DURING informal conversations with many Hindustani classical musicians, one has often heard them talk about how fewer youngsters are appreciating the genre, and how many of them do not have the patience to listen to full-length ragas. Keeping that in mind, many artistes have tried to use different methods to attract these younger audiences.
The concept of ClassiCool, initiated by sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee in association with digital media agency Qyuki.com, is aimed primarily at such audiences, who have either not been exposed to or not have had the right ear for traditional music. Thus, the musicians involved have played shorter compositions, retaining the basic elements of the ragas, and yet adding modern effects using bass, drums or keyboards to make them sound ‘cool’.
ClassiCool was launched at a concert at St Andrew’s auditorium in Bandra, Mumbai, a fortnight ago. This blogger could not attend that show, but heard the compositions on a CD sent by the organisers. Here, Amaan Ali Khan plays raga Desh on sarod, Rakesh Chaurasia renders Bihag on bamboo flute and Purbayan presents Shree on sitar. Drummer Gino Banks and tabla player Anubrata Chatterjee, who accompany the instrumentalists on all numbers, also perform a percussion duet. And Suchismita Das chips in with vocals on Bhairavi and Khan’s Desh.
In keeping with the concept, the pieces are five or six minutes in length, and use effects to sound contemporary. As Purbayan said in a recent interview: “As youngsters have a lower attention span these days, classical music needs to be fed in shorter doses of a few minutes in a song-like format. Also, youngsters are used to a certain bass-drum soundscape which they think is cool. We will retain the sanctity of the raga, and yet sound contemporary.”
Of course, this is not the first time musicians are making efforts to reach out to newer audiences. Back in the 1960s, sitar maestro Pt Ravi Shankar and sarod legend Ustad Ali Akbar Khan popularised the concert of instrumental jugalbandis (duets) to add some variety to the traditional solo form. Of course, they played the raga in its entirety, and barring from a section of purists who insisted that classical music had to be played alone, got a good response, specially among youngsters.
Those days, Ravi Shankar also collaborated with western musicians like violinist Yehudi Menuhin, composers Andre Previn and Philip Glass, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and Mumbai-born conductor Zubin Mehta in what were the early instances of fusion. More than anything else, such experiments helped more foreigners get exposed to Indian music.
As a genre, fusion took off in the mid-1970s. The Indo-jazz group Shakti, featuring guitarist John McLaughlin, became a craze among younger audiences, most of who normally listened to western music. Later, over the years, artistes like tabla wizard Zakir Hussain, violinist L Subramaniam, keyboardist Louiz Banks, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, Mohan veena exponent Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and mandolin player U Srinivas helped spread the reach of fusion music, and later, the style was used in vocal music too by groups like Indian Ocean and Colonial Cousins in India, and Mekaal Hasan Band and Fuzon in Pakistan.
One of the aims of fusion was to help new audiences, specially the youth, get exposed to Hindustani classical music. By and large, however, it did not succeed, as fusion fans remained fusion fans who got fascinated more by the star power of the artistes, the on-stage energy and gimmicks, and the virtuosity of instruments than by the intricacies or depth of the compositions. Very few of them actually shifted totally towards Hindustani classical music.
Unlike in south India and specially Tamil Nadu, where youngsters are normally exposed to Carnatic music from an early age, Hindustani music is followed by a smaller percentage of younger people in north India, where the emphasis is more towards Hindi film music or western pop. Though places like Pune, Gwalior and Kolkata have many young audiences, the same is not the case in most of the country.
In such a scenario, a concept like ClassiCool can play a role. Of course, it’s not the first time that musicians have played shorter ragas or added western effects. But most earlier efforts, often marketed as ‘lounge’ music, have been one-off cases by individual musicians, and not by a collective, as it is in this case.
Needless to say, such a format will have its critics. Those who have heard the real thing might complain about how the whole approach to a raga has been diluted, and may crib about the absence of the alaap-jod-jhala method under which ragas are traditionally built. The presence of western instruments may force people to think of this music as an east-west dialogue, when the truth is that unlike in fusion, the guitar, bass and drums have only been used to add some flavour.
While all those points may be justified, the truth is that in the current situation of declining audiences, such methods can help build a newer audience base. With most youngsters today tuned in to the latest Bollywood songs, electronic dance music or even Yo Yo Honey Singh, one way of getting them close to the classical form is by keeping things simpler and shorter. Moreover, the ClassiCool compositions are pleasant to the ear, and in no way jarring or unnecessarily flashy.
In the West, the similar concept of ‘classical crossover music’ has become a full-fledged genre. There too, young musicians play the compositions of legendary composers like Bach, Mozart and Debussy in a contemporary setting, adding a few keyboards and drum passages. While the majority of purists slam them because in western classical music, one is not supposed to tamper with even a single note, the fact is that this newer form has its own set of followers, many of whom actually got converted to pure classical symphonies and concertos.
In India, we are lucky to have such great and rich forms of music like Hindustani, Carnatic, ghazals and folk. Each form has an amazing history of tradition, and a huge amount of talent. Sadly, because of the Bollywood craze, and the obsession to keep up with the latest trends or be guided by peer pressure, many youngsters miss out on such great art.
Only time will tell whether ClassiCool will succeed in its mission. But given the sorry state of affairs today, it seems like a move in the right direction. The purists can always listen to something much deeper.