The view from India

Writer and arts critic Veejay Sai on the modern revival movement sweeping across India

Art has always been a response to society, and has never survived in isolation. We live in times when the world is divided between the superlative and the insulting; in a tumultuous era, the arts can carry a unifying voice of their own to enable the bridging of gaps.

The coming year seems bright and sunny in the world of Indian classical music. A new level of optimism has seeped into the genre, thanks to various institutions and individuals who have transformed the scene with their untiring contributions.

Some of India’s biggest arts organisations will be celebrating the anniversaries of our most famous forms. The three main classical music genres – Hindustani (North Indian), Carnatic (South Indian), and the ancient form of Dhrupad – have found new patrons at a time when everyone thought they were slowly fading out of popular culture’s limelight. A new, more techno-savvy generation has taken to them with great enthusiasm.

It’s down South that the biggest institutions are driving development. The Madras Music Academy in Chennai has just put together one of the largest archives of Carnatic music, a resource of great importance for students pursuing their academic interests in that genre. The North Indian landscape, conversely, is still highly fragmented. The ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata has produced some excellent gurus and musicians throughout its history – names such as Ustad Rashid Khan, Ulhas Kashalkar, Ajoy Chakraborty, Subhra Guha and Samarth Nagarkar – and is still growing to become a great artist training institution.

Dhrupad, an ancient genre based in chanting with instrumentalism, was long considered to be surviving on something of a life-support system, but has gained renewed vigour in recent years. This has largely been thanks to efforts of several key organisations and individuals, including the world-renowned practitioner of the Dagar Tradition, Ashish Sankrityayan, who often performs contemporary work with European folk and renaissance ensembles.

In Delhi, the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra – one of India’s premier cultural heritage, performing arts and educational institutions, formally established in 1952 – is gearing up to celebrate 100 years since the birth of its visionary founder, the late arts patron and impresario Sumitra Charat Ram. A series of events designed for this purpose, and to spread the reach of Indian classical music, include the forthcoming 68th edition of the famed annual Shriram Shankarlal Music Festival in February.

Indian classical music has an ageless, timeless quality, but despite the fact that it feels very much like a living tradition, 2014 saw much heartache as several legendary veterans of the genre made their final exit from this world.

Nedunuri Krishnamurthy was a leading proponent and teacher of the Carnatic tradition, who passed away in December. More famously, Uppalapu ‘Mandolin’ Srinivas – a giant among India’s string virtuosos and a true global trailblazer for the genre, with devoted fans including George Harrison and Michael Nyman – left an enormous hole in the Indian classical scene for his millions of fans around the world when he died in September, aged just 45.

We saw them go in front of our eyes, and we’re still realising what a small fraction of their life’s work, even with the benefit of prolific recording careers, is left behind for the world to know. If this seems a rather pessimistic note, it is: the fact remains that Indian classical music, with its long history and vast legacy, remains a largely undocumented area within global performing arts traditions. This documenting of artistic process has long been neglected in India, and so now it must become a key responsibility of the current generation – one brought up with technology and an innate marketing savvy – before that rich vein of world culture is lost forever.

On a brighter note, it seems Indian classical music has survived and thrived outside India, and sometimes looks in better shape elsewhere than within the country. State-run bodies like the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Festivals of India, which features classical music prominently, have traditionally played a key role in helping to expose uninitiated audiences to the art form. Now, in North America for example, several academic institutions like Connecticut’s Wesleyan University are carrying that baton more carefully than many institutions in India.

Another example can be found in Europe’s largest performance showcase dedicated to Indian classical music, Darbar Festival, which takes place at London’s Southbank Centre. No other single event, not even in India, features all three main genres of Indian classical music. In September 2015 Darbar celebrates 10 success- ful years, and will hopefully bring back a few established names from recent years’ programmes – stars like India’s leading female maestro, Kaushiki Chakraborty; Ustad Irshad Khan on the surbahar, which sounds like a bass sitar; and the legendary Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, who brought the santoor folk instrument on to the classical scene. For anyone seeking academic case studies on how to grow an organisation from an idea to a fully-fledged movement, Darbar is an excellent example to follow.

In Dhaka in Bangladesh, the Bengal Foundation’s annual jamboree has become a Mela of sorts, drawing together Indian classical musicians and enthusiasts in large numbers over the last few years. It’s now among the world’s largest classical music festivals in terms of performances on a single stage, audience capacity and duration, and its 2014 edition in December delivered a programme of five consecutive all-night shows featuring the likes of Amjad Ali Khan, Kishori Amonkar, Shivkumar Sharma and Kaushiki Chakrabarty. The Temple of Fine Arts in Singapore is gradually gaining momentum with its annual festival of music and dance, too.

These sorts of events are collectively helping to increase global audiences’ awareness of Indian classical music, establishing a new set of institutions that will nurture its continued growth into the future. In this tumultuous world, music can be one of our biggest armaments for a better tomorrow – as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, one of 20th century’s greatest Indian classical vocalists, said: ‘If there was a Tanpura in every household, the world wouldn’t know what terrorism is.’ This quote, although decades old, might just offer a prophetic insight into the continued healing power of music. Hopefully, 2015 will be a bright start.

Photo: rudra veena player Bahauddin Dagar © 2014 Arnhel de Serra