Several years ago, an acquaintance set up a meeting for me to talk to a filmmaker about the possibilities of creating a documentary series on various kinds of traditional music in India. I was happy that someone was even willing to consider the idea, as it is not often that one comes across established filmmakers who would want to explore this area given its esoteric nature and the lack of funding for such projects.
I was, of course, aware that filmmakers in the past had made films of this nature, but this was to be considered as a series of short films and not just one.
I approached the meeting with a lot of optimism, but soon realised that I was living in a fool’s paradise. Contrary to what I had thought, the discussion that followed did not focus on the overarching concept of the series, the possible themes, kinds of music, and such other ideas. I mentioned the need to make a well-produced documentary series that informed viewers of fact and not fiction about music-making.
The gentleman heard me out patiently, but he had come armed with a single question. He asked, “Do you know of anything that is dying?” I was taken aback by what seemed like a downright superficial question. On asking him what he meant by that, I was informed in plain terms that what sells is death – the death of a tradition, the death of an instrument, the death of a musical form. In short, I was told that any kind of death and extinction attracts the attention of funding agencies and of the viewers.
Selling an idea
It took me some time to recover from this transactional approach to considering what was worthy of capturing on film. Thankfully, there have been exquisite documentary films made in the past that outweigh this shallow perspective, but those have been few and far between given the challenges that filmmakers have to face with regard to funding. Unfortunately, here was a person who had access to funds, but had no conceptual framework except to explore possibilities of selling an idea.
Perhaps, I did not meet the right person, but I ask myself why I should have been surprised by this encounter. For a long time now, we have spoken about the need to preserve our traditions. In his opening address at the inauguration of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1953, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the Union minister for education, said:
“India’s precious heritage of music, drama and dance is one which we must cherish and develop. We must do so not only for our own sake but also as our contribution to the cultural heritage of mankind. Nowhere is it truer than in the field of art that to sustain means to create. Traditions cannot be preserved but can only be created afresh. It will be the aim of this Akademi to preserve our traditions by offering them an institutional form...”
The Akademi also mentions “preserving and promoting the vast intangible heritage of India’s diverse culture expressed in the forms of music, dance and drama” to be its role as “the apex body in the field of performing arts in the country”.
The assertion that traditions cannot be preserved per se, but that the task can be accomplished by institutionalising them is contradictory. However, the important question is whether traditions should be preserved in the first place. The idea of preservation suggests not just sustenance but also implies that the status quo be maintained. This is clearly opposed to creativity expected of any arts practice.
Crucial questions, therefore, need to be asked periodically in this context by those involved in arts practices and even by the rest of society. Whose traditions are we referring to? What do we mean by preservation? Have we asked practitioners of these traditions as to what they feel about the idea of preservation, how they would like this to be achieved if at all, what part of the traditions would they like to see changed, and how would these changes be executed?
Evidently, there are no obvious answers to these questions, but notably, practitioners are integral to this discussion as they are the most significant stakeholders. Earlier, practitioners were restricted to members of families pursuing traditional arts practices as hereditary occupations. There has been a huge shift in the 20th century with the original custodians of these practices being joined or even replaced by those outside these families.
The reasons for this shift are many and need a separate discussion, but for now, we have to accept the reality that the idea of preservation needs to be reviewed, particularly in the context of tectonic changes that we have experienced after digital technology has become an inseparable part of our lives.
However, public institutions, private organisations, individuals supporting the arts, those documenting traditional arts practices and others, have treated preservation as a catchword not just to describe the scope and relevance of their work but to also garner further funding. This is true equally of individuals and agencies who build conceptual frameworks around the idea of preservation.
A colonial hangover
In many ways, this seems like a colonial hangover, where everyone adopts what I see as an explorer stance, going out into the field like colonial explorers to dig out remnants of dying traditions and showcasing them as exhibits. They compete among themselves to “discover” these traditions and to project them to the world at large.
Those practitioners who are savvy about the latest technology go a step further to enter what they tout as collaborations with those involved in traditional arts practices. But these are in fact ways to project themselves as saviours of near-extinct forms and practitioners, and to enrich their own artistic content.
The fact that these collaborations enrich the artistic content of those who initiate and fund such projects is welcome and probably much-needed in many cases, but the effort is to project the endeavour as one that empowers traditional arts practitioners. The latest technology to document and disseminate traditional knowledge, superb production values, and design elements to enhance the beauty of the original work, are mentioned as necessary factors for keeping these traditions alive and making them accessible widely.
A vital question
While many of these factors could help, one needs to ask a vital question. What was the nature of conversations with practitioners, if indeed there were such conversations, for them to arrive at a choice of how to shape the trajectory of their arts practices? Sadly, as with most other cases, one who generates the funding gets to choose the way forward – or shall we say backward?
To sum it up, the focus is on projecting dying traditions and not living traditions, because living traditions do not need resuscitation. They need respect and attention and not sympathy.
Many will be quick to point out that some practitioners have willingly agreed to such collaborations or have accepted these ways of documenting their work or have even initiated such efforts as and when they have been able to generate the funds. Indeed, they could truly want to collaborate and introduce changes to their arts practices, but it would be worthwhile to examine whether their decisions have been arrived at for want of professional opportunities and funding.
This is not to suggest that practitioners have to perforce accept such circumstances or that they do so contrary to what they would have liked to do otherwise. But one needs to inquire if they would have been more comfortable doing what they have always done or if they would have introduced changes in a manner that was at variance to what they were expected to fall in line with by their so-called collaborators or by funding agencies.
We end with an interview of Rasoolan Bai, a well-known exponent of thumri, dadra, tappa, and seasonal forms. She is interviewed by the noted vocalist Naina Devi. This interview and the accompanying performance were documented for the Sangeet Natak Akademi.
One of India’s leading tabla players, Aneesh Pradhan is a widely recognised performer, teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani music. Visit his website here.
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