An ongoing music reality show on Bengali television has a ‘classical’ category, along with ‘folk’ and ‘light’. Many classical musicians and aficionados in Kolkata are upset; in time-honoured fashion, their reasons are unclear. In the thick of a heated discussion, the best I could gather is that there are two prickly issues: classical music is being compromised by placing it in a TRP-seeking competitive format and classical music is being presented in a ‘ridiculous’ setting. The second point holds true to the extent that the setting could be deemed inane in any context, not just classical music: the flippant banter of the host, the pithy ‘stories’ of the contestants, the circus costumes. But that is the way of most TV shows now — designed to test the limits of one’s embarrassment. Also, it is hypocritical of aficionados in Bengal to have spartan expectations of classical programmes. The sartorial sensibility of Bengali classical artistes, particularly the men, borders on lunacy: fully-embroidered-bright-pink-kurta-black-churidar-gold-chain-gold-bracelet is par for the course.

The first objection — presenting classical music in a competitive format — is more startling. The grumbling purists often forget that competitions have played a significant role in the history of Hindustani music and that stalwarts have been involved in them, both as judges and participants. The one organised by the All India Music Conference in Allahabad was one of the premier pre-Independence competitions. In 1937, the competition witnessed a historic event. Twenty-year-old Radhika Mohan Maitra (who was a zamindar from Rajshahi at that time, not quite the sarod legend he would become) stood first in the competition. Ustad Alauddin Khan was one of the judges and was also scheduled to perform as part of the same festival (non-competitive, of course). He was so impressed with Maitra’s playing that he asked the young zamindar to play alongside him at the recital. This was quite a departure from the norm. Normally, a maestro is accompanied by his disciple (Maitra and Khan were not even from the same gharana). Maitra always considered the Allahabad recital as a significant milestone in his life in music.

Many Hindustani musicians have found recognition through competitions. In the early 20th century, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande brought Hindustani music out of feudal patronage by building music institutes and encouraging the middle class to engage with Hindustani music. Music competitions were a natural extension of this democratising process. Students without musical lineage (and connections in the music fraternity) found the competitions an effective way to attract festival organisers. The competition organised by All India Radio continues to be the most prestigious — with winners of each region competing in the national finals. The national winners automatically become empanelled artistes on All India Radio — a position that is otherwise obtained through an arduous audition process.

It is quite an experience to walk into the ‘green room’ at any of the competition venues. The scene frighteningly resembles that of an examination centre in a school. There are the geeks who keep practising the most difficult taans just before they are called on; there are the champions of disaffection who casually go through a phrase or two; and, at least in Kolkata, there is the mother with a towel, a banana and a water bottle, intently sizing up her child’s competition. The most commonly overheard question is “How many hours do you practise?” If the answer is anything more than ‘four’, the follow-up query is “Arts or Commerce?”

Once in the room, things can go pretty awry, rather soon. In the radio competition, the participant cannot see the judges; their voice comes through a speaker. A friend of mine went in with a devastating Nayaki Kanada prepared; but playing too well can backfire. After he finished, one voice said, “So we’ve heard a night raga. How about a morning raga?” The friend started playing Bhairav, but he wasn’t as well-prepared. He played a short vilambit and was about to go on to the drut , when a voice said, “You have not played the antara in the vilambit .” He had forgotten the antara of the bandish , so he made one up on the spot and played it. Just as he was about to start the drut , the voice said, “Could we hear the antara one more time?” He obviously did not remember what he had made up the first time. At that moment he knew he would have to return the following year.

Often, students who go on to become excellent performers don’t perform very well in competitions. Just like the brightest student in class is not always the best exam-taker. But there are exceptions. I still remember the Shyam Kalyan played by Suhail Yusuf Khan (sarangi wizard, also part of Advaita) at the AIR final in 2005; the audience knew that they were listening to a future maestro. If I remember correctly, that final had been telecast on Doordarshan. Would it not have been wonderful if it had been telecast on a channel that more people watch?

I am delighted that a mainstream television contest — and not a ‘classical only’ contest — has included ‘classical’ as a competitive category. When it comes to forums for discovering new classical musicians, more the merrier, bigger the better.

( Arunabha Debis a Kolkata-based music writer and lawyer )