Shailaja Khanna | What does “democracy” look like in the world of classical music

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With confinement, everything has changed. This cozy circuit did not take the time to disintegrate

Until March 15, 2020, I listened to live classical music three times a week. During the concert season (September-March), as a Delhi’ite, I traveled monthly to two, sometimes three, different destinations, for the same purpose.

The concerts in Delhi were fun; it didn’t really matter who the artist was; it was the pleasure of getting ready to leave by packing a thermos of water (plastic bottles squeak when opening in hushed rooms) or tea if it was really cold, because the throat tends to dry out after two hours. At the concert, we met a lot of like-minded friends; we exchanged notes on the music, met the performers frequently after the gig even though the performance was not up to our expectations, and there was always the option to hang out with a friend and have a bite somewhere near !

The outdoor concerts were even more exciting – the journey, the new city, the unfamiliar audience, noting how the reactions to the music differed from city to city. Curiously, the line-up of artists has remained more or less the same. The same 15-20 artists have been called to all festivals, whether the organizer is the state government or a private entity. In a way, even that didn’t bother us. What has dismayed us, even if we don’t admit it, is the stealthy realization that the performer’s repertoire hasn’t changed either. Many returned the same raga and even the same compositions at every concert in every city. The only aspect that varied was their dress. Photos shared by fans on social networks clearly outweigh listeners’ expectations!
With confinement, everything has changed. This cozy circuit has not taken the time to disintegrate. Artists began posting their work out of the blue on social media as much to reassure their fans that they still existed as to “keep control”, so to speak. Evenings, even mornings, were now filled with rich and free food.

As the months manifested the unintended repercussions of the pandemic, many artists began to realize that the outside world could do very well without them. We heard that phone calls were not returned by potential clients of artist friends. So the musical offerings got bolder, more innovative, more collaborative – it seemed like there was nothing that wouldn’t be tempted!
Classic singers stuffed with Bollywood icons; percussionists from all over the world performed together, dancers of different genres met online and mingled – the virtual world was confusing in terms of the range of opportunities! We also heard from the most amazing performers whose names were unknown. Sitarist Purbayan Chatterji called it “the democratization of the world of classical music”.

Slowly we started longing for the familiar, realizing that since the music was online anyway, why not go back to the old masters? Fortunately, giant music archivists have joined the fray. Almost overnight, Prasar Bharati built up a massive following – of over half a million listeners – on Youtube, their recordings of Sitara Devi, U. Srinivas, Asad Ali Khan and so on. proving invaluable. The Sangeet Natak Akademi, too, held out at first before succumbing to the temptation of concerts and live concerts. But private collectors like Delhi’s Diwan Singh were a real boon – whenever one wanted to search for a rendering of a particular raga or composition by musicians trained in different schools, one could access his updated collection. day almost daily. There were others too, and their online subscribers, which numbered in the hundreds, amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the space of a year! Saptak, the Ahmedabad-based music organizer, has released his extensive collection curated for over 40 years, creating educational podcasts.

It wasn’t just the music of the giants of the past that became available for free. Recordings of recent concerts were also available, sometimes free of charge. These included Bazm e-Khas, Raju Asokan, Bengal Foundation, Dhaka and HCL. It took a few to visit Darbar, Shaale, the Udupa Foundation and Banyan Tree, but didn’t have to bother to travel during the pandemic. Weekend concerts – live or recorded – quickly became the norm. Even foreign organizations like CICHM, Boston and Cadence Entertainment, Philadelphia, have joined Indian patrons like Pune-based Swara Zanskar, Kanebua Pratishthan, Kolkata’s Shanti Foundation, and Fifth Note, among others.

Many artists have launched their own YouTube channels, whether paid or not. It was an exciting time – browsing online and suddenly discovering a rare pearl, eagerly downloading it and waiting for free time to hear it with full attention.
As days turned into weeks and months, that rate started to drop. When you could hear unreleased recordings of Vilayat Khan in his prime, why settle for a live online concert by one of his disciples? Why Anand Bhate when Bhimsen Joshi was available? In short, a magnificent Kedara recorded by the dean of Palazzo Baroda has been listened to 100 times or more by this writer. This comparison has never been made earlier.

The “live” experience had been second to none, with its shared vibe, the sudden locking of eyes with the performer, the testimony of how an expert sarangi accompanist changed the singer’s music in a different direction, observing the satisfaction. of others in the audience. spontaneously applauding at the same time as you!

With the gradual return of physical concerts, another problem has arisen: online you can choose when to hear, how much to hear. At a recent concert, I found myself wishing I could move forward quickly! Online, if the raga wasn’t my favorite, I would have just clicked next.

But then I saw the Supporting Singer Disciple try a tough “murki” and anxiously gaze at her guru for recognition. At that point, I realized that this magical interaction can only be savored in person.

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