Kesarbai Kerkar, one of the most prominent vocalists of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, was known as much for her genius and brilliance as she was for her mercurial temper and her ability to publicly downsize those she felt were a nuisance.
One such account that old-timers always narrated concerned a certain minister who received a message from his secretary just as Kerkar’s concert was about to begin. Not one to be held back, she chastised the minister in public and informed him that this was her performance space and not his office. She made it amply clear that he would have to leave or then sit through the concert. To his credit, the minister did not leave the venue.
The reason I mentioned this incident was to focus attention on a section of the audience that attends only to be seen by others as patrons and connoisseurs of the arts rather than to listen to the music. Such “listeners” have been present in concerts for several decades as is obvious from previous critiques.
In the sixth volume of his Kramik Pustak Malika published in the early part of the twentieth century, music educationist Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande comments that the modern age was fast-paced and listeners did not have time to enjoy night-long concerts. These listeners continuously had their eyes on the time and their wristwatches, often also discussing matters relating to finance while the music was in progress.
Similar listeners can be seen in present-day concerts as they message or speak on their mobiles during concerts with complete disregard for the music and the performers. Sadly, one also comes across musicians in the audience and even on stage displaying such poor etiquette.
In the second episode of our series on audience response to Hindustani music concerts, let me now move on to a more recent incident that took place in Gwalior and raised the ire of many Hindustani music aficionados. Briefly, this is regarding a sudden interruption to a vocal concert last week that was underway at the annual Tansen Samaroh, organised by the Ustad Allauddin Khan Sangeet Kala Academy, Madhya Pradesh Sanskriti Parishad, Bhopal, for the Department of Culture, Madhya Pradesh government.
The interruption was caused by an 18-minute speech delivered by Jyotiraditya Scindia, a Member of Parliament. The incident can be seen unfolding from around 1.17.00” at the following link:
Improvisation is an integral part of Hindustani music, but no one was obviously prepared for such an unpleasant improvisatory passage. Shocking, shameful, disgraceful, deplorable, are some of the adjectives used on social media to condemn the incident. What seems to have angered people even more is the fact that Scindia, a scion of a royal family that was known to have been patron to numerous celebrated musicians over the past two centuries, had disrespected the music and musician by this intrusion.
The fact that he did not recognise the difference between the tanpura and the sitar only further upset Hindustani music lovers.
Social media platforms have empowered musicians and members of the general public to express their displeasure about such incidents, so this is definitely a welcome change to mute acceptance in earlier cases. But more pertinently, should these concerned voices treat these incidents as aberrations or a natural corollary of the apathy for the arts that is almost all-pervasive among politicians across party lines.
Obviously, the fact that Scindia moved from the Indian National Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party, a party that prides itself in preserving and propagating its idea of Indian culture, did not seem to inform the MP about basic courtesy required in a concert.
However, as I mentioned earlier, this has nothing to do with individual political parties and their ideologies or the lack of them. It has to do with total indifference and discourtesy that is evident from their public references to musicians as naachne-gaanewale and more. In fact, there are several occasions when bureaucrats are even served tea and snacks during concerts. Politicians when in power also include their photographs on posters and billboards for government-sponsored concerts while the performers are relegated to the background.
I have experienced a situation several years ago while performing in one of the largest and hallowed of music festivals in Punjab. I was invited by a senior instrumentalist to accompany him on the tabla. He was in the midst of his aalaap when a politician walked in surrounded by his coterie of followers. Evidently, desperate to please the politician, the organisers immediately rushed to the musician and asked him to stop for a while as they wished to provide the politician with time and space to deliver a speech to the large crowd that had gathered there.
Unfortunately, the musician was too polite to protest and walk away and I could not leave him in the lurch. He could resume his recital only after the speech ended after a good ten minutes or so.
Aside from the discourtesy on the part of such politicians, what should be the role of organisers? Should they kowtow to the whims and fancies of the politicians and compromise on their avowed ideals of preserving and promoting music? What should the performers do in such cases, whether they are senior and established or otherwise? There are traditional compositions and new ones can be composed too to describe and criticise boorish behaviour and the lack of knowledge on the part of organisers, politicians, bureaucrats or even ill-mannered musicians.
What should be the role of those who constantly project themselves as protectors of this heritage and are quick to criticise musicians for their indifferent performance? They remain silent in the face of such abominable behaviour, worse still rub shoulders with the very people in power who insult this hoary tradition, and act as curators and critics for the very organisations that make short shrift of the arts.
It would be an insult to good music if it were to be featured along with the description of distasteful events such as the ones I have described above. I will, therefore, end here without any tracks that I normally add to my column.
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.