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  Opinion   Columnists  22 May 2021  Shailaja Khanna | Old-world musicians need a helping hand

Shailaja Khanna | Old-world musicians need a helping hand

Published : May 23, 2021, 12:05 am IST
Updated : May 23, 2021, 12:05 am IST

The passing away of several senior musicians due to the virus is another cause of depression in the community

 Girija Devi singing in the intimate baithak style at Sankat Mochan temple, Banaras.   — RAKESH SINHA
  Girija Devi singing in the intimate baithak style at Sankat Mochan temple, Banaras. — RAKESH SINHA

Eight-year-old Partho struggles to overcome sleep as he is gently woken up as usual at 5 am to start his daily practice of vocal scales for 30 minutes. Up and down, concentrating hard to get the correct pitch, it’s a chore he completes, as he has been told time and time again that he is blessed to have inherited the family music genes. His mother, lying in bed, listens resentfully; her baby practising to prepare for a professional career in music seems a total waste of time. Her husband, acknowledged as one of the finest harmonium players in the country hasn’t had a paid concert in months.

Once, an eagerly sought after accompanist whose concert diary was booked 20 days in a month, Anirban (name changed) has had to break four preciously saved FDs to keep the family stove lit. Hospitalisation of his sister due to Covid complications added to the already stretched budget. Things don’t look to be improving in the near future, with predictions of a Third Wave destroying the hope that in 2021 his life would “normalise”.


Twenty-three-year-old Imtiaz lives in a small house, shared with eight other family members, behind the Jama Masjid area in old Delhi. He has trained for 18 years to be a singer. His uncle was a very erudite vocalist; with over 100 disciples. All his life he had heard his uncle say, music is a sacred art, handed down to us through the generations, whose ultimate goal is “ruh ko maalik se jorrna”.To “connect” to a Raga, and to achieve the correct usage of notes, one needs to withdraw from the outside world and to go inwards, introspect, constantly repeat and practise, then finally, the Raga emerges. It takes a long time; one must be single minded. Today, with no expectation of any concerts or income, Imtiaz queries “we are told today, use technology to connect to a new audience; you can reach the whole world! But where did we have the time to acquire these skills, useful to a performer of today? Like handling technology, knowing how to record oneself, public relations… we were told to stay away from all this and to focus on the music. Concerts would follow; organisations are there whose job is to showcase your talent. Become worthy of them. Bas hamme to ye sikhaaya gaya tha…” he trails off.


Things are no better for the established, seasoned performers. A disconsolate senior vocalist shared, “Right now, teaching online classes is how most of us spend our time. But it’s a compromise. Our traditions are not meant to be passed on like this. It’s distorting the whole point of it all.

Learning music, you need the eye contact to see the Guru’s expressions, to copy the exact nuance. Hearing it through a device is not the same. Yet, I need to ensure that the training continues, the students continue their practice; one can’t let long gaps come in, and they need to connect at least weekly with me. I really pray this doesn’t last long.”


But some of the problems in the world of the arts are self-inflicted, and not linked only to the present crisis. A senior sarod exponent said, “My generation has not tried to create a new audience; or even nurture an existing audience, specially in the smaller towns and cities. The classical arts are meant for a niche audience; they can never be for mass entertainment.

But exposure to the music of masters results in acquiring a taste for the art, which then needs to be fuelled by periodic concerts. That’s how, in the past, we have had great centres of music like Banaras, Patna, Lucknow, Tanjore.

Nowadays, only needy artists, who may not be great performers, agree to perform in places where the fees are not good enough. Over the last 30 years, this has affected the audience size, which has really shrunk. Many major music festivals are free as only a limited handful of artistes have the drawing power to sell tickets. A handful of popular artists have slowly, steadily, hiked up their fees over the years, even though they are aware that the tickets sales don’t justify their fees.”


The passing away of several senior musicians due to the virus is another cause of depression in the community. Sixty-four-year-old Pt Sajan Mishra, younger of the famed Mishra duo, rues the unexpected passing away of his elder brother Rajan Mishra due to Covid complications. “It’s been 54 years since we have sung together; I can’t imagine the concert stage without him.

He went so fast; jab tak soch paayen, sab kuch khatam ho gaya tha. Hamne 2-3 din bahut haath pairr maare. We tried so many hospitals — Medanta, Fortis… by the time we were offered a ventilator bed at AIIMS, it was too late, he had had a heart attack in the morning and it was considered dangerous to move him. It’s God’s will; the new DRDO 750-bed hospital in Banaras is named after him, but he is no more. In our country we really need to focus on and spend on education and healthcare; other things can wait.”


Who knows what the future holds? An economic recovery would surely help, but perhaps the solution lies in encouraging a shift to new mores — from those mindless do’s and don’ts that go against the grain of initiative and artistic freedom, and keep away younger audiences.

Tags: old-world musicians, pt sajan mishra, rajan mishra, harmonium players, senior musicians, career in music, erudite vocalist