Hindustani music (India)

While drastic social, religious, cultural, political and technological change is often associated with threats and decline in music cultures, Hindustani music has reinvented itself across a sequence of very different socio-cultural contexts over the past eight centuries or so: places of worship, royal courts, celebrations, houses of courtesans, outdoor festivals and indoor stages, radio stations and television, Western concert halls, and a variety of recorded formats, as the nation moved from a feudal society via a colonised country to a modern democracy. It appears to have done so without making major sacrifices to what most Hindustani musicians consider the essence of their art. While there is some concern about the current depth of musical knowledge, general consensus and observations of contemporary practice indicate considerable health and vitality for this music. The 30-minute mini-documentary above demonstrates this, featuring a dozen performers, teachers, scholars, and industry leaders commenting on issues across the five domains of sustainability.

Learning classical music in India is firmly based on the concept of dedicated hard work in a close association between master and disciple referred to as ustad-shahgird by Muslims, but best  known by the Hindu term  guru-shishya-parampara. This system of transmission, which is surprisingly replicated in only a few other aspects of Indian society (most notably spirituality, as it does in a number of other cultures in Asia and beyond to different degrees), is built on profound respect and even awe of the learner for the teacher as an embodiment of knowledge. While such an approach is at odds with egalitarian approaches to learning and teaching, it stands to reason: the guru does not only serve as the holder of the keys to skills, creativity and innovation within the boundaries of the tradition, but also holds in his or her memory the entire library of musical material handed down.

In its most intense form, guru-shishya-parampara is a holistic, ‘total immersion’ approach: the student often lives with the master, becomes part of the family, and slowly absorbs not only the repertoire and technique, but also the underlying values, attitudes and behaviour that come with being a Hindustani musician (Neuman, 1990, pp. 30-58). Slawek describes the relationship as “of a spiritual nature. The guru is likened to a god, and the disciple must fully submit to him” (1987, p. 2). As a result, it is a potentially high-yield, high-risk relationship.

Guru-shishya-parampara remains the format for training Hindustani musicians (Schippers, 2007). There are no self-taught musicians of any significance in North India, and mature musicians proudly refer to the musical lineage through their gurus, while others go through great trouble to construct a venerable lineage by connecting their predecessors to a particular gharana (style school): “Whether a musician is considered great, good, or even mediocre, he will (in the absence of anyone else) establish  – so to speak – his credentials as a musician on the basis of whom he has studied with and whom he is related to” (Neuman, 1990, p. 44).

Increasingly criticised as being anachronistic, too authoritarian, and prone to power abuse, the challenges regarding this system are well documented. While court patronage, providing a stable physical and economic basis for musicians, formed a highly conducive context for the guru-shishya-parampara system, the contemporary life of musicians travelling and needing to seek concerts and teaching engagements to survive is much less so. In addition, students and scholars have signalled the vulnerability of the system to careless teaching, lack of career support, or even various forms of abuse by gurus who have difficulty living up to the ideal of this rich and complex relationship. This constitutes a particular risk with students who are not part of a family tradition.  Be that as it may, guru-shishya-parampara has proven effective in preparing generations of musicians for the stage, and to date no viable alternative for this system has emerged in formal educational environments.

Hindustani music is a term generally used to refer to the ‘classical’ music of North India, the geographical region bound by the Himalaya to the north and east, and the states of Maharashtra and Orissa in the west and south. South from there is the territory of the strongly related but distinct ‘classical’ tradition of South India, referred to as Carnatic or Karnatak music. In both traditions, each performance combines two or three basic musical elements: raga (melody), tala (rhythm) and, in the case of vocal music, pada (lyrics). In performance, these are presented in a mix of age-old tradition and spontaneous improvisation.

Hindustani music encompasses two major vocal genres: the virtuoso khyal and its more austere forerunner dhrupad. With its florid style and romantic lyrics, khyal (meaning imagination, idea or thought) developed into a genre that attracted new patrons and audiences, and challenged the preeminent position of dhrupad, particularly during the nineteenth century. Dhrupad was the dominant tradition of courtly art music since at least the fifteenth century (Widdess, 2004).

