Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC & DANCE : December 05, 1999
"Classical music is not viewer friendly"
Reborn, remixed, repackaged. The fad end of music is facing boom time today. And television is raking in all the lucre. Hip hop, bhangra pop, reggae rap, Hindi funk . . . you name it and it is showing on all the channels, accompanied by slick visuals capturing the most glamorous faces in the industry.
And yet, the basic root of any of this musical extravaganza - the traditional Indian classical music - remains tucked away out of sight. Rarely peeping out in an "exclusive" show or two, apologetically slotted at a time when the "masses" are sure to be out of the way. Our television's mental barrier to classical music has almost become physical now.
The more westernised and youthful music channels, of course, have their research studies to fall back on. "Our target audience is the young viewer between 15 and 34 years old and, believe me, the music we play reflects our audiences' tastes every inch of the way," says Kalyanasundaram, Director, Programming, MTV. "The figures I have currently, show that 80 per cent of our viewers want only Hindi film and pop music, while the other 20 per cent want international pop music. Any alternative to this is immediately rejected by them on the ground that they cannot 'connect' with it."
He pledges that the day classical music artistes can find a new, attractive form to attract the youth ("Something on the lines of what Kenny G did, when he gave classical music a popular appeal"), MTV will be the first to air it. And no, he does not feel that the chances of this happening are impossible. "Today the industry has thrown up artistes like Shubha Mudgal and Shankar Mahadevan, who are capable of achieving the impossible," he shrugs.
As far as pure classical music programmes are concerned, Star Plus has "Ninaad" (daily at 6 a.m.) and Music Asia offers "Alaap" (daily at 7 a.m.). That's all. Both the programmes feature renowned and new artistes, vocal as well as instrumental music. "The kind of music that one just has to hear at that time of the morning," says Shola Rajachandran, VP Publicity, Star Plus. And yet, when it comes to slotting classical music at a more viewer friendly time, even she demurs, "Classical music is such a niche genre. Why should we take a chance?"
Perhaps that is why the channel is still hesitating to take the plunge with "Utsav," a forthcoming programme which proposes to celebrate Indian classical music even while breaking in the lay listener gently. "Utsav" has been conceived and directed by Durga Jasraj and anchored by maestros like Pt. Jasraj, Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pt. Shivkumar Sharma. Thirteen episodes of the serial are ready and have been handed over but are yet to be scheduled. "The schedules went haywire first due to the cricket season and then the elections," says Durga. "All election-based programmes were aired at the 10 p.m. or 10-30 p.m. slot, which we were to have. But I was promised that a slot would be given once the elections were over."
All the maestros involved in "Utsav" hurt so much from the attitudes they come up against, when it comes to classical music, that they are almost childlike in their enthusiasm of having a serial on classical music at last. "We would like to show people that classical music is all about human emotions and not intricate technicalities, as believed," says Pt. Shivkumar Sharma. "Like any other art form, this too, expresses strong emotions. Which should be easy for anyone to understand and relate to."
The programme has each episode dealing with a different theme - like Sharad Purnima,the monsoon, Holi, etc. Each theme is performed by different musicians of the ilk of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Vishwamohan Bhatt, Parveen Sultana and Ustad Ala Rakha. "We will point out the salient features of the music before the performance and then do a recap later," explains Zakir Hussain. "Thus bringing the listener and the music close to each other."
The situation dreamt up by them, is, of course, idyllic. Reality says that bridging the gap is not so easy. "It's not easy to change trends, or override mental blocks," says Sainath Iyer, deputy CEO (Entertainment), speaking on behalf of Music Asia. "When has the media ever been able to do it anywhere in the world? Could MTV change the Indian ethos? They came to India initially, very American and very upmarket, but finally they too had to Indianise themselves and cater to the masses. The basics of marketing in the media has to take all current tastes and attitudes into account. The media cannot go beyond audience attitudes."
In fact, Iyer even claims that Shubha Mudgal's experiment in trying to "popularise" classical music with "Ab ke sawan" has not really worked. "I'm told that 'Ab ke sawan' has not even broken even," he says.
The team behind "Utsav" . . . Pt. Jasraj, Zakir Hussain, Durga Jasraj and Pt. Shivkumar Sharma.
However, he reveals that Music Asia is looking at the possibility of airing some live concerts of classical music in the near future. Concerts of artistes like Shobha Gurtu and Pt. Shivkumar Sharma are already canned and ready, waiting for a late night ("late prime" in television lingo) slot. "Right now, it's only pure classical that we are looking at. I know that 'experimental classical' might work a little better, but then there is always the danger of being hit by all the Ustads if we go wrong in that somewhere!" he smiles.
So far, the only popular programme placed in the prime time slot, that seems to dabble in classical music and gets away with it, is Saregama (Zee TV, Sunday, 8 p.m.). It has completed 200 episodes (which makes it four years old) and is still going strong. Strong enough for its maker, Gajendra Singh, to think about starting another classical music based show in the future. In fact, the programme is so popular that even other channels consider it to be a benchmark programme - when it comes to combining classical music with popular appeal.
"Saregama has done it in just the way it has to be done," concedes Shola Rajachandran of Star Plus. "It's so appealing that it is bound to touch the viewer. But the problem is that if anyone else wants to do something like that, they will have to start by going beyond Saregama."
Something for which at present no channel has the time, inclination or funds?
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