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December 19, 2020

I am no expert on Indian classical music, despite having trained in it’s South Indian form for nearly 20 years.

What I do possess instead, if I may call it so, is a nuanced ear for classical music. Having been born a South Indian but bred completely in the North, I have stood slap bang in between these two worlds. This has allowed me to not just embrace but consume music from all parts with an insatiable appetite, lapping it up with little need to cultivate a taste. 

Being part of the music industry as a professional, of course adds the dimension of understanding music as an enterprise.  

So, after having insured myself from any criticism that may come my way by means of this long prelude, here are my thoughts on the evolving landscape of Indian classical music. I hope this will serve as an encouraging analysis for all musicians, and help them find their place in it.

Every prominent art form will have multiple facets, many variants and of course several off-shoots. From the purest form to it’s most experimental one, and everything in between, each has it’s own standing and it’s own audience. It would be prudish to say that anything that is not delivered within the strict structure of Indian classical music, is a diluted and hence a lesser form. 

Let us look at where we are currently and what the future looks like, through these 10 statement questions.

Lineage and purity is important to me. But I want to be relevant in the current times as well. Is that possible?

Why should these statements be mutually exclusive? These are not points at opposite ends of a spectrum. What drives relevance is how you own a certain space as a musician, while constantly keeping an eye on changing trends.

How diverse is your audience, how young is your audience, how globally spread is your audience, how technologically savvy is your audience. These typically hint at the kind of ‘relevance’ a musician seeks. One will rarely say that your music is irrelevant. It is what one does with it that matters.

So as long as one is ticking the boxes of social media engagement, putting out music on digital platforms, innovating in presentation, you will be able to own a slice of the pie. However small it may be, it will be yours and it will be relevant. 

I like the idea of collaboration, fusing styles and experimenting. Will it help make me a ‘global’ musician?

The concept of collaboration and experimentation is not new to Indian classical music and there are countless examples from decades ago; such as MS Subbulaskhmi who was perhaps one of the earliest Carnatic musicians to sing Hindi bhajans and popularise them, and the all so familiar work of Pandit Ravi Shankar, and so many more. Why there was the 20th century Carnatic composer Muthaiah Bhagvathar who composed the English Note, influenced by the sounds of the West!

Experimentation and collaboration are simply ways for musicians to stretch and expand the boundaries of their creative expression and constantly challenge themselves. It is however not a ticket to going global, that itself being a very elusive idea. As long as the innovation stems from a sense of truly seeking a new purpose to the music, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience for the musicians as well as audiences. 

Ever since musicians saw the potential of making a mark by working with their international counterparts, the idea of ‘fusion’ was reduced to adding that western element to one’s music or engaging in an impromptu jam with another of a completely different musical style. While there is a certain allure to extemporised and spontaneous music making, even there, I do believe, purpose must be at the centre. The story of how Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass’s album ‘Passages’ was born is a great example of a faithful effort in fusing two styles of music. 

So, yes these are options worth exploring, but it would be unfortunate if they were seen as the only way to gain fame and popularity. There are many musicians who have kept away from any kind of deviation or experimentation and are recognised as icons of classical music.

There is little scope for original music in Indian classical music. How can I then make original music?

It is true that Indian classical music has not seen a lot of new composers and songwriters. The music is largely an improvised form with elements like raga and tala forming the backbone. Compositions have been based on devotional lyrics, songs depicting emotions or rasas, folk lore, songs of seasons, all written by great musician-composers of the yore. 

But the system itself does not restrict one from writing or composing. The art form relies heavily on creative expression or manodharma, and composition is an important ingredient. 

It is in fact an imperative ingredient for an evolving musical tradition. We must keep adding and enriching the legacy.

It is not everyone’s cup of tea though. But for those who have the talent and skill to write and compose, it must be encouraged. There are many well-known musicians who have composed a raga of their own or have several compositions to their credit. These slowly become part of a growing repertoire as students and other musicians adopt it. Younger musicians too must be encouraged to compose and write as part of their creative learning. The notion that such attempts can be made only after a certain age, or after having arrived as a successful musician, is misplaced. It must be viewed as part of continuous learning. Listening to other musical styles, travelling, digging deep into our own texts, are great ways to find the inspiration to create.

However, a cultural shift is also necessary, and I hope senior musicians and teachers would come forward and motivate younger musicians to create original music. 

I want to create a genre of my own, which has its roots in Indian classical music.

