other Indians somewhere are carrying the tradition forward. Those who believe culture is happening in the small town are mistaken. Places such as Surat and Aurangabad are utterly barren of high culture.
PTI reported last month that the sale of classical music instruments at one of the oldest stores in Delhi was down by 85% over 1970. Anecdotally, this rings true and fewer people I know are learning to play the music than did 30 years ago.
Being modern in India means being uninterested in classical Hindu tradition and ignorant of classical Europe. Our civilization is past.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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