Tabla player Aneesh Pradhan doesn’t just bring sharp ears and nimble fingers to his music making. His music also resonates with a profound sense of history.

Even as he was learning the intricacies of his instrument under Nikhil Ghosh and perfecting it on stage as a young performer, Pradhan worked towards a PhD in history at Mumbai University. The book that resulted from his research, Hindustani Music in Colonial Bombay, described how musicians negotiated the decline in the patronage of royal courts in the 19th and early 20th centuries to create new opportunities in India’s commercial capital.

Pradhan, who is among the country’s most prominent tabla players, says that his study of history help him situate himself as a performer in a longer continuum. “When I started thinking about that, it helped me understand the changes that have taken place in the tradition and how I fitted into the larger scheme of things,” he said.

In his latest book, Chasing the Raag Dream (HarperCollins), Pradhan – who writes a weekly column for called Sonic Saturday – considers how some of the concerns he explored in his book about the colonial period are playing out in contemporary times. As new technologies and changing economic arrangements challenge traditional systems, many fear that Hindustani music is losing its purity. But in reality, says Pradhan, the tradition has always been in flux.

In this interview, the performer, composer, teacher and researcher discussed some of the themes of his book.

At the heart of the book is the question of the changing equation of art and commerce. Why did you decide to tackle this question?
I have been studying music since the age of six and have been a professional musician for the past three decades and more. I’ve been seeing a rapid transformation since the 1990s in the manner that music is disseminated, learnt and experienced. This has happened to a large extent because of technological changes. In some ways, I’ve benefitted from this transformation, as I am now able to reach out to a wider audience. But at the same time, many of these changes have impacted the Hindustani music system only in a superficial manner.

Many senior musicians and music lovers complain that the quality of Hindustani music is deteriorating. Unfortunately, they don’t realise that such critiques have also existed previously and that every generation has believed that some period in the past was the golden age.

But we now come across such comments more frequently than ever before. In these circumstances, I felt there was a need to map out the ecosystem of the Hindustani music world. I decided to take a bird’s eye view of this ecosystem, comparing what has happened in the past with what’s happening now in order to understand the kind of roadmap that could possibly be laid out.

You’re now 54 and you’ve been performing since the age of eight or so. What are the major changes you’ve seen?
Superficially, the avenues for performance have increased. The number of music circles, for instance, has increased, both in big cities and in small towns. The number of periodic concerts has also grown. But so has the number of musicians. Earlier, it was primarily hereditary musicians who were performing. Then, first-generation professional musicians like myself took the stage. Now these first-generation musicians have performers from within their own families, and other newcomers are also entering the field. So regardless of the number of events being held, it’s never going to be enough to sustain the performers.

We need to figure out whether performance is the only way you can associate with music. The guru-shishya system of course trains students to become professional musicians. But in our music classes and in the university system, students are not exposed to other avenues relating to music. While music research is pursued, a lot needs to be done in this direction for it to meet international standards. Besides, pedagogy, event management, and other subjects need to addressed in a more meaningful manner.

There’s also been a huge technological leap…
Improvements in sound technology have led to much better audio quality at concerts, but this has happened only in cases where the organisers have chosen to hire good audio equipment. Even in cases where there is good audio equipment, it is necessary to have a trained sound engineer. Most organisers do not seem to see this as a necessity even when funds are available. Sadly, musicians do not stress on these basic requirements. One can understand the predicament that young musicians face in making these demands, which are of course not unreasonable. But it is quite surprising when senior musicians of eminence do not care about this aspect.


How has the internet changed the profession of music? You can now distribute your music by yourself, as you do with Underscore Records, and even give lessons to students on another continent.
It certainly has empowered individual musicians if they choose to take advantage of the resources available to them. You could choose to make your music accessible on social media. You could also make your music commercially available without using an intermediary distributing agency. But many musicians aren’t educated enough in this context. Many have made their music accessible but aren’t seeking to optimise this commercially.

Today, many recordings accessed on the internet are not studio recordings. Who is going to book a studio for Rs 2,500 an hour for eight hours to record a CD-length album? This is why recordings of live concerts are made available on social media, even if they are of indifferent audio or video quality.

So recordings have become like advertisements for concerts?
I’m sure that happens. But in general, I think Hindustani music listeners are hypocrites. They boast how passionate they are about the music, but they rarely pay to attend concerts. In places like Delhi, concerts require you to obtain a free pass. And now that the music is freely available on the net, they don’t even have to go for concerts. Unless the musicians feel the need to be more restrained in terms what they are making available freely, it’s doing to be difficult.

This obsession about musical purity goes back a very long way…
Ideas of authenticity and purity prevailed in the past when hereditary families of musicians vied with each other for professional success in the competitive atmosphere of royal courts. For instance, the need to establish links with Tansen from the 16th century is one of the ways in which these ideas manifested themselves.

But I think the obsession with musical purity that you speak of stems from the cultural nationalism of the late 19th century, when this music was sought to be situated in an ancient past that was “pure and glorious”. It was also a time when we wanted to prove that we could do everything that the West can.

Our recordings since the early 1900s prove that interpretations of the same raag have changed drastically over time even within the same gharana. This was inevitable, since musical interpretation and elaboration has always been part of the tradition. Unfortunately, we’ve forgotten that. Consequently, whether it’s the smallest music circle or the biggest government institution, the idea of cultural nationalism shows up every so often. This is clearly noticeable in the vision statement and objectives of these bodies.

