The classical retreat

Shriya Mohan | Updated on May 15, 2020

Hindustani vocalist Shubha Mudgal   -  prashant nakwe

Classical musicians are stranded without their accompanists and live audiences — the alchemy they need to work their magic. Can digital performances be an effective alternative during the Covid-19 outbreak?

* Starved of a livelihood classical artistes are undergoing a cultural emergency.

There is a tremor in the voice of Kalapini Komkali. “The sand is slipping out of our fingers. Before we realise it, we will be standing empty-handed, wondering where all the artistes have gone,” she says over the phone from Dewas, Madhya Pradesh. Komkali, the daughter of legendary Hindustani vocalists Pandit Kumar Gandharva and Vasundhara Komkali, is known in the world of Hindustani classical music for her distinctly bold vocal timbre. At this moment, though, the voice reveals a nervous uncertainty.

Slippery slope: Kalapini Komkali worries that performing for social media might give rise to mediocrity in the classical arts   -  IMAGE SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT


The Covid-19 pandemic has infected over 80,000 people in India, but wreaked havoc in untold other ways too. Among those hit hard are practitioners of classical art forms which have thrived on the energy of live audiences and extempore blend of live accompaniment.

“Our classical musical tradition is about spontaneously making something new and original each time we perform in front of an audience,” Komkali says.

In the Western world, classical music and dance are heard or seen in silence, and then, at the very end, enveloped in applause. The Indian classical arts, however, are enriched by the audience’s appreciation voiced all through a recital.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has raised concerns in the arts. How will this organic collective process pan out in an era of social distancing? How does an artiste perform without the scores of accompanists who are crucial to the delivery? And how does the ensemble survive when concerts have all been cancelled?

Poverty and free shows

On March 7, Delhi-based Hindustani vocalist Shubha Mudgal gave her last public concert before the government imposed a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the virus. “Everything else, after that, came crashing down,” she says.


The disruptions in her own schedules — from refunding advances for concerts scheduled through the year to settling cancellation charges for flights and hotel bookings — made Mudgal and her husband, percussionist Aneesh Pradhan, check on other members of the music fraternity. It was clear that most of the accompanists or the less-established musicians were falling into an abyss of poverty.

That was when Mudgal, Pradhan and a few other cultural practitioners got together to form ADAA (Assistance for Disaster Affected Artistes). Through an online fundraising campaign that went live in April, they’d managed to raise ₹42 lakh by early May. The amount has been distributed to 132 artistes through grassroots-level cultural organisations across the country.

“Along with the medical and economic emergency we are facing, a cultural emergency is also upon us,” says Mudgal, who wrote to the chief ministers of various states to put in place relief measures for artistes by tapping into the unused funds for the year’s cultural programmes and redirecting them to online programmes.

Komkali also believes that governments, cultural organisations and private corporations need to come together to keep art alive. “We need to bear in mind the self-respect of our artistes when we offer them help and opportunities,” she says.

The lockdown is also forcing musicians and others in the field of culture to confront the challenges posed by the digital world — a realm that not many in the classical arts are familiar with.

It is possible for digital to be inclusive, feels Mudgal. But somebody has to make the technology accessible to artistes, and handhold them in using it as a vehicle to transport their art into the homes of audiences, she says.

While technology has come to the rescue of a section of artistes — giving them a platform, and a virtual audience — it has its share of problems, too.

Several established artistes, who refused to be named, spoke of the “exploitative” nature of digital concerts. While one Carnatic musician was urged by an organiser to perform for “the noble cause” of world peace, another was asked to do a “musical seva” on World Yoga Day (to be held in June). Turning down these opportunities would amount to losing social capital in the industry, they point out.

But monetising a digital concert is a tall order at the moment, points out Hindustani vocalist Priya Kanungo, who is also an associate professor of performing arts at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, Sonipat.

Technology has other downsides, too. Poor internet connectivity leads to a lag in sound. Further, a classical concert, be it Hindustani or Carnatic, cannot be recorded with vocals first and layered over with accompanying instruments such as the tabla, harmonium, violin or mridangam. The structure of a spontaneous collaboration that celebrates interludes and crescendos would be entirely destroyed, the artistes hold.

So, the only kind of digital performances available to viewers, in an era of social distancing, are live streams on Facebook or Instagram, of a lone vocalist, with an electronic tanpura and tabla, singing short compositions while trying to engage with the simultaneous barrage of emojis, comments and song requests from a streaming audience. Almost all musicians agree that the atmosphere is too distracting for classical music, which requires deep meditative concentration.

The search for inspiration

There are others, though, who are adapting to the new medium. Take Thiruvananthapuram-based Mohiniyattam dancer Methil Devika. Sometime in early March, she got a call from her friend Dr Arun Aziz, an ENT specialist in Melbourne. He wanted her to make an instructional video that conveyed information on Covid-19 through Mohiniyattam.

The idea sparked something in her. How does one tap into old knowledge systems to speak about something as contemporary as the Covid-19 pandemic? It was then that the verses from one of the Navavarana kritis, 18th-century pieces of Carnatic music, composed by Muthuswamy Dikshitar on the divine mother, came to her mind.

