Delhi never disappoints with ‘heard on the street’ gems; Khan Market is particularly fertile. I was in Mercury Audio, rummaging through their impressive Hindustani music stock, when the vanilla music playing through the music system stopped and gave way to one of Ustad Vilayat Khan’s more popular dhuns . Just as I was warming up to it, the dhun was replaced by a Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia piece. After a few seconds, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma took over. My curiosity took me to the source of the music. Two women were requesting the changes: one had plans of buying, the other was advising. A few more options later, the adviser said, “Take the first one. It was the most soothing.”

Whatever the contest, Ustad Vilayat Khan remains unbeatable. He had a new feather to add to his titles: along with Aftaab-e-Sitar (Sun of the Sitar), he was now ‘the most soothing’. The conversation between the two ladies got better. It emerged that the buyer was looking for a CD to accompany her fitness sessions. The prude that I am (and try hard not to be), I was shocked at the thought of my favourite maestro’s notes forming a background to a Pilates class.

Perhaps I overreacted. Many contemporary Hindustani musicians would find nothing wrong with that and most music companies would be delighted at the prospect.

Like baked chips and fat-free ice cream, Hindustani music now has a healthy option: Music Therapy.

Bookstores don’t face a problem displaying the works of Deepak Chopra and his ilk. Snugly, they sit in Self Help. Music stores are yet to introduce such a shelf. The Music Therapy CDs invariably appear in Indian Classical. Rashid Khan and Veena Sahasrabuddhe are interspersed with ‘Inner Feelings’ and ‘Pure Bliss’. The proximity underscores the irony: Khan’s Bageshree or Sahasrabuddhe’s Madhmad Sarang is presumed to be less therapeutic than its curative neighbours.

A few days ago, I happened to notice an offering from Hindustani slide guitar maestro Vishwa Mohan Bhatt: ‘Music for Mental Peace’. Leaving nothing to chance, the album comes with the subtitle: ‘Advanced Music Therapy’. (It is not a new release, but I had not come across it before.)

The coupling of classical music and therapy, then, is not entirely a function of the store manager’s whim. Increasingly, Hindustani musicians (both established and not-so) are working on music therapy albums. Musicians are not immune to silliness — making inane music by just playing a bandish with drums — but something about music therapy albums is not quite harmless. When straight-up renditions of Khamaj and Kafi, with emphasised lilt, are presented as ‘Peace and Calm’ and ‘Total Relaxation’ (the actual ragas appearing as subtitles — as is the case with Bhatt’s album), the exercise raises questions. Does the nomenclature infuse healing powers into an otherwise mundane Khamaj? Therapy through music is well accepted across the world. Whatever its efficacy, it is fair to expect that some degree of rigour is exercised (beyond the time spent in naming tracks) to justify why a set of notes should constitute therapy and not music per se.

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan believed that an ailing person could recover faster if made to hear either Yaman Kalyan or Shudh Kalyan every day. Without going to that extent, it is safe to say that music — quite simply music: a song, a meend, an out-of-the-blue syncopation — is effective medicine for our afflictions. The sleeve notes of a CD don’t administer the therapy: Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan just needs to sing ‘Chand Re’, landing on the epic pancham , and the world looks brighter. How would the great ustad have felt if each of his three-minute-gems — the Kamod or the Kedar or the Jaijaiwanti — were glossed à la ‘Peace and Calm’? And for his listeners, many of them too old now to browse CD racks, would it be a cause for bewilderment or would it be an affront?

It is odd that established Hindustani musicians should think that their music in its regular course does not uplift or soothe. The need to fall under the music therapy umbrella is perhaps aligned with the need to make Indian classical music accessible. But is that goal achieved by packaging alone? Existing albums are being re-launched with new titles and new track names.

Ustad Shahid Parvez’s Shyam Kalyan now forms part of an album called ‘No Tension through Ragas’; Pandit Nikhil Banerjee’s Hemant is now ‘Relief’ in ‘Music for Relaxation’. The presumption is that a list of tracks with fluffy titles (and a promise to cure) is cause for more curiosity than a list of ragas. But curious buyers are likely to get equal therapeutic relief, not to mention a more meaningful introduction to Hindustani music, from the non-medicinal Hindustani albums, whether or not they are what the doctor ordered.

( Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based music writer and lawyer)

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