Have the last five years heightened the pressure to uphold this cultural nationalism?
If you are referring to the years from 2014 under Bharatiya Janata Party rule, I would say that they have not impacted the music per se. In fact, Hindustani music has by far been far removed from the political situation. Of course, during the national movement, you do find instances of musicians supporting the Independence struggle. But those are rare.

The aesthetic of the music has not changed because of the politics. What has changed is that several musicians have come out in the open like never before to support the ruling dispensation. That didn’t really happen before.

In the past, I had also never found performers presenting their albums or books to the prime minister or to politicians and sharing these images on social media. I had no idea these leaders were so accessible – though I’m not sure this access is granted to everybody.

Since many of these politicians don’t know anything about music, I’m not sure what this signals. I remember reading one musician’s biodata which said he had performed in the presence of former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. To me, it would be more valuable to seek the approval of a respected musician.

There is no doubt that some performers in the past have also tried to maintain links with ministers from other regimes. But the opportunism was evident and was often rewarded in the form of awards and concert engagements on government platforms. I think this continues today, but with the addition that many musicians are now openly supporting communal forces, completely forgetting the syncretic tradition that they are trained in.

In the recent past, some musicians have been voted into power, but one has yet to see them do something for the musician fraternity.


What makes a classical tradition contemporary?
The Hindustani tradition has never thought of itself as a classical tradition. Vocalists were known as performers of musical forms like dhrupad, khayal or thumri. Similarly, instrumentalists were associated with the particular instruments that they played and not with a “classical” tradition. There were specific classes of musicians who specialised in specific forms of music, but the idea of “classical music” has its origins in the colonial period.

For me, classical music as we know it today belongs to the past but is also contemporary. The poetic narratives found in song-texts may not have changed greatly, but one needs to consider the position of the song-text in multiple forms existing in this system of music: is it taken for its literal value or for its sonic value – or both. Do all gharanas think of it in the same manner? Does every individual musician belonging to the same gharana relate to the song-text in the same manner?

But I do feel that we have not been able to bring in contemporary themes. While I understand that the raag-taal paradigm is integral to the Hindustani system, it would be challenging to see how we could make changes within this structure to widen the scope. Merely shuffling items in the order of presentation won’t change anything. In some ways, a major shake-up is necessary.

Perhaps ideas could emerge through intercultural collaborations or even in Hindustani-Carnatic dialogues. But these could also prove to be unsuccessful if not workshopped over a significant period.

Aneesh Pradhan. Credit: Kartik Rathod

Does it need to be done at all?
I think that’s for the performers to decide. I sometimes feel constricted. But if I am a Hindustani performer and if I say I’m going to play a tabla solo in the traditional format, I should be able to do that. If I’m going to move out of the tradition, I should say so clearly. For me, the tradition isn’t overbearing because it has always encouraged experimentation, but to recognise and accept changes that have occurred in the past one would need to study its history. Otherwise, it would seem as if the tradition has been static over centuries and you could then fool yourself into thinking that you are the harbinger of change.

Why has it been so important for you to study history? You’ve done a PhD in the subject.
I have been interested in history right through my school and college life. But I think it was the history of Bombay that I studied at the Masters’ level that proved to be transformative. I was then in the initial period of my career as a performer. I was teaching and providing tabla accompaniment. Like all other musicians, this was an early phase in my profession had its share of challenges and struggle. I wondered then what it must have been like for performers who migrated to the city more than a century ago. What kind of challenges must they have faced? That’s when I decided to study the history of Hindustani music-making in Bombay.

My study of history greatly informed my music-making. It helped me situate myself as a performer in a longer continuum. When I started thinking about that, it helped me understand the changes that have taken place in the tradition and how I fitted into the larger scheme of things.

The research that I have been involved in is helpful when I curate repertoire for special programmes. Had I not known of the existence of the Parsi Gayan Uttejak Mandali [a club that started in the 19th century to encourage Parsi families to learn and perform music], I would never been able to recreate their first jalsa. In Stories in a Song [a stage presentation produced by our record label Underscore Records and Arpana theatre group and directed by Sunil Shanbag], my wife Shubha Mudgal and I sought to present historical vignettes that many had forgotten.

A promo for 'Stories in a Song', the stage presentation produced by Underscore Records, the label run by Pradhan and his wife, Shubha Mudgal.

My efforts at understanding the past have informed the manner in which I try to teach students to respond to musical repertoire as an integral part of their lives, rather than something that happens in a vacuum. I have about 25 students, most of whom want to make their lives in music. Choosing music as a profession is a big risk and there are many lonely moments in this journey. I feel it is important for a teacher to not just teach repertoire but to apprise students of the creative and professional challenges. But this has to be done in a way that they are not dissuaded in their musical pursuit. I feel the one way I can do that is to tell them to look back 50 years, 100 years, for guidance. In a sense, therefore, the study of history has hopefully taught me to be a more responsive and responsible teacher.

How do you see the future of this music? Many people have floated apocalyptic scenarios.
I think as long people in every generation are willing to set aside time to learn this music and to have the tenacity to grapple with creative and extra-musical challenges, I think one can always be positive.

'Bridge of Dreams', a musical collaboration between Australian and Indian musicians, including Shubha Mudgal (voice, composition), Aneesh Pradhan (tabla, composition), Sandy Evans (saxophones, composition, orchestration), Sirens Big Band, Bobby Singh (tabla) and Sudhir Nayak (harmonium).