Opinion Columnists 14 Jan 2023 Shailaja Khanna | Ar ...

Shailaja Khanna | Are musicians today losing confidence in desi sounds?

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | SHAILAJA KHANNA
Published Jan 15, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated Jan 15, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Zakir Hussain performs at the Kolkata stage. Credit: Shiladitya Chattoraj
 Zakir Hussain performs at the Kolkata stage. Credit: Shiladitya Chattoraj

Attending a beautifully organised music festival of young bands from Asean countries held with the backdrop of the sixteenth century Purana Qila (literally translating to Old Fort), I pondered upon the impermanence of musical traditions. Despite there being bands from 10 countries, mostly all of them bringing in traditional instruments of their land, the overwhelming influence was that of Western non-acoustic instruments. The most audible percussion instrument, too, inevitably veered towards the drums, despite the use of local percussion instruments.

Sanjeev Bhargava, the organiser of the Asean India music festival reminded me that this trend is not new; Indian film background music since the times of S.D. and R.D. Burman have usually used one dominating Western instrument like the saxophone, harmonica or guitar. However, the universality of this trend, as seen in our region, is now a reality. The young seem unable to fully relate to music that is solely authentically indigenous, whether Thai, Cambodian or Indian; it appears the ‘cool’ quotient comes in with the Western sound.  In the Indian context, whether it is the popular Noorani sisters of Punjab singing fifteenth century Sufi saints’ verses, or Malini Awasthi singing authentic folk music from the interiors of Uttar Pradesh, the keyboards will insidiously slip in their notes!

Speaking of the Sufi influence on the arts, another intriguing novelty is the incorporation of ‘sufi’ in every performance, regardless of its relevance. So we have ‘sufi’ rock, ‘sufi’ kathak... maybe one day soon ‘sufi dhrupad’! Lyrics should not determine the genre, but ‘sufi’ is today cool!

As I attend a lot of music concerts all over India, I observe that Indians seem to be getting deaf. The volume of any concert, vocal or instrumental, classical or semi-classical is terribly over-amplified, whether it’s in Kolkata, Jalandhar or Delhi. Amusingly, a few of my friends carry their earphones with them which they surreptitiously put inside their ears whenever the concert starts! The concept of contrast of volume, an integral part of a classical music concert is slowly getting lost. Perhaps this trend caters to a more youthful audience -- that equates loud music to a magnified (read more enjoyable) experience?

The balancing of sound is the source of another irritant -- many sound system deliverers seem unable to understand that the experience of sound should be balanced anywhere one sits. Usually it’s in the middle of the hall that one experiences the best sound, the left and right flanks, especially up front, are invariably way too noisy -- a harsh word when used with reference to music, but I use it deliberately. Performing artistes do not help by constantly changing the sound levels during the concert, usually to increase the volume of their mic, at the expense of their co-artists. Their ability to judge the sound in the auditorium or outside is totally impaired by the sound monitors on stage. A few intelligent artistes now carry their own sound engineers with them, but this is not a practical solution, as it raises costs.

What is a really welcome change is the attention being given to the visuals of a concert. Slowly, organisers are acknowledging the importance of good lighting, and a good backdrop. The age-old flower ‘larri’, strings of blossoms at the back or on the edge of the stage are slowly becoming passe; intelligent organisers who want to sell more tickets present a holistic experience. The auditorium lobby is beautifully decorated with tasteful photos of the greats of yesteryears.

Rangolis, too, make their appearance sometimes. Inside the auditorium, the backdrops are innovative -- at the Swar Samrat stage in Kolkata it was a Mughal court complete with chandeliers and lattice-work railings while Harivallabh Jalandhar recreated the facade of a haveli; both these iconic festivals reminiscing the now-lost royal or aristocratic patronage of the arts. In Shimla, HP, the extant gothic-style windows of Gaiety Theatre were carefully lit up and included as part of the stage decor. Sometimes it’s the pillared hall of a temple -- at the MP state government festivals in Indore and Gwalior, the impression of a three-dimensional hall behind the artistes onstage is very cleverly simulated. The Asean India Music festival, despite the unparalleled magnificence of the Purana Qila as a backdrop, had an innovative stage constructed of bamboo, not just highlighting the material’s link with the Asean countries, but also subtly pointing towards the importance of using bio-degradable materials when we can. The trees hung with fabric covered soft lights added to the ambience.   

The lighting on stage is also very carefully planned and a lighting expert has become a necessity at every music festival. Definitely, dance performances were the first to focus on the necessity of good lights, but the world of music has quickly followed suit.   

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