This seems to be quite the trend nowadays, but one very few are able to achieve successfully. By definition, a genre must be a category of music that is distinguishable from other musical styles and has significant elements that can be built upon for it to hold its own as an independent sound.

Just a collective sound of different musical elements doesn’t constitute a new genre. The outcome ought to be an entirely original and previously unheard, composite sound.

For Indian classical music to be the base for any new genre, I would imagine the structure would have to change entirely. Consider what percussionist-composer Viveick Rajagopalan did with his album ‘Ta Dhom Project’. On the face of it, one might think this is just an intermingling of konnakol, the mridangam and hip-hop. However what you have instead, is a perfect synthesis of every element, none outshining the other. This as yet unnamed sound, is a perfect example of a new genre in the making. 

Where are the real pandits and ustads? Have we lost that generation of musicians who have taken Indian classical music to great heights? Are there any legends in the making?

Pandits and ustads signify a certain stature and recognition of one’s talent. The tradition has been for these titles to be conferred as honours and not meant for artists to assign to themselves. 

Having said that, my personal view is that the greatness of a musician should not be judged by these titles. I would contend that we do away with these titles entirely and let the music do its job. 

There is an incredible amount of talent in Indian classical music and an entire generation of young musicians, in whose hands the future looks bright. With technology and access only growing, the reach and impact they can make is far more than before.

However, legends are a different breed altogether. It goes beyond their excellence in the craft; it is about the contributions they make to music. It is perhaps how the pandits and ustads came to be in the first place. And every few decades, one comes across prodigious musicians, who go on to become trailblazers. Kaushiki Chakraborty and Ranjani-Gayatri are some female vocalists who immediately come to mind, not to forget the late mandolin genius U Srinivas.   

The entire system is like a cluster of cliques. It is very difficult to be accepted and even harder to make a mark on one’s own. 

Cliques are not unique to the classical fraternity alone. It is an unfortunate by-product of any growing sector. One of the reasons for its prevalence in Indian classical music is lineage. A large proportion of the musicians come from families of musicians, and it becomes easy for organisations to develop close ties with these musicians because they come with a certain pedigree.

However, hard as it might be, this aspect is changing. Artists can now be seen and heard without the need to seek acceptance among these cliques. Almost always, good music cannot be ignored and using self-empowering platforms such as Youtube, social media, and taking control over one’s music through self distribution, can prove very effective.

I will add though, that it has become much easier than before to consume music. The points of access are innumerable and that simply means listeners have a lot to choose from. So standing apart can be a challenge.

Telling a story through your music is an excellent way to establish a unique position; which is to say, making aspects of your personality show through your music. It is the best kind of positioning for a musician because it is what comes naturally to them, as opposed to a PR expert building an image that isn’t you.

Can we expect Indian classical music to become a more professionally operated system like the one Bollywood or international music has? 

That has always been my hope and I am glad to see that things are changing, albeit very slowly. We will need to move out of the habit of employing our students, friends and family as managers and agents. The reason that practice still continues is, the role is looked at like that of a glorified assistant. 

Musicians will need to see value in having managers, agents and lawyers. We must insist on higher professional standards, be it securing the right fee, negotiating contracts, safeguarding rights and interests or hygiene elements like technical rider, profile development, communication styles, payment transparency etc.  

This does not apply to only established artists but anyone who has chosen this to be their career. We are still far away from a system that dictates professionalism to an extent that weeds out those who don’t comply or wields enough control for everyone to fall into line. However, as more and more musicians travel, read and experience the benefits of a more professionally managed system, this is bound to change.

Will acceptance among the purists become a problem if I break-away from tradition?

I am not sure there is any right or wrong answer here. It depends on what we imply by ‘breaking away’. If it is a departure from conventional practices, such as the much debated concert format in Carnatic music, providing equal billing status for accompanists, making music caste-free, then I would hardly term such things as tradition. They seem like rules created to inhibit and curtail. I would hope that those who want to break such conventions, would grow in numbers. Not to prove a point or for the sake of it; but quite simply because such practices are redundant. 

However, if we speak of experimenting with the very foundation of classical music, such as adding foreign notes to a raga, taking a piece and adapting it to film or, abandoning an age-old melody and making it your own, then, yes, you are not making the purists happy. But if you have been bold enough to go there, I would think you are not seeking such acceptance either.

Are we witnessing an image-change in classical music that is less orthodox and prohibitive?

