As cultures rooted in the more leisurely past teeter on the verge of extinction, thanks to the onslaught of technology and economic progress achieved at enormous human cost in the last, and this century, it becomes a question of considerable speculation whether an art like Hindustani classical music—instrumental and vocal—can survive, let alone progress, in the near future in India.

Will it go the way it did in Pakistan after partition in 1947, where it died quietly due to a lack of enlightened patronage? The death of stalwarts like Bhimsen Joshi last January encourages such thoughts.

Joshi was the last of the Hindustani vocalists whose quest for music became the confirmation of a gift for it. Bhimsen Joshi ran away from home at 13, in search of a guru who would reveal the secrets of music to him. It took 20 years— and teachers like the blind Dhrupad singer from Jalandhar, Mangat Ram; Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan of Rampur, and Savai Gandharwa of the Kirana Gharana—to give him the fillip to become the most charismatic singer of his generation.

Bhimsenji had both time and the kindness of his teachers—in terms of imparting musical knowledge and in feeding the pupil—on his side. He did not have to earn large sums of money to keep going, although he became something of a celebrity after a sensational debut at the Harballabh Music Conference, Jalandhar, in the late 1940s. It would be next to impossible for a young vocalist or instrumentalist today to find either the time or the teacher to fulfill a quest for musical knowledge. Given the cost of living and the rampant philistinism that celebrates the mediocre and the spurious, the musician will be too busy trying to earn a living to even bother about the aesthetic mysteries of a music that was regarded as a path to self-realisation if not moksha.

The malaise lies deep in the past. Kailash Pandey, devoted pupil of the great Ishtiaq Hussain Khan Saheb of Rampur, and then after his death, his younger brother Ghulam Taqi Khan, considers the rapid decline of the mehfil (intimate private soiree) and the rise of the so-called music-conferences held for a large number of people, quite is passionately: “Jo pehley baat cheet hua karti thee, who aaj pravachan mein badal gayee haey.” This translates literally as, “What used to be a conversation between singer/instrumentalist and the listener, has over time become a sermon for a large congregation.”

What he probably means is that Hindustani music lost its way catering to a large audience. The rapport the musician built with the listener in a small gathering was lost in a large auditorium where a more florid technique became necessary to make an impact. Grandstanding in a music that was in essence meditative, became an aesthetic problem; while the economic status of a few musicians improved considerably, and of many, adequately.

The only singer in Hindustani music with a contemplative quality to make an indelible impression on the large, concert hall audience was Amir Khan Saheb of the Indore-Kirana Gharana. He sang as he pleased, and still retained the love and respect of his audience. But then he was an exception, as were the times he lived in. He died in 1972 in an automobile accident. He was 61.

Amir Khan, a fine sarangi player’s son and not a gharanadaar or “pedigreed” vocalist, was a mirasee or professional musician like his illustrious senior contemporary, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb of Kasur, West Punjab.

Any singer who did not belong to a clan of kalavant, meaning with a long tradition behind him, preferably in Dhrupad, was not considered a “serious” singer even

50-60 years ago. It was Bade Ghulam Ali Khan who challenged the ongoing convention. Soon after, Amir Khan followed.

It is necessary to remember that Amir Khan became a much loved vocalist in the late ’50s and remained one until his passing. When he shot into fame the nation-building energies were intact; India had just won freedom from British rule in 1947. The vestiges of old raga music had remained; what better proof can one ask for than the numerous Hindi film songs of the period which carried the lilt, the bhava, the rasa of Hindustani music?

Hindustani music or for that matter Carnatic music, gets its sustenance from spirituality. Indian musicians in the past led poverty-stricken lives. Except for certain gifted tawaifs or singing courtesans who had the patronage of the Maharajas and Nawabs, most musicians, regardless of talent, were hard-pressed to make ends meet.

Ironically, it was left to the dazzling sitar–sarod duo of Ravi Shankar and his then brother-in-law Ali Akbar Khan to go the US, popularise Hindustani raga music and earn tidy sums of money. Ravi Shankar, and to a lesser extent Ali Akbar, were regularly blamed by the musically ignorant of having compromised Hindustani music by pandering tocrass Western tastes.