“It felt like Dikshitar was really talking about the pandemic,” says Devika, who believes that there is wisdom in knowledge systems that can teach people how to cope with contemporary crises.

So she reinterpreted the lyrics to suit the context. And set her dance to this refrain:

Oh! Nature, help us overcome the three kinds of miseries

Those created by nature, by other beings and by one’s mind…

Help the wise contemplate on your mysteries.

In the video titledBreak the chain / Dance in quarantine, uploaded on YouTube, Devika dances in an empty hall in Thiruvananthapuram, and personifies the novel coronavirus. With mudras and facial expressions she becomes the dreaded virus, a demon covered in spikes, wearing a crown, gleefully wielding its power to infect humankind. She leaps across lands and seas, creating multiple chains of distress until she has the whole world in her clasp. Finally, people’s contemplative wisdom finds a cure in social distancing and the chain is broken.

The video, which carries a short introduction by Kerala’s minister of health KK Shailaja, has been trending on social media since its release on April 1.

“We are more into ourselves as artistes. But at a time like this, I thought I should flip and be someone who spreads awareness through dance,” Devika says on the phone from the Kerala capital.

But while classical artistes stress that it is difficult to find inspiration in the absence of a live audience, many are embracing change. In Chennai, the Akkarai sisters have been performing digitally since the lockdown.

Home experiments: The Akkarai sisters learnt to record, edit and produce their own videos at home during the lockdown   -  IMAGE COURTESY: AKKARAI SISTERS


The Carnatic violinist-vocalist duo enjoyed being a part of a concert for an organisation named Sumanasa (initiated by singer TM Krishna) and an Instagram live concert for Samarpana (an arts non-profit). Both were to raise funds for people affected by the pandemic, and the sisters say that they were glad to pitch in. Recently, they also received a request from an old acquaintance who asked them for a rendition of the Vaidyanatha Ashtakam, a Sanskrit hymn of healing composed by Adi Shankara.

It gave violinist Subhalakshmi the chance to experiment with the recording equipment, software and various editing apps before she could produce a suitable YouTube video. But it was satisfying in the end, she says, for it made her self-sufficient. Going digital is a learning curve, Subhalakshmi adds.

But isolation as inspiration is also overrated, some feel. “All this talk about the pandemic giving us time and solitude to introspect and perfect our practice isn’t true for those who have given their lives to the pursuit of classical music. How can one do riyaaz with so much turmoil and unsteadiness within,” Komkali asks, weighing in on the internal artistic disruptions of the pandemic. And, most important, she continues, won’t all this lead to a rise in mediocrity, when music is crafted for social media to cater to those with short attention spans?

Meet the future

Kolkata-based Hindustani vocalist Omkar Dadarkar, who teaches at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, is bracing himself for a post-Covid-19 world where a digital stage will be a new reality. After seeing the success of some of his own online performances, he has thought of setting up a performance studio inside his house. Once social distancing norms ease, he and his team of accompanists will record and live stream concerts there.

Studio unit: Hindustani vocalist Omkar Dadarkar is hopeful that once social distancing norms ease, he and his ensemble will live stream classical concerts from home   -  IMAGE COURTESY: OMKAR DADARKAR


Pointing out that Varanasi’s Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh music festival was held entirely online last month, Dadarkar says that going digital will save on organisational and other costs — and make classical music more accessible to people across the world.

Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam has some interesting tips on how artistes can ride the pandemic wave. She ensures that her online performances are lecture demonstrations.

Modern woman: Aruna Sairam says the pandemic presents a chance for classical artistes to reinvent themselves   -  IMAGE COURTESY: ARUNA SAIRAM


“An online performance has to be peppered with explanations and insights as to what we are doing. Earlier the audience was mesmerised by what was happening on stage. Now they are looking for other things such as the chance to understand inner workings,” she says over a WhatsApp call from Seattle, US.

With her large international experience she has learnt to reinvent her performance and keep audiences engaged.

People have to reinvent themselves, Sairam suggests. In the olden days, the audience was never disciplined or quiet during a Carnatic kutcheri at a wedding. Similarly, in an online performance, an artiste is flooded with comments from the audience. “It is the accepted ethos today,” she explains.

But can numerous thumbs-up signs and floating hearts ever compare with an audience that keeps rhythm in unison, or the loud appreciative sounds that a delicate taan evokes, or the thunderous claps that follow a jhala — the quick strumming of strings?

And what about the charm of a star-lit concert or a sudden shower during an outdoor recital? Old-timers recall that May morning, exactly 20 years ago, when Delhiites had gathered at Nehru Park for an outdoor performance by Bhimsen Joshi.

The crowd at the public park were listening to him sing a morning raga when it started to drizzle. Soon it was a downpour. Some from the audience rushed for cover and left the performance, but hundreds just sat there in the rain, mesmerised by his music. Joshi, who was singing under a canopy, continued to perform.

For those who heard him sing that morning, it was a testament not just to the greatness of his rendition but also the captivating power of music — and the magic wielded by a rapt audience.

Shriya Mohan

Published on May 15, 2020

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor