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Music : December 03, 2000

Nine toes in the grave

Rukun Advani

Publisher and columnist who has written a novel.
Beethoven among the Cows.

It is a well-recognised fact that the canon of Western classical literature found a home among the educated classes all over India during the colonial period, but the Western canon of classical music did not infiltrate the cultural landscape in even remotely comparable ways. Two reasons for this difference seem obvious. The first is that the acquisition of Western literary knowledge by the local population was intimately connected with the acquisition of languages skills, and language skills were hungrily acquired because there was a large market for them. Scholars of Indian cultural history have shown that the English literature syllabus taught to native students was an aspect of the larger colonial project of creating a collaborating class which would aid imperialism. Naturally, there was no analogous "instrumental" purpose in the metaphoric sense to which music could be put, else the colonisers would surely have put it in place. In fact, for the "language" of Western classical music there was really no market of any consequence, not even to entertain the colonial army and bureaucracy, for these were largely drawn from a class of people who relished a different "band" of music.

The second reason for the dearth of this tradition in India was that most Indian regions had well-developed musical traditions of their own. When Sir William Jones had heard enough Indian classical singing to be familiar with some of its structural complexities, he recognised that the subtleties and nuances of native music were not so much baffling as simply too immense for the Western ear. By and large the Indian classical music traditions even in the heyday of colonialism when it was more or less necessary to decry all that was native were not subjected to scorn in anything like the way that, for example the Indian pantheon was scorned. This may have been only in part because classical music was so marginal to the hegemonic cultural agendas of colonialism; in part it may have been a consequence of the recognition that the local traditions were in fact too richly unfathomable. Today, this recognition of richness is apparent from the amount of attention given to Indian classical music in relation to the music of most other non-Western countries within the Oxford Companion to Music.

Of course there were sub-sects of indigenous elite culture which identified themselves strongly with the high classical traditions of the West, and here there was a limited opportunity for that tradition to come home. Within these groups, the music of Baroque and Enlightenment Europe did percolate, even if not strongly enough to create either a distinct milieu or a substantial presence for itself in the way that the English language had done. In certain pockets of bhadralok Bengal, in certain educated Parsi circles of Mumbai, and in the Portuguese-influenced area of Goa, Western classical music managed to strike roots that were, for a period, not wholly feeble. Satyajit Ray could not have been passionate about Beethoven and Zubin Mehta could not have emerged from India without an intense degree of absorption in this musical tradition, over several generations, within the literati of such communities.

Shashi Shetye

For any community which values roots that seem tenuous, there are two ways in which it is possible to prevent them withering: by encouraging music-making and music-listening. As far as music-making is concerned, the decline of Western classical music in India has been fairly rapid, suggesting the inherent uncertainty of its grounding within Indian life from the start. The piano, the violin, and the clarinet, which are the lynchpins of Western classical music-making, are now expensive rarities here. The diversity of instruments required even by small ensembles is a major impediment to the proliferation of the "larger" perfomative genres within the Indian context. The trombone, the cello, the trumpet, the double bass and the bassoon are practically unknown outside the most select circles. Certainly they cannot be easily learnt here on account of the absence of a cultural support structure. Piano-tuners are a scarce commodity and good piano-teachers, many of whom were Anglo-Indians, have all gone away toteach in Australia and Canada. The new electronic technologies, in combination with new fashions, have levelled down the privileged position of classical instruments via Japanese synthesizers, Yamahas, and a variety of guitars. Only the electronic violin and the electronic clarinet are now awaited: no doubt these will soon emerge from an offshoot of some Japanese automobile factory called Suzuki or Mitsubishi.

As regards music-listening, exact measurements of popularity are impossible. We have to rely on impressions and hunches drawn from the quality and quantity of local attendance at embassy-sponsored concerts and recitals in our handful of big towns - Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai, Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad. The concert season is fairly short and huddled into winter, at which time performers from the West will not be climatically discomfited within their obligatory coat-tails and bow ties. Perhaps three-fourths of those who attend such concerts do so in order to be seen and heard rather than to hear. The remaining quarter is made up of genuine diehards who forage for CDs of Janacek and Stravinsky in the odd shop that stocks such music. This hardcore is influential enough to sustain a music critic or two in each city.

The older newspapers, such as the Statesman, the Telegraph, and The Hindu, carry dutiful reviews of such concerts even now, creating for their (mainly older) readers the antiquarian pleasures of the sort obtained by reading columns such as "This Happened A Hundred Years Ago".

Perhaps more conclusively than any other factor, the plethora of well-developed non-Classical traditions within Western music that are now available in Indian music stores has been responsible for the reduction of the already small band of listeners singly devoted to the "high" Classical Western tradition. Jazz has its own compelling and rapidly expanding canon of "classics", as have Rock and Folk, as have Spanish and Latin American, Caribbean and African music. All these, alongside the profusion of CDs and downloadable music sites on offer as well as the "music" channels on TV, have meant that love of diversity has replaced love and devotion as the dominant response to music in modern times. In India, moreover, the transistor radio, once a major source of nurturing interest in forms of music unadulterated by gyrating semi-nudes, has been more decisively annihilated by television than it has been in the West, where broadcasting still manages to retain a stronghold over an old tradition of disseminatingoperatic high cultures to those who will keep an open ear.

How important is it to try generating an interest in Bach and Beethoven within a culture hectically caught up by a multiplicity of musical forms which enter one ear and go out from the other, tunes which catch the fancy one day and have been displaced by 20 others the next, audio-visual entertainment shows that differ from opera in privileging the visual over the audio? European missionaries setting out for the African jungles might have asked themselves the same question in relation to spreading the Bible, but they would have answered such a question with greater certitude because their unsuspecting targets at least had some time to spare for idle curiosity in relation to Jesus.

The greatest impediment to a deeply satisfying worship of the deities of Western classical music in a hostile culture is not its availability it has never been more easily available than now but the amount of time required to develop this into a passion from its origins in idle curiosity. It is no more difficult to develop a liking for Beethoven than it is to develop a liking for Renaissance drama: both require a little bit of curiosity, a certain amount of training, and a reasonable amount of exposure. In this they are different from the pleasure of listening to a song by the Beatles or Madonna, from reading a thriller or watching Schwarznegger. The structures of complex compositions work their way into a listener's bloodstream like slow infusions of wine; regrettably, all that most modern Indian listeners are looking for is a quick snort into instant delirium.

For Beethoven there's really no option but to roll over.

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