The Sanskrit word for music in India, sangita (lit. sung together), indicates that it is more than song (gita) and that instrumental music (and in the past dance as well) forms an essential part of it. Nowadays, instrumental styles are often considered derivative of the vocal styles. However, given their prominent place in both the ancient treatises and in contemporary practice, they should be regarded as largely autonomous, although they do share a number of elements with the two major vocal styles. In addition, there are a number of ‘light classical’ vocal genres that form part of the repertoire of many musicians in the Hindustani tradition, including thumri, ghazal, dadra, bhajan and qawwali.

Hindustani music has always depended on an inner circle of aficionados to support it: wealthy patrons, elite audiences, scholars of Indian music, critics, and learners. Together with senior musicians, these have played a continuing role in the patronage and development of the music, embracing great traditionalists and innovators, and discarding fads and superficial display of prowess. There are records of old masters climbing the stage to publicly hit a young musician with their cane if they felt they did not respect the tradition (Shankar, 1969, p. 57). There is concern that this group and its influence is waning. The vast majority of contemporary audiences does not consists of highly informed music lovers, allowing musicians with dazzling skills but less than profound knowledge to come to prominence.

There is widespread concerns about the size of the audience (stratified into connoisseurs, those that primarily engage emotionally, and followers), their motivation, and age. There is a perceived need for audience development and even training, and a sense that young audiences have too many distractions that prevent them from engaging with classical music. Student organisation SPICMACAY is doing excellent work at university level, organising free concerts by top-ranking musicians on university campuses throughout India. However, there is particular concern about the enculturation of young children, who still predominantly learn English songs in school, and get minimal exposure to quality Hindustani music.

Meanwhile, the online environment is offering musicians and music lovers the opportunity to create virtual communities. Online sharing, discussing critiquing and learning is occurring on a large scale, both within India and with diasporic Indians, and can be seen as a twenty-first century incarnation of the intimate music circles that supported the tradition for many decades.

While major social, religious, cultural, political and technological changes is commonly associated with decline in music cultures, Hindustani music has successfully reinvented itself in a sequence of very different socio-cultural contexts over the past eight centuries: major and minor courts, houses of courtesans, places of worship, celebrations, radio stations and television, Indian concert halls, Western stages, and a variety of recorded formats. It has done so by making incisive changes to some aspects of the lives of musicians (including religious conversions, getting involved in politicking, rebranding the art), but apparently without making major sacrifices to what most Hindustani musicians consider the essence of their art.

Hindustani music is chamber music, performed in royal courts and in music circles consisting of a cultural elite. Another key format is the ‘music conference’, a multi-day music festival with a range of artists (programmed from low-ranking to top billing), which goes back approximately one hundred years. These festivals can take place indoors, but more often on a field where a stage is erected. People walk in and out, while as the evening and then night progreses, more and more senior artists are presented, with the top artist often performing around dawn. Over past decades, a more western style recital format featuring only a few or a single star artist has become more dominant, in line with the demands of contemporary working lives.

Indian classical music has a clearly enunciated aesthetic component, going back to the Natya Shastra of Bharata (third century CE), one of the world’s oldest treatises on performing arts. Central to the aesthetic experience is rasa. There are nine rasas in theatre, including heroism, sadness, eroticism, and peace. According to the theory, these are evoked by the action on stage, and resonate in the spectator, not as the emotion itself, but as a pleasurable mirror or echo of this emotion.

A key characteristic of Hindustani music in this context is how it constructs its own past. This takes various shapes. Firstly, there is a strong tendency to make things older than they really are: invented traditions (Hobsbawm, 1983). Perhaps the most well-known example of such invented antiquity is the antedating of the invention of the sitar and tabla to the 13th century instead of the 18th century (Miner, 1993). Secondly, there is the tendency to edit out key factors in the history of the music, such as the long association with courtesans, as musicians and scholars tried to reengage with the daughters of respectable middle class families in the first half of te twentieth century. Thirdly, there is the bias of Hindu versus Muslim musicians: while the latter will emphasise the Muslim (especially Sufi) contributions to the tradition, the former relate the history of music to its perceived main Hindu roots.

