Final frontier crumbles

Arunabha Deb | | Updated on: Aug 22, 2014
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Has Kolkata’s Dover Lane audience become less discerning over time?

When friends ask me about the best time to visit Kolkata, they’re often surprised by my very specific reply. January 22 to 27, I tell them. There is a nip in the air (the Delhi folk get to sneer at the ‘cold’ and the Mumbai guys get to wear their jackets); there is notungur in Nakur. And those five days witness the two most iconic Kolkata events: The Dover Lane Music Conference and the Kolkata Book Fair. Though neither has the word ‘festival’ in its name, I cannot view them as anything else. They have an essentially cerebral focus, but always with an air of fun: food stalls, bumping into old friends, avoiding relatives, and at Dover Lane, the guilt of sacrificing an entire session of music at the altar of adda , outside the auditorium.

The Book Fair is usually a two-week affair; Dover Lane is more intense: four night-long sessions, starting at 8pm (read 9:30pm) and ending at 6am (read ‘till the last artiste can keep going’), with five to six performances each night. I have been going since I was six, when our family still qualified as ‘joint’. I have warm memories of those winter nights, of at least 15 of us leaving the house together and returning the following morning, the elders fighting sleep to not lose their edge in the never-ending ‘who-was-the-best-tonight’ argument. When I look back at that contingent (many of them are no more), I realise that except for one granduncle, nobody was trained in Hindustani music. They were not even connoisseurs. They were simply lovers of Hindustani music. My father, for whom there is little difference between the tapping of a table and the komal gandhar in Bageshree, stayed up nights (he still does) in thrall of the music; and my grandmother responded to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s Jaijaiwanti in a manner that might have gotten my grandfather a tad bit worried.

There were many families like mine. For me, the defining feature of Dover Lane was not the impressive line-up of artistes but its audience demography. It was not just for connoisseurs and the musical elite. Music lovers —‘non-regular’ listeners who were not part of the ‘classical circuit’— comprised the largest part of the audience. And yet this was a discerning audience. Not discerning in the sense that they would fuss about the overuse of komal nishad in Kedar but they did care about how an artiste unfurled an alaap , about the clarity of tans and, above all, about the temperament of a performance. Their engagement with the music was not technical, but it was serious. And, most significantly, their appraisal of an artiste was always objective, based on the performance of the night rather than on reputation. I have heard the biggest of names being torn to pieces in conversations (with which the tea stalls and the toilets used to buzz) for giving flippant recitals and taking their reputation (and, by implication, the audience) for granted.

That is why I got a jolt at this year’s Dover Lane when Anoushka Shankar got a standing ovation. A standing ovation is a rarity at Dover’s Lane— even the likes of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Vilayat Khan rarely got one. Shankar’s renditions of Maru Bihag and Pancham se Gara displayed neither exceptional skill nor exceptional imagination. Comparable recitals in the same festival were not half as enthusiastically received. I couldn’t understand why the fabled ‘Dover Lane audience’ (that artistes gush about) was on their feet after such a recital. The same audience had clapped a certain Dagar duo off the stage not so long ago. Since when did it become so charitable? Was it a way of paying homage to Shankar’s legendary father, Pandit Ravi Shankar, who passed away last year? Or is it that the audience that was once insulated against the reputation of artistes had finally given in to perceptions created by the popular media? I hope it’s the former but I am inclined to believe that it’s the latter. The audience demography at Dover Lane has been changing — music lovers have gradually been replaced by listeners for whom Dover Lane is an event in their social calendar, not in their music calendar. The change has been slow, but for me, it is no longer ignorable after this Dover Lane. Pandit Ravi Shankar had said that for any Hindustani classical musician, Calcutta is the ‘final frontier’. I wonder what he would say now.

Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based lawyer and music writer.

>shubhodeb@hotmail. com

Published on February 21, 2014
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