We often lament the absence of young listeners at our classical music concerts. The late Gangubai Hangal once said that Carnatic music could boast an impressive number of young musicians performing for a considerably older audience, while the reverse was true of Hindustani music.
It is true that many of the leading performers in Carnatic music are below 50, something that may not be equally true of Hindustani musicians. This state of affairs is sometimes claimed to be proof of the health of the future of Carnatic music. True, there is a tremendous amount of interest the world over in Carnatic music, and young people of Indian origin are flocking the many online gurukulas and other teaching environments.
The profusion of literature, notated texts, lecture-demonstrations, websites, mobile apps and other means of broadcasting and teaching classical or art music is no doubt an indicator of its ever expanding availability to millions of enthusiasts. Two major books on Carnatic music—The Incurable Romantic, the Lalgudi Jayaraman biography by Lakshmi Devnath and A Southern Music, TM Krishna’s magnum opus on the art—have added a new dimension to the burgeoning new literature in the field. These together with The Devadasi and the Saint by Sriram V a few years ago have been serious attempts at adopting a modern, western approach to recording recent history—of a kind not often seen in this part of the world.
The fact remains, however, that art music concerts continue to be largely attended by senior citizens, except during the December season. At Sruti’s recent event to launch the magazine’s mobile app, chief guest Rajiv Menon, an urbane filmmaker with a keen interest in art music, welcomed the emergence of serious musical talent from the Indian diaspora, while tracing the changing geography of our musical wealth which has travelled from the Tanjavur belt to the west via Madras over the last century or so. He also stressed the ever changing economic dynamics of the music profession, increasingly confined to earnings from live events after piracy has made incomes from recorded music a doubtful proposition.
In such a scenario, with corporate sponsorship and free admission to cutcheris replacing royal and zamindari patronage of yore, ticket sales for concerts have become rarer than the most apoorva of our ragas.
The exceptions to these depressing examples are special concerts involving fusion and experimental genres of music, which are marketed professionally, and staged to raise funds for charities. Unfortunately, such programmes are often of dubious quality and rarely well rehearsed, polished team efforts. Along with wedding concerts and corporate shows, these events provide artists with much needed financial security.
The most serious side-effect of the trend is the inevitable thinning of the line between orthodox and experimental art. With very young musicians regularly taking part in so-called ‘world music’ and fusion concerts, the danger of their art being rocked at the foundation is very real. With the recent passing away of many a veteran musician, the responsibility of preserving the core characteristics of Carnatic music is now squarely on the shoulders of today’s reigning stars. The alternative would be akin to the imminent takeover of cricket by Twenty-20 at the expense of Test cricket.