This leads to another striking factor in the constructs underlying Indian music: the conviction from generation to generation that the music is in decline or even dying. It is apparent from the interviews with senior masters now as from the words of Coomaraswamy over a hundred years ago that there is a strong perception that the music was better in the past, and that the young generation does not care about the tradition. While this is difficult to gauge for the future, it can be evaluated in retrospect by considering what we now see as the great generations of the first and second half of the twentieth century. Rather than taking decline as a given, the conservatism it entails possibly serves as a mechanism to ensure careful thought before changing key aspects of the tradition or adding new elements. One could argue that this has led to a balanced development over the centuries, in combination with a widespread and unshakable belief in the continued quality and relevance of Hindustani music.

For a major tradition of intangible cultural heritage, Hindustani music has relatively modest demands in terms of infrastructure. Intimate mehfils are held in people’s houses with the artist playing unamplified on a small dias, while public concerts are often presented in multipurpose venues with varying degrees of quality amplification of the sound, and the major festivals over the winter months are generally put on outdoors on public fields and showgrounds. Concert organisers do express concerns on aspects of such facilities, the quality of amplification, green rooms, and traffic (both in terms of noise and enabling people to arrive at specific venues in time in gridlocked cities). In addition, there are a number of good world standard facilities, each with its own focus and concert series.

A key aspect of infrastructure is the technological support that is now widely available. It has been a major enabling factor in the shift from small elite audiences to much larger ones. Large-scale concerts of classical music are reasonably common now. Amplification has made it possible for soft instruments to be heard, and for vocal music it has enabled greater diversity in the use, subtlety and categorisation of voices beyond pitch.

At a more ‘low-tech’ level, most musicians have access to decent instruments, but there are some challenges. A generation of master instrument makers and repairers has just passed away. In addition, the availability of ivory and particular types of seasoned wood needed to make top instruments is decreasing. In accompanying instruments, harmonium has replaced sarangi possibly as the result of a combination of tuning challenges and a historical association with dubious milieus. Increasingly, tambura has been replaced by electronic tambura or recordings of tambura on CD, iPod or computer as part of a broader rise of electrically supported and e-instruments.

In terms of the more intangible infrastructure of regulations and support structures, there is surprisingly little to either support or stifle Hindustani music. There are no laws that restrict music making, learning and performance. But there are also very few laws that facilitate any of these. Corporate giants ITC and Tata have received tax advantages for their music activities through Sangeet Research Acedemy and the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) respectively as ‘research’. Increased demands on  ‘social reponsibility’ by corporations may prove fruitful for  Hindustani music. The government finances All India Radio –but has not substantially invested in that organisation since the 1980s– and Doordarshan on television. Through the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) it has been supporting selected musicians to tour internationally since 1950. Finally, it confers the most prestigious (but also heavily politicised) Padma Awards every year on Republic Day. But overall, national institutions, societies and foundations, as well as the nation’s laws, play only a minor role in sustaining Hindustani music, surprising for such a major tradition in India’s intangible cultural heritage.

From a global perspective, Hindustani music has demonstrated early uptake in its engagement with mass media and the music industry. The first 78rpm records of Hindustani music appeared around the turn of the century, mostly recorded by a mobile studio that traversed the country in search for talent. All India Radio was established in 1936 (although its predecessors in Mumbai and Kolkata started broadcasting as early as 1927), and effectively took over patronage from the Maharajas after independence in 1947.

