We are in the best of times, we are in the worst of times. We are making in India, and also breaking in India. In ways that are not often obvious, we are being told how to be patriotic, or worse, nationalistic. The latest of these is the idea of levying Goods and Services Tax – a single nationwide tax replacing all state and Central taxes that came into effect on July 1 – on musical instruments that are not indigenous.
Idiosyncratically enough, this 28% rate is applicable on instruments that are not handmade and not Indian – including, for instance, the violin, which is widely used in Indian classical and film music. It has not been included on a list of 134 instruments that are considered Indian and hence exempt from the Goods and Services Tax. Nearly 60% of that list, though, consists of instruments that have not been played for the past two centuries, making this exemption a bit eccentric.
At the root of this categorisation, though, is a basic problem: music itself has taken multicultural influences over the centuries and differentiating between the purely Indian and purely Western would probably necessitate the formation of an expert panel of historians and musicologists. Despite the GST rules, Indian music is played on a variety of instruments with their origins in the West: the guitar, the saxophone, the mandolin, the violin and, of course, the piano, which is my instrument of choice.
Imagine the situation Padmavathi S, a Carnatic violin teacher in Chennai, finds herself in. Her violin is going to cost 28% more, despite her protestations that the music she is making is unquestionably Indian. A basic violin of reasonable quality was priced at upwards of Rs 2,500, before the new levy but will now cost Rs 3,200 and more. She did not take kindly to my suggestion that she might consider shifting to the “sangu” (Indian conch shell) or maybe even the “algozha (double flute)”.
While the affluent customer is unlikely to baulk at this because of his or her love for the instrument, the majority of the violin’s customer base belongs to the Great Indian middle class, especially in South India.
For those planning to buy more expensive instruments such as the piano, the import duty and the Goods and Services Tax put together make it absolutely prohibitive to even consider buying one. Pianists should immediately consider alternative careers in stand-up comedy (in Tamil or in Hindi, naturally, because English plays attract Goods and Services Tax whereas Indian language plays do not).
In commodifying instruments based on their place of origin, we have now introduced a rather young elephant into an already crowded room. Play an Indian instrument, and play Indian music. If you make the unforgivable mistake of playing jazz or Western classical music, semi-classical or film or any genre that is not purely homegrown as decided by the powers that be, pay the price.
The effects will be felt in a variety of situations. Musical instrument retailers to whom I spoke forecast a decline in sales between 12% and 20% year-on-year. They also fear the impact on music education. Students are worried about taking up keyboard or violin lessons as most teachers expect them to buy their own instruments, which have now become unaffordable to many. The decline in enrolment for music classes this academic year was pegged at 15% among teachers to whom I spoke. This means that we are losing out on considerable instrumental talent in our country.
Unfortunately for most of us, music continues to be a passion. Apart from those who derive their livelihoods from it, it is an important aspect of human endeavour, and one of the most vibrant aspects of being alive. As a pianist, I might have to start a campaign to claim the South Asian origins of my beloved instrument of choice. The alternative, it seems, would be to shift to playing the conch.
Anil Srinivasan is a pianist who lives in Chennai.