Hindustani music certainly benefitted with the spread of broadcasting across the country. The tenure of B.V. Keskar (1903-1984) as minister of information and broadcasting from 1952 to 1962 was particularly relevant to the status that this system of music and its performers achieved on All India Radio. For Keskar, film music was alien to Indian culture and was an ‘exotic cocktail’ of many kinds of music with limited appeal. He strongly believed in a constant endeavour to accord classical music its rightful place in Indian society. Having studied Hindustani music, Keskar was keen on promoting it on radio, particularly because he believed the musical heritage of India had been adversely affected due to Muslim rulers and Muslim musicians, a sentiment that had been expressed since the late nineteenth century by individuals within the Indian intelligentsia, who had worked towards establishing Indian art music as a symbol of an ancient Hindu-Sanskritic past.

Keskar’s blinkered attitude towards film and art music impacted AIR’s policy and gave Hindustani music a boost during his tenure as minister. He inducted respected writers, poets, musicians and dramatists on staff-artistes’ contracts and appointed them as ‘producers’ in AIR, instead of restricting them to the earlier post of ‘performers’. The first National Programme of Music was broadcast on 20 July 1952 and continues to be broadcast every weekend even to this day. In October 1952, the National Orchestra of AIR was set up in Delhi, with Ravi Shankar as conductor. T.K. Jairama Iyer joined as the second conductor. The first Radio Sangeet Sammelan was broadcast in October 1955 and continues to be an annual feature even till today.

But Keskar’s term was also vitiated by the new policy that sought to grade musicians irrespective of their public stature. According to Jawhar Sircar, this policy initiated by Keskar was to enable the State to ‘take over the role of princely patrons and ensure fair play, through a system of “grading” artists to ensure that the best received their just dues’. In September 1952, at Mumbai, 400 musicians from western India were required to undergo audition tests in the period of a week. But the performers considered the procedure followed by the specially appointed audition panel, headed by noted scholar-musician S.N. Ratanjankar (1900-1974), as arbitrary and disrespectful. They registered their protest through a countrywide agitation with Mumbai at its epicentre. A musicians’ organization called Bharatiya Sangit Kalakar Mandal was set up in 1953, with eminent vocalist Vilayat Hussain Khan (1895-1962) as its president, vocalist Kausalya Manjeshwar (1922–2007) as secretary, and businessman and sitar player Arvind Parikh as joint secretary. A decision was taken to stop broadcasting and to picket outside the Mumbai radio station until the policy was replaced with one that treated musicians with respect. The agitation ended in 1955 and a settlement was reached. The audition policy was altered to incorporate a screening process, which was not demeaning to performers. This agitation aside, many praised AIR for rendering yeoman’s service to Hindustani music. But there have been mixed responses from some quarters. Writing in the 1940s, commentator S.K. Chaubey discussed the potential of the broadcasting medium and its relevance to art music:

“It can teach music to its listeners and help them to appreciate it better. It can engage first-rate musicians whose duty would be to train a small group of promising and talented musicians and also broadcast special music on special occasions according to an intelligent plan. It can do immense propaganda for it and also raise public opinion on this issue.”

But Chaubey found AIR wanting in its contribution to art music:

“I grant that the A.I.R. has not failed to popularize Indian music and Indian musicians. Apart from making them presentable, it has entertained its listeners too. But this is hardly satisfactory. The Radio in India has made no solid contribution to the development and progress of Indian music. Like the film company, the Radio knows how to entertain its listeners. But in doing so it shapes their likes and dislikes. It teaches them to develop a habitual indifference towards classical music. It does not care for that negligible minority which shouts the slogans of classical music.”  

With this as a brief historical backdrop to the role of AIR in broadcasting Hindustani music, it would be worthwhile to turn to the present situation.

According to its website, since its inception, AIR has been informing, educating and entertaining the masses. The website mentions the promotion of the nation’s composite culture as one of its key objectives. With a network of 262 radio stations, AIR is today accessible to almost the entire population of the country and heard in nearly 92 per cent of the total area. AIR operates eighteen FM stereo channels called AIR FM Rainbow, which target urban audiences, and four more FM channels called AIR FM Gold, which broadcast news and entertainment programmes from Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai. The website states that AIR plays a very important role in the propagation and preservation of classical music. AIR also organizes annual music competitions for young performers.