Since the 1980s, due to government funding cuts, AIR has not been hiring new staff (performers, technicians and administrators). Consequently, it is no longer a significant patron of Hindustani classical music. Since that time, the position of classical music on radio has been in decline in terms of frequency, length and time slots (late), and its relationship vis-à-vis popular music. The latter is also connected to opportunities for sponsorship. Dissemination of information is much less successful (loss of print media, slow emergence of web-based formats). Hindustani music had a period of good exposure on TV through Doordarshan, but that has also faded now. Meanwhile, commercial radio and television stations show little or no interest in classical music. Corporate sponsorship only works if a CEO happens to be interested, and is not seen as worthwhile from a marketing perspective, barring events that engage the handful of superstars of classical music. Many classical artists associated themselves with the burgeoning film industry – most notably Bollywood– as a creative outlet, a source of income, or both.

Another factor of considerable importance is the printed press, as India continues to be a country of avid newspaper readers. But many deplore that the age of authoritative reviewers is passed. An age divide exacerbates the situation; audiences tend to be over 40, while journalists are generally young without sufficient interest in and knowledge of the arts, and tend to focus on musicians as socialites.

Three important issues for sustainability arise from this domain: Hindustani music has engaged with mass media and the music industry from early on. Particularly All India Radio has played a key role in preserving Hindustani music in India during its first crucial decades as a young republic, but this has faded almost completely. The recording industry –and now online formats– have ensured wide dissemination of quality music. In more recent years, the printed press has played a major role in contributing to the quality control of the tradition, by publishing criticism and alerting readers to emerging artists, but this has diminished drastically and largely been replaced by celebrity gossip. Finally, while the government stays in the background, corporate sponsorship seems to be limited to a few companies that contribute significantly, and many others that only contribute modestly to specific events.

Overall, Hindustani music is considered quite vital in spite of various challenges. This is the almost unanimous view of most interviewees. In terms of indicators developed by Grant (2014): intergenerational transmission is strong involving all age groups; the number of proficient musicians is stable; the number of people engaged with the genre is stable; the pace and direction of change reflect little or no change in strength; the music continues to be performed in well-established contexts and some new ones (like the online environment); mass media and music industry engage moderately with the genre; infrastructure and resources for creating, peforming, rehearsing and transmitting the genre are generally available and accessible; the community still holds the knowledge and skills required; the music is lightly supported through specific policies; community members support the maintenance of the genre strongly; relevant outsiders (such as western audiences and promotors) support the genre; and there is abundant, high quality documentation of the music genre.

A few initiatives to address challenges are worth mentioning. In formal school education, there have been plans to include Hindustani music in the national curriculum, but these have not been implemented yet. For college and university students, there is access to quality concerts through SPICMACAY, but rarely practical training. In the domain of the training of professional musicians, there have been discussions on the potential for Western-style conservatoires to secure the future of high-level training, or an expansion of the (very expensive) ITC/SRA gurukul model, but none of these have advanced significantly. The same goes for musicians joining forces to influence government policy: the only initiative to change this situation has been the establishment of the All India Musicians’ Group in 2009, an advocacy body consisting of leading performers of both Hindustani and Karnatak music, but it is too early to judge whether this will yield substantial results

While the lack of emphasis on Hindustani music in young people’s lives is a concern which can be addressed by either education or the media or both, there is no immediate sense that the prestige of Hindustani music is on a dangerous downturn. It is important to remember that it has always been and will probably always be an elite music, needing the support of a small group of influential, entrepreneurial people rather than mass appeal. Surprisingly, there seems to be no concerted effort to develop musical tourism. While there are many overseas music enthusiast and students, projects bringing audiences or learners to India are strikingly absent. In terms of infrastructure and regulations there are no concerted efforts, although more newly built concert venues with adequate acoustics and/or amplification are being used for concerts. Social responsibility on the rise for corporations may yield serious opportunities. Media and the music industry are largely self-regulating, and the access provided by radio broadcasts and LPs in the past has been replaced by empowered listeners who can curate their own experience through the internet, where new rich sources spring up every day.

While this may seem meagre in terms of planning, as long as the river is quiet, it may well be sufficient for a strong tradition that does not depend heavily on external intervention to ensure a sustainability rooted in respect and targeted engagement of concentric circles of musicians, avid supporters and patrons, and music lovers in India and the rest of the world, creating a surprisingly robust ecosystem for an essentially ephemeral tradition.


Close Menu