(Singular they has been used in this article to refer to the musician to not use a gendered pronoun.)
Recently I had the experience of being at a baithak of a wildly popular Hindustani singer in Oslo, as a part of a prestigious south-asia series, and held in the Nobel peace center. It is not often that you get to hear a good mehfil here, and I went excitedly to listen to this person, whose general hearing accessibility is quite high from social media, coke studio, appearances on popular-classical fora etc. This singer sang raga Jog at 4 pm, saying that it was almost 9 back in India, so it’s no problem. They later proceeded to sing a morning raga, their version of a trite thumri, and an adaptation from carnatic music. All of these pieces had at least 3 youtube versions each, of them singing. And on stage, each piece sounded not only exactly like its youtube counterpart, but also quite like any other raga by this artist. The singer is not only quite famous on youtube and has a known young audience, sometimes also named responsible for getting young people ‘back into’ classical music. I came back disappointed – although –
Despite these strange quirks and youtubey presentation, I find it hard to hate on this artist. They are very vocal about how music and society are related to each other, and affirm constantly how music has to change along with society, which i agree with a lot. The way they want to think about and perform classical music is really their prerogative. To write idiomatically for their own voice, is their call. To represent vocally the underrepresented class of people they belong to – that is what they will bring to the table in this day and age – and in that sense it truly does not matter what purists will say about them.
One of the strange things about classical musics is the relationship it has with the past. I wrote earlier about nostalgia and condescension together as being two parts of the same bifocal lens of viewing the past at a point like this. The temptation to gloat puritanically about the virtues of music as heard in the olden days must be resisted. But also, there is no classical music without ancient rules, there is none without upholding the words of the wise old (men). There is no classical music without its gatekeepers and guards; judges and pundits. The way in which the aforementioned vocalist tries to rectify this is to make a band of the underrepresented community that they wish to see more of, and perform as a group, making space for more than one of their members at the same time. This thought is radical for classical music, because it also breaks down the hierarchy of the performers on stage, if 6 of them are now on stage, and each has equal weight (instrumentalists are not inferior, etc).
T M Krishna has been widely vocal, and radically informed about the issues plaguing music that mimic societal issues with caste, but also in the children that he decides to bring up to speed, and into classical music – he offers them classical music itself*. The very thing he has devoted his life to. That beautiful thing protected for hundreds of years by staunch brahmins, whose power politics deserve to be hated, and changes deserve to be made. But – Does this music then contain the relics of, the symbols of the social segregation that its practitioners stood for? Do the virtues of the music itself somewhere in their crevices contain the dust from this hegemonic society? That is not a question with an answer.
From what I have understood from the public feed of Prachi Dublay, a researcher documenting and learning desi tribal music from extensive and kind travel through India, it that she would never repeat the songs she has learnt, on stage. Learning a tribal song does not make it hers, even learning it well does not. Getting popular for it will not make her a singer of tribal work. Her work is to document, and not represent. There shall be no appropriation.
In these two examples there is a dual flow of cultural exchange and power. I wish to invoke at this point, an adage used in stand-up comedy, which is to never ‘punch down’. There is always power in the actors in a joke, and punching up – making fun of having is okay, but punching down – joking about not having (money, knowledge, power) – is not okay. If it can be a rule in comedy, it should transpire to music.
There is an old idiom in marathi: लष्करच्या भाकर्या भाजणे (lashkarchya bhakrya bhajNe).
It stands figuratively for work that you do on behalf of others, standing up for problems that are not yours. Working on any kind of social issue by being in Classical music is a giant double edged sword – an conceptual oxymoron. The balance – between propagating something with historical bindings to socio-structural problems, and not appropriating somebody’s problems by trying to be a proponent coincidentally making money for yourself by capitalizing on somebody else’s cultural heritage, or labor – is delicate. To not bake bread on behalf of the troops, is to not appropriate that which does not belong to you.
Enthusiasm about the greatness of something doesn’t come really from bemoaning the lack of that greatness in other things, but the curiosity and excitation of that thing itself. Perfect sur, great tihais, wonderful calculation – are things worthy of exaltation, not least because they are better than imperfect sur, and pre-planned tihais, but because they are wonderful in themselves. We do not, really do not need to condescend to appreciate.
This is what democratization means. Guardians are the people who have never ended up protecting, nor propagating heritage. We have to know this. Insecurity for a stream of music by its guardians, and blaming generations for every constituting member being wrong are immature and inaccurate, are claims that are designed to not make space for others.