Despite the extent of radio coverage across the length and breadth of the country and the avowed objective of promoting culture in general and art music in particular, there has been a sharp decline in the broadcasts of Hindustani music in the past few years. In 2012, Leeladhar Mandloi, director general of AIR, while addressing a seminar explained that AIR had to contend with a multitude of musical forms for which it had already allocated 40 per cent of the transmission time. The increase in the number of performers and the need to include all kinds of cultural programmes without restricting broadcasts to music recordings was a challenging task, even if there were a few channels exclusively dedicated to music. He mentioned that AIR had to work within strict parameters and therefore could not accommodate certain professional terms that were demanded by top-notch performers, who he would have liked to invite for radio broadcasts. Instead, he put the ball in the court of these musicians, exhorting them to relax their terms and treat the promotion of art music as a joint responsibility by accepting the contractual arrangement provided by AIR.

It may be appropriate to point out that Vividh Bharati, a commercial service of AIR launched in 1957 known for its broadcasts of old and new Hindi film songs in a variety of programmes, had also included limited broadcasts of art music within the list of specially curated programmes. The two main programmes that included such broadcasts were Sangeet Sarita and Anuranjani. Of these, Sangeet Sarita was particularly popular, but the number of new episodes for this programme declined. Mandloi explained that the programme featured 250 episodes, after which it had to be wrapped up because, according to him, ‘classical music is not something like Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. It has to come to an end.’ He was referring to the multi-episode soap opera that had been telecast on a privately owned television channel over a very long period of time.

To many, Mandloi’s response to the concerns voiced by musicians and music lovers may appear insensitive. Indeed, some believe that this insensitivity is exhibited by other officials in the organization too. Bhaskar Chandavarkar (1936-2009), eminent music composer and sitar player, stated:

“The officials who manage the media establishment are often oblivious of the problems that arise out the [sic] control over the trade of music. Those people who were entrusted with the responsibility of spreading the art ought to be broad-minded enough to acknowledge the need for artiste’s freedom and be caring towards the future of music. Unfortunately, most of them have not been so. It is possible therefore that some irrevocable changes in the field of music have set in and all these changes are not necessarily good.”  

Many of the musicians and listeners I have interacted with have rued the fact that Hindustani music broadcasts have reduced over the years. This has also been my own experience as a listener since the 1970s and as a performer since the late 1980s until now. In light of what seems to be a desperate situation for Hindustani music broadcasts on AIR, musicians who had earlier regarded AIR as a prime avenue of spreading their music, are now disappointed that the institution is not as supportive as it was earlier.

There was also a time when musicians could avail of recording opportunities outside the jurisdiction of their home station and across two or three cities. Such opportunities were called chain bookings. These were stopped several years ago, probably because of the increase in the number of musicians in other cities too. But the reduction in the number of periodic recordings within one’s own city or town is not an encouraging sign. The increase in fees over time provides little solace in this situation.

Furthermore, there have been no changes in the contractual terms offered by AIR. They remain one-sided, favouring the broadcaster, with no mention of the organization’s obligations or the rights of the musicians. Clause 5 of the conditions referred to in the offer of engagement is an example of this inequitable arrangement:

“All India Radio shall have the absolute right of rejection of all or any part of the entertainment submitted by the Artist and shall not be called upon to give any reasons for any such rejection. Should the Station Director reject all or any part of such entertainment the Artist shall with all despatch submit other matter or material in place of that rejected for the approval of All India Radio.”  

Successive governments have seen legal luminaries holding ministerial positions in the Central Cabinet, but no one seems to have found it necessary to revisit these terms and amend them in keeping with current international standards. This is also completely at variance with the range of copyright laws in India, which suitably empower artistes. It would seem, therefore, that while the law empowers artistes, the public broadcaster divests them of their rights. The sad truth is that even musicians are blissfully unaware of the terms that they are offered, and they often accept the contracts. Understandably, caught as they are in a situation that does not augur well for bright career prospects, an opportunity to broadcast and earn a recording fee is probably what matters most to them.

Notwithstanding the gradation policy that was introduced after the historic musicians’ agitation in the 1950s and the new gradation policy that was initiated in 2014, rumours of nepotism and corrupt practices continue in hushed tones among candidates aspiring for higher grades. Musicians who have attained seniority in age and experience feel belittled to have to apply for upgradation, particularly to the top grade. We cannot circumvent a system that has been put in place, but some believe that AIR needs to revisit the system to allow for upgradation without evaluating performers afresh. Most of all, some feel that there is a need to establish transparency in the process of choosing and appointing members of the audition committees at the local and central levels.

Excerpted with permission from Chasing the Raag Dream, Aneesh Pradhan, Harper Collins.