Let it be known that both have been unsurpassed in their knowledge and interpretation of ragas on their respective instruments. Thanks to them, especially to Ravi Shankar, because of his outgoing nature and social skills acquired in childhood and adolescence while touring Europe and America with his dancer older brother, Uday Shankar, it became possible for other Hindustani musicians to give concerts abroad.

It is also because of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar that leading universities in the US have successfully run departments of Hindustani, and occasionally Carnatic music, with leading Indian musicians visiting regularly to teach.

The Ali Akbar Khan College of (Hindustani) Music has, over the years, trained a number of talented American musicians. Wags say that it will be they, when all else is lost, who will uphold the lofty tradition of instrumental Hindustani raga music! 

The fate of Hindustani vocal music is even more precarious. True, there are no great sitar or sarod or for that matter sarangi players below 60. The situation, however, is a lot worse for vocalists. There are a number of singers, both male and female, who sing in tune and reel off very fast taans or roulades but, regretfully, there is no rasa or bhava in their singing or, for that matter, an organic sense of form.

The idea of a bandish, literally meaning boundary or parameter, with its aesthetic and technical challenges blending seamlessly into each other, does not appear to exist any more.

Listening, therefore to private recordings of the reclusive master Sharat Chandra Arolkar (1912-94) courtesy Kailash Pandey, is an aesthetic delight. The audio quality of the CDs made from passable mono recordings may not be ideal but the singing in Raga Kamod and Gaud-Malhar is marvellous. Arolkar, who shunned the concert platform, was a darling of the mehfil, where the true rasikas or connoisseurs of Hindustani music gathered. He lived in a tiny flat, near Shivaji Park in Mumbai. A recluse, his frugal needs were met through his art.

The rigour and depth in his music, not to speak of its melodiousness, came from his training under two venerable artists of the Gwalior Gharana: Eknath Pandit, and his younger brother, Krishna Rao Shanker Pandit. Like other gifted musicians of the same gharana, the brothers benefited immensely from their roots in Dhrupad—an older, more spartan form of raga music which demanded extraordinary precision in technique combined with a clear understanding of the sahitya or poetic text that was sung.

The way Arolkar sang the sahitya in the vilambit or slow composition in Gaud Malhar, “Kahe ho pritam hum sau ankhiyan pher daali” (Why, beloved, have your turned your eyes from me) in the CD simply took one’s breath away.

His music had a grand sense of architecture, and to appreciate it needed time. The listener would have to be deeply involved; that needed cultivation. In other words, the singer and his small audience would have to be on the same wavelength. That was only possible in a small gathering of rasikas, not in a concert hall.

Arolkar, in a rare TV interview in the twilight of his life to state-run Doordarshan, exhorted contemporary listeners not to fall for glamour, but listen to those whose singing carried the essence of the real thing.

Tejendra Narayan Majumdar, an important sarod player of the current generation, spends most of his time doing concert tours, usually abroad. It is hard to catch him in the flesh.

He has learned from Ustad Bahadur Hussain Khan, nephew of the legendary Baba Allauddin Khan of Maihar, and the most lyrical of sarod masters; then from Baba’s son, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the most gifted Hindustani instrumentalist in the last hundred years. Majumdar’s response to the future of Hindustani music is certainly interesting, if not curious.

In an e-mail reply to the query about differences between the audiences of today from that of 30 or 40 years ago, he says: “I have to quote mostly from the impressions of my gurus. Audiences then were more knowledgeable, more focused. There were many real rasikas. We get a good audience today too, but smaller.”

He says: “The musician has the responsibility to entertain and educate the audience. I believe entertaining the audience is possible by conveying the essence of Hindustani music which has a huge repertoire.

“No compromises should be made with the basics, classicality must be maintained. We musicians also do lec/dems for schoolchildren and college students through organisations like Spic Macay. It is a challenge and each musician must know how to deal with it.”

On the quality of audiences abroad, he says: “In some big cities of the US there are knowledgeable listeners, often in sufficient numbers. Similarly, in some places in Europe, we find attentive and discriminating listeners.”

Of listeners at home, he observes dryly, “The patrons and donors sit in the front rows, but the real connoisseurs are from the middle-class, both in the urban and the rural context. They sit at a distance from the stage.”