That would be a resounding yes. From how musicians dress, how they have honed their stage-craft, the unconventional venues they perform in, the way they connect with fans or audiences, right down to doing away with the dual-persona phenomena that has long plagued the art form, there is a change. Platforms like First Edition Arts and Madrasana do a fantastic job of presenting classical music with great production value and using themes that are more relatable for audiences. 

Why can’t Indian classical music be more popular and mainstream, with more journalists, TV channels, shows, radio plays, brand engagements etc.?

Indian classical music in its original avatar may never become completely mainstream but there is certainly opportunity for it to find more air time and screen time! 

Despite all the criticism it invited, the TV series Bandish Bandits was a master stroke in terms of placing classical music in a popular format, although I had my reservations on how some aspects were presented.

Brands such as Taj Mahal, continue to stand by their association with classical music and have been quick to adapt to the younger generation, with Nirali Kartik, a hugely popular singer and one half of the band Maati Baani, as their new face.

As long as there are people who continue to find new ways to package and translate this music, we are sure to see a widening of the palette for Indian classical music.    

Some takeaways and simple tips:

  1. Start on the journey of building a profile. A well written bio, a page on your site, a profile on soundcloud or Youtube, all these are simple yet very important ways to promote a consistent image of yourself. 
  2. Not every artist is able to afford proper video shoots. However having a Youtube channel of your own can be very useful. You can put out tastefully recorded videos using just the phone. But try and tell a story through your music – a style that is unique to you, your gharana, your instrument, anything that inspires you. 
  3. Avoid over exposure on social media. Since the pandemic, lots of musicians started doing free concerts and were constantly posting music on their pages. This can kill your chances of people buying a ticket for your virtual concerts. 
  4. Distribute your music through digital stores. This is more about increasing presence than it is about the financial reward. Digitally distributed music can get you audiences in places you would have never thought of reaching. The statistics from these views and buys will give you great insight into where your audiences are worldwide and help you plan concerts and other promotions around it.  
  5. Important as it is to get your music out into the world, it is equally important to know about the music that is out there. One can now easily discover music through all digital streaming platforms. You might meet a fellow collaborator, an idea that inspires you, or just learn different ways in which artists make and promote their music.  
  6. Whether or not you ever become a composer or creator of original music, do try and include this as a part of your learning routine. If you already have some compositions to your credit, make sure you register with a copyright society that works for you. 
  7. Attend music conferences and webinars. Most conferences seem to focus on other genres, but this will change as more classical artists, senior and junior, participate in these forums. Important issues are raised, resolutions are sought, networks are built and many collaborations begin here. Pick a conference that appeals to you and make it your annual investment.
  8. Contribute to the positive image change in classical music. A first step would be to let your audiences know that Indian classical musicians are not a different species who are inaccessible revered souls, who won’t come out of their hallowed existence, but are like anybody else, doing everyday things and flag bearers of a rich musical heritage. 
  9. If you have chosen music as your career, please allow people who are better equipped to deal with the business side of things, help you. If management is not your thing, get some basic components in place – know your legal rights (there are plenty of online forums that offer help), get a contract template for all your engagements, avoid cash payments unless unavoidable, document your correspondence and ensure all your transactions are legal.    
  10. Finally, insist on quality sound when you perform. Nothing is worse for music than a poorly delivered or distorted sound. It is an artist’s right and they must not hesitate in exercising it. Where you are not able to dictate the sound set up, at the very minimum, insist on a sound-check, even if for 15 minutes. I hope musicians can slowly cultivate the habit of having a technical rider detailing the sound equipment best suited for them.     

These are just some thoughts and ideas based on my observation and experience in the field. I hope some of these tips will help Indian classical music and its practitioners become popular and more professionally managed. 

Aishwarya Natarajan is the founder of Indianuance, an artist management and consulting firm and is the recipient of the British Council Young Creative Entrepreneur award (2010). She has a flair for curation and managing talent and has consulted for brands, organisations and festivals. She has managed and worked with several artists across the classical and folk fraternity, such as Ganesh-Kumaresh, Kutle Khan, Susheela Raman, Shujaat Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Birju Maharaj, Trilok Gurtu, Shashank, and Gundecha Brothers among others. She has been a TEDx speaker and music consultant for companies such as Apple Music, ITC Hotels and Sony Music Kids.

Aishwarya also runs a sound brand consulting firm called Sunoh, that creates sound identities and assets for brands.

Tags: artist tips featuring music music tips