Concert, interrupted: Music and the pandemic

Updated on: May 11, 2021

Positive note: Many musicians see live baithaks with small audiences as the way ahead

Musicians looking forward to a concert-filled 2021 are largely in despair, but some are hoping to make the most of a bad year

* Musicians have begun to look at the possibilities of organising their own concerts

* “Government bodies should step in, corporate houses like ITC should do their bit as they have in the past”

* Online concerts cannot be the way forward, says Ustad Rashid Khan

* Carnatic violin virtuoso Kumaresh Rajagopalan sees an opportunity in the Covid-19 pandemic


There was hope at the end of the year. Musicians — like everybody else — thought the world was going to get back on its feet again, however slowly. Performers had gone through more than nine months in 2020 without concerts, income and audience interactions. Introspection of one’s music, analysis of obscure ragas and compositions and online teaching sessions with students had started to wane.

The flood of digital concerts had not been wholly successful for the artistes. The free offerings on social media platforms had slowly given way to paid online concerts, but neither was the remuneration satisfactory, nor the experience truly enjoyable, for performances were sadly affected by the lack of live audience feedback.

That is why musicians were eagerly waiting for “normal” life to resume. Meanwhile, several online festivals were held — the Harivallabh in Jalandhar, Marghazi festivals in Chennai, Swara Samrat Festival, Sunaad Arts, Delhi, and Ahmedabad’s Saptak were among the more prominent ones.

The Sunaad Arts festival, entitled ‘Musical Confluence’, was held in different cities in December 2020, and enabled the organisers to overcome what would have otherwise posed logistical problems. “We were able to invite artistes without the usual hesitancy which the travel and stay expenses entail in live festivals,” says organiser Saraswati Rajagopalan. “We could experiment with musicians of different styles and genres to create a true confluence. But it was a compromise; the live concert is irreplaceable.”


Can online concerts ever be the way forward for musicians whose performances depend greatly on audience appreciation? Ustad Rashid Khan, among the best known classical vocalists today, doesn’t think so. “Online concerts cannot be the way forward; they are a compromise solution as they don’t wholly work. I feel things will take time,” he says.


Press on pause: Right now, the focus is on staying safe, says Ustad Rashid Khan


Right now, he stresses, the focus is on staying safe. “Safety is the primary concern; we will all have to wait patiently; ultimately what will happen will be as the Lord wills. It’s not in our hands to anticipate what will happen next,” he says.

A few live music festivals, with audience restrictions, did take place in various cities from December. Among the notable ones were the Tansen Samaroh in Gwalior and Behala, Dover Lane festival in Kolkata, Pancham Nishad’s concerts in Mumbai, tribute concerts in Pune to Bhimsen Joshi and Pracheen Kala Kendra’s festival in Chandigarh.

But a few other significant developments took place during this period. For one, musicians have begun to look at the possibilities of organising their own concerts. “We musicians can’t keep waiting for someone else to arrange concerts for us, especially now when there is no money in it as ticket sales are down,” Delhi-based tabla exponent Zuheb Ahmed says. “It’s up to us also to create an event, support each other, woo the audience we so desperately need.”

Keeping this in mind, he and fellow artistes put together a two-day sitar festival, featuring young performers from different gharanas in December last year. “We spent nothing on advertising and were lucky to get a free hall; the participating artistes contributed with their music. We pleaded with discerning listeners to attend the festival, followed full Covid-19 protocol, and it was such an enjoyable experience.”

TV music channel Insync aired the concerts, enabling the musicians to reach out to a wider audience. “I think that’s the way forward in the foreseeable future — small baithak -style gatherings once it is safe again,” he says. Pune-based vocalist Manjusha Patil agrees. “We artistes need the support of our audience. In small numbers, the live experience baithak format is the way forward,” Patil says.

Another musical feast was an unusual three-day festival in Kolkata in April. It featured sarod players from different streams and attracted a respectable sized audience. But while it was live, the magic was missing — largely because the audience was not as relaxed as it used to be before the pandemic.

Dr Chandrima Mazumdar, a sarodist, music scholar and researcher who was in the audience, says, “Attending live concerts in the last two months, when one thought it was safer than before, has not been the same. If anyone sneezed, you tensed up. There was no inclination to interact with friends between concerts, or go backstage to meet the artistes. The atmosphere is stilted; the fear is very much felt. Now of course, with the recent new wave, there is no question of wanting to attend a live concert.”

If musicians were feeling optimistic about the future earlier this year, the recent upsurge of the new coronavirus has dampened their enthusiasm. Dr Prashant Mallik, Dhrupad exponent from the Darbhanga school of Dhrupad, sang at some 15 concerts with his brother Nishant in various cities from December 2020 to February this year. But the situation, he warns, is vastly different now. “What’s happening now is just horrific. For the next year I don’t think live concerts should happen. It’s just too risky and the effects of the vaccination will take time to kick in.”

Musicians who don’t hold jobs have had no income for a year, he points out. “The current year looks even worse. We can’t indefinitely remain the repositories of a centuries-old tradition unless it’s economically viable. I feel government bodies should step in, corporate houses like ITC should do their bit as they have in the past. The situation is very bleak,” he says.

Carnatic violin virtuoso Kumaresh Rajagopalan, on the other hand, is upbeat, though he wonders if he will travel again for concerts. “Travel has been such a part of my world for more than 40 years; all that has become a dream now. Will it ever happen again.” he asks.

But the few concerts where he played were memorable, he adds. “They brought back that magic again, if temporarily.”

Rajagopalan sees an opportunity in the Covid-19 pandemic, too. “Now, the world is our audience, it’s not just a few thousand people in one auditorium,” he says. “We musicians can remain relevant; we have to adapt and align ourselves to this new type of performance. We will find a way to succeed in connecting with our art.”

Shailaja Khanna is based in Delhi and writes on music

Published on May 10, 2021
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