Majumdar laments the decline in private soirees. “The mehfils are almost gone. The essence of our music is best expressed in the atmosphere of Chamber music. The intimate ambience of a mehfil inspired both the artist and the listener. There are still a few people who care for that kind of baithak—but these days

the norm is big concerts with corporate sponsorship. Musicians have to accept the challenges thus thrown up.

Hindustani musicians of a certain standing have never had it so good, thanks to tours overseas. Their schedules are hectic, often combining teaching and workshops with performances, with a recording session or two thrown in, but the money, certainly by Indian standards, is good. This is a welcome trend because earlier musicians had a pretty rough time.

Ustad Inayat Khan (1900-1938) the great sitar player of the Etawa Gharana, father of the famous Ustad Vilayat Khan in our time, reportedly had this conversation with the father of the young advocate and tabla player, Hirendranath Ganguly : “Karta babu, (literally meaning head of the family) Jodi aapni Hiroo babu ke aaj aamar shangey bajabar onumothi daen ta holey amaey dus taka tablawala kay detey hobey na.”

This heartfelt entreaty translates as: “Sir, if you permit your son Hiroo babu to play with me today, I will be able to save the ten rupees I would have to pay my tabla player.’’

Hirendranath Ganguly, from a well-to-do family, was a student of Khalifa Abid Hussain, the tabla maestro from Lucknow. Inayat Khan, the most celebrated sitar and surbahar player of his time, for all his brilliance, found it difficult to make ends meet.

His son, orphaned at 11, became a hugely popular sitarist, conquering the hearts alike of cognoscenti and uninitiated, at home and in the West. A man of expensive tastes, Vilayat Khan Saheb knew what to do with the money he earned in large measure.

The Gundecha Brothers—Ramakant and Umakant—possibly the finest Dhrupad singers in India, are much in demand in Europe.

Bhimsen Joshi ran away from home at 13, in search of a guru. It took 20 years—and teachers like the blind Dhrupad singer Mangat Ram; Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan, and Savai Gandharwa—to hone his art

They were trained by Ustad Fariduddin Khan Dagar of the famous Dagar family of Dhrupadiyas of Ambetha in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh, whose ancestry can be traced back to Emperor Akbar’s time (16th century).

The Gundechas have tried to share the hard won knowledge of an extremely demanding musical form by setting up Dhrupad Sansthan, an international residential school; they are in their own way trying to recreate the Gurukul in our times.

They took time off from a demanding European tour to answer via e-mail some questions. Asked about the school, Ramakant Gundecha said: “We are very hopeful. God will take care of us because of our dedication in teaching this form (Dhrupad).”

About his students he said, “We have around 25 from around the globe… many are doing well.”

The brothers were attracted to Dhrupad in their teens. Ramakant recalls, “Popular music never attracted our inner consciousness even when we were kids. We wanted to do something serious and Dhrupad provided us with just that opportunity: We had already done our post-graduation in vocal music and been exposed to all kinds of music, Dhrupad, we discovered, was our cup of tea. No other music gives you the opportunity to study sur in such depth. We were given the chance to learn at the Dhrupad Kendra in Bhopal. Both our Ustads (Zia Fariduddin Dagar, vocal, and Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, veena) came there to teach us their special art. We often wondered why many more people were not learning Dhrupad, the mother of Hindustani music.”

Umakant Gundecha added: “Both of us wanted to bring Dhrupad into the mainstream of our (Hindustani) music. When we started there were not many opportunities for Dhrupad singers. Things started to improve slowly. We are very grateful to our Gurus Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar and Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar for giving us the best possible talim (training). They opened up a whole world of sur and shruti for us.”

The Gundecha brothers have written an impassioned article on why the harmonium is unfit to be used as an accompanying instrument in Hindustani music because of its inability to execute meends— to glide from one note to another—or execute shrutis or microtones, the lifeblood of our raga music.

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, possibly the most surreal or tuneful of instrumentalists had said to the eminent musicologist and composer Bhaskar Chandavarker, on more than one occasion, “These days you hardly hear any shrutis in Hindustani music.” The possibility of becoming attuned to shruti nowadays is dwindling quickly. The environment has become far too noisy. In order to recognise shruti accurately one must also understand the value of silence, which is in woefully short supply these days.

Baba Allauddin Khan’s music ashram in Maihar, Madhya Pradesh was, indeed, far from the madding crowd. It was a quiet place, ideal for music-making of an