The poet in Rig Veda asks the gods, since the seers are no longer around, who will be our thought leaders, the rishis (sages), now?
Ooh (logic), comes the answer, shall be the rishi from now on.
Grammarian Yask explains this cryptic dialogue in his treatise on the Vedas further. When Brahmans (meaning not necessarily the caste but learned and wise ones) of equal intellectual calibre sit together and perform the fire sacrifice, they shall argue back and forth over all kinds of ideas, accepting some and dropping others. Their collective chintan (Ooh) shall be the beacon that would propel thoughts.
Since Ooh, or collective thinking, comes traditionally with its twin Apoh (counter-argument), let’s begin with a question. In an era when people of all ages and nationalities have an unprecedented access to music and musical information of all kinds, why is the most pristine form of north Indian classical music, the dhrupad, facing extinction in the land of its birth? Why did it lose out to khayal (another form of classical music), and khayal to semi-classical music, and then both collectively to the iPod and Bollywood-driven pop and fusion music? The simplistic answer would be, because tastes change. But if it were so, why did they not change so sharply for centuries? And how come classical music coexists quite happily with pop elsewhere, but in India, despite the boom in the music industry, a plenitude of auditoriums with superb acoustics and laudable efforts of various small groups, audiences for Hindustani classical music are shrinking all the time?
Actually, around the beginning of the 20th century, the serious practitioners of classical Hindustani music —having lost out on formal education and having become dependent on the largesse of princely courts—created virtual musical silos around their gharanas (schools of music) to protect their turf. Collective discussions became an immediate casualty and music began to be seen more and more as a profound experience that defies logic and was above any kind of questioning or experimentation by musicians other than those who headed the gharanas. The last great musical conclave was held around 1916 in Baroda and ignited fresh interest in our musical heritage. The middle class now began to learn music in music schools and this created new audiences.
But most books on music spun moral fables around major performers and neglected to highlight the logic of their music or the creation of systematic historical archives for teachers, students and music lovers. An inadequate musical notation system based on the Western (tempered) scale system introduced by over enthusiastic admirers of British Orientalists, also failed to capture our shruti (microtone)-based system and spread only base-level information about ragas. Gharanas, like Indian politics, closed ranks against mediocrity, but in the process they became family-centric with the gurus and ustads reserving the best only for their family members. There are many apocryphal tales about really talented but non-family shishyas (disciples) being barred from exclusive teaching sessions and less talented sons and nephews being married into another great gharana to fetch rare ragas by way of dowry.
If frank expression of dissidence and discussion among peer groups disappears, prejudices and vanity begin to surface in public performances. Today, most of the young audiences in Delhi and Mumbai that come to listen to classical music are driven by curiosity or the desire to make a style statement. They applaud the performers when they slide into gimmickry of all kinds. And the embarrassed rasiks (music lovers), often leave quietly in mid-performance. Classical music can be made meaningful once again, by ensuring the existence of constant Ooh Apoh between highly trained and sensitive human minds, who can take the great intellectual leap without losing their own cognitive abilities. Such gatherings will challenge the cruder varieties of socialist thinking that expect all music lovers’ views as being equally worthy of attention.
Swars (notes) may be the shared stuff of all music, but the classical artist traverses a long and responsible way to create from the stuff a truly memorable performance. No, there can never be a mind-expanding debate on classical music driven by the spirit of We-The-People or citizen journalists’ reports. Classical music is one of the few art forms that reminds us that traditional and real art can coexist beyond the small and big screens and the advertising industry, provided it operates on its own inner logic. If the media can help sustain only this, that should be quite adequate.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is a writer and freelance journalist in New Delhi. Comment at email@example.com