Problems with being in Classical Music here right now

It is hard to be a classical musician in India right now. It may be hard to have been a classical musician anywhere at any point of time, but here are my key observations about here and now, since i live there. I acknowledge that my experiences and interpretations don’t represent very large parts of India – I have lived in only a couple of cities, and perhaps there are other people whose experiences have been very different from these.

Get educated to educate?

To ask, “What is that knowledge good for?” is an unfortunate question, but let us say it is impractical not to ask such a question for the sake of ensuring a life with some money to preserve oneself.

HCM is a tradition that has produced a grand legacy of students in music, who learn with their masters for several years, move on to entertain rasika listeners for another part of their life, and spend the rest of it teaching their craft to other students. The purpose of this education, thus seems, like several other academic disciplines – to get educated in order to educate.

Day in and out in music classes across the country, young students who want to become playback singers go to their teachers hoping they could teach them a ‘base’ through classical music. And then they would be free to explore the rest of it. But what is there in the rest of it that isn’t there in classical music? Why are these people not interested in careers in classical music? Teachers try to answer this in different ways.

It is easy to shrug this question off, pretending that new students must be lazy, and technology must be causing it, and that in a fast moving world, nobody has time for a slow paced art that requires deliberate effort and years of practice. But if we examine the structure of resource allocation / ‘job’ allocation in classical music, it is not easy to see how hard it would be to foresee a dream career. If you wanted to be a performer, how would you get that job? There are no job postings anywhere. It’s hard to find an artist manager in the beginning of your career. It is hard to imagine that you want to spend a life teaching classical music? In the end we implore people to think that they should want to learn from a pure desire to learn, rather than an expectation from classical music. Which is okay, but how can one not have an expectation from the economics of classical music?

The dilemma of warranted change and frivolity

When are you ready to make change? What is the difference between change that comes from within and change that comes from without?

I used to have a teacher who would express her dissent towards fusion music consisting of a trained vocalist with a flair for improvisational variations, who is juxtaposed with a guitarist playing some accompanying chords, and a drummer who destroyed the polarity in the taal of khyal. The irritation of this teacher towards destroying the principles that run the system of khyal is understandable, but it is also equally true that bands aren’t performing khyal at all. But then what are fusion musicians performing?

It is traditional for classical musicians to place some musical styles simply out of the scope of musical reasoning. This kind of fusion music doesn’t matter to classical music, because it isn’t classical music. Although, must we remember that this was also what was said about ghazals more than hundred years ago. Ghazals which, then, slowly snuck in to capture many mainstream classical singers and managed to reach the classical auditorium, standing side by side with a tarana. This was also said about the harmonium, suspected as an instrument with vice, completely unsuitable for the Indian Classical form because of its fixed intonation. This was, to go far behind, also said about the khyal itself. These forms somehow stuck around and became ‘classical’. Should we start to expect such a thing out of a fusion form which relies on harmony as well? If yes, how are we to elaborate the theoretical structure of such a form and who does that responsibility lie upon.

If we keep telling trained musicians that it is not their right to change classical music, we forget to account for the changes that occur regardless of telling or not telling musicians what is their right.

Form and Function

Classical music is not the only or not among the few ways of entertaining oneself through music that is available to us. Music – and effectively music producing any kind of affect – is available to us literally everywhere. People now have started to think of classical khyal music as more and more ‘meditative’ and absorptive, rather than mentally engaging, mathematically challenging. This doesn’t leave khyal music with the credit of being extremely mathematically complex and poetically demanding.

In fact, raga music is increasingly is accessed just to seek the affect of trance and devotion. It is increasingly rare to find an educated rasik listener especially in cities, who can point towards the nuances of notes and moods, who can identify the technicalities of classical music and not just absorb in the mood.

Electronic music, computers, and digitization

Thorough knowledge in theory of music helps one understand the basics of using computer systems fairly easily – but wait. Trained as a classical musician in India, one only trains their ears in melodic listening. It is difficult to hear and get used to the nuances of harmony regardless of how many years you spend training for melodic listening.

Computer tools for music use piano as the basis for most of the work. Piano roll writing is the most common way to give midi information to a computer for any digital audio workstation, and we don’t use a piano for classical music. Despite introducing western notation reading in the coursework for Hindustani training, most students are unfamiliar with this, as it is almost never used to represent Hindustani music.

In most courses for classical music, there is very little or no teaching of Digital workstations, recording equipment, and we like to pretend that those don’t exist and cannot interfere in the realm of classical music. We want to isolate the electronic from the ‘real’, and pretend as though the electronic doesn’t matter to the real, regardless of how many electronic CDs we may churn out, and amplifiers we may use to help music be heard in auditoriums.

The disparity between industry requirements and classical training

Playback singing, session music and composition seem like other routes that a classical musician may take after they’re sufficiently trained.

But there is always the complaint that film composition is ‘light’ and thus a lesser form than classical music. Mainstream composers have time and again been uneducated and uninformed about what they are writing. A film song is an object that exists in and of itself, while a raga is a semantically insatiable object. You may sing it for all of your life, but never have completed singing it, never have finished finding it. How do we look at the compatibility of these methods of hearing as one?

In a country that is obsessed with loose terminology like ‘passion’ ‘mood’ ‘creativity’ to describe arts that are in fact precise and elaborate, like music, it is hard to stress upon the requirement for specificity as a measure of divergence from cliché. The things we like as ‘new’, may not be that at all – but there is no way to know, unless we examine with education.

Indian things are cool again

I was sitting with some south Bombay-ites in Leopolds once, and one of my friends remarked “Oh you learnt the sitar?! How cool is that?”. Despite the fact that I was perplexed by his statement, walk into any music shop and you will probably find 100 guitars and 0 sitars.

As far as marketing and popularization goes, we have clearly not done that great a job – but wait! It’s coming back. It’s very cool to find a small Hindustani ‘taan’ embedded in a dub track played in your club on Saturday. At least one devotional song or a heartbreak song with alaap is still a staple per movie that we produce. Musical ‘objects’ are, in this way subverted to serve as token reminders of affect.

But should we rely on systems like this to keep our musical system alive? Isn’t participation the best way to keep something up?

We must answer the hard question of what education in classical music really helps you build. Until then, there is just a reiteration of reticence and judgement from the experienced, and quick object-production by the young.