Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC: November 29, 1998
REQUIEM for the western classical?
Heard a good symphony lately? Be honest now, confess. When was the last time you lent an ear to Ludwig Van Beethoven? No excuses of being deaf to the marvellous compositions of the sadly-deaf-genius himself will do. Perhaps you have a penchant for Puccini, go mushy for Mozart, become breathless for Brahms, heartbeats for Handel?
No, no, no, no? Don't fret or feel embarrassed. For you have finally found something that unites all Indians. A state of ignorance of Western classical music. A healthy dislike for it in some cases. And even mistaken identities in others. There are those who think Purcell is a brand name for macrobiotic pasta and Copland is Sylvester Stallone's recent Hollywood hit.
Interestingly, it is only in the Parsi community that Western classical music is not only known but also appreciated and also encouraged in every way. Look at the ambitious Opera House taking concrete shape on the grounds of the prestigious National Centre Of Performing Arts in Mumbai. Acoustics here has been designed and installed by German experts. For opera aficionados it is a dream come true. Even Zubin Mehta is reported thrilled. The question everyone else, including vociferous critics is asking, is : who will attend. Next question. How will the NCPA recover its huge investments?
The sad but glaring truth is Western classical music - does not attract massive crowds as it apparently does in the West. Ten years ago, the music industry having realised that WCM was attracting younger buyers across Europe, U.K. and the U.S. began to foster and promote younger talent as never before. With the hope that trendy classical virtuosos might bring that lucrative new market onstream more quickly.
It worked and how. Ask Richard Branson, the man who launched Virgin airlines and founded the rock based Virgin Records label. When he launched Virgin Classics ten years ago, he says, "everybody told me I was mad. Not only has Virgin Classics prospered but other labels also have made profitable forays too."
If it works in non-traditional markets like Korea and Japan why not in India? Aah, take a deep breath and sigh. A mighty complex puzzle is about to be unravelled. On the other hand it may just look as if we are going to serve up cut and dried answers. Bollywood beats, ethnic folk, gushy pop, Indian Classical and now the remix craze, all find adherents and aficionados. So the question still goes a begging. Why doesn't Western Classical work in India?
Over to Jiten Merchant, theatre critic and a self-taught opera apassionata. "There are few takers for Western classical music because of lack of training. By that I mean there are no teachers who can impart this knowledge," as compared to thousands of Indian classical teachers and scores of gharanas throughout the country?
Exactly. Very few good piano teachers, little or no vocal coaches, and violin teachers. The biggest problem is that there is no school teaching Western classical music. As far as the NCPA goes, it is a joke. They have built what they call an opera house but it is not an Opera House. It is just one big theatre with a music pit. Where is the symphony? Where is the opera company? Who is going to perform in that Opera House?" Laments Merchant, "Dig a little further and you will discover no one wants to put their money where their mouth is. None of the big Parsi corporate houses is going to actually start a Conservatory. It is an absolute must. To bring in teachers from abroad costs money and all the wonderful talent that exists here have untrained voices."
A real-life example underscores the fact. A few months ago, a Swiss tenor offered to impart training free for a year in Mumbai, provided a corporate house arranged for his lodging and boarding. The surprisingly generous Swiss left our shores a wiser and sadder person.
Let's face it. It is not just charity that begins at home. It is also culture, profound or pseudo. Musical interests and listening tastes are unconsciously passed down generations simply by virtue of being played at home. A good example is the startling number of twenty-year-olds who sing along to the Beatles classics. These born-in-the-late 70s youngsters were not even a gleam in their parents' eyes when the Beatles had already disbanded. They grew up to the music of the Fab Four because their parents played the stuff.
Of course it is not as simple as that. Once the door is opened, different musical horizons can beckon. In England it is not uncommon to see spiky-haired punks standing next to yuppies and grey-haired types poring through classical racks. Because a lot of television commercials use Western classical music, the young ones come in and ask if they can get the music for this whisky ad or that detergent ad. Having bought a particular record and liked it, they come back for more.
Would such a thing work here? Would our rock and roll young things ask a music shopwala for even an Indian classical piece were it used for an ad? I do not know but here is another spin. Opera superstars frequently do crossovers. Montserrat Caballe entered the pop charts duetting with the late Freddie Mercury. Last year Luciano Pavarotti cut an album with rock superstars U2. And recently Placido Domingo has cut a quasi-pop album. Such crossovers also attract traditional pop audiences.
But even Domingo is grousing and complaining. "Opera however beautiful will remain a big and expensive luxury dependent on the taxpayers." The real problem is that people prefer the Spice Girls and Elton John to Verdi and Mozart. However much the Three Tenors (Pavarotti, Domingo and Jose Carrevas) try to lure them with quasi-pop, real pop is bigger and wealthier.
Domingo will nod his head sadly. "I think we need more education. Children should be able to understand better what opera and classical music is. We have to fight the tremendous power of pop music. May be you are guilty because you play that music at home and the children listen to it."
He would stop complaining if he came to India, would our Domingo. Issuing from every nook and cranny of most homes in any nook and cranny of this vast country called India, he would hear nothing but pop. Pop in different languages and different accents but pop nonetheless. And once he'd understand the rate at which remixes are selling here, he would count his blessings that at least such blasphemy does not bring in money in the West.
Parag Trivedi, a Mumbai based promoter of Classical music, both Indian and Western, is one of the few who is upbeat and optimistic about the scene. In 1991, he started an organisation that holds workshops for enthusiastic laymen to understand these genres of music. The first year he conducted only three workshops. This year, he has been averaging ten workshops a month. No more confined to a privileged few in Mumbai, these workshops are held in different parts of India.
"We demystify the classics and make them much more approachable. As far as I am concerned, my audience is growing with people from all strata of society evincing interest. I saw a great and growing potential here". This might be true only in his case and needs to be understood with a qualifier. Not many come back for advanced courses and perhaps the first-timers always existed. So the percentage does not seem to grow as in pop music interest.
Because like it or not, the truth is that nothing can withstand the onslaught of MTV and Channel V. For the young ones only pop or rap is cool. Classics do not speak their language so why bother. But if classics come with a beat, as most remixes of Hindi film song classics are, that is not just acceptable but definitely something to chill out to. In the Sixties, the Beatles sang Roll Over Beethoven. In the India of the Nineties, that is now the truth. The Requiem has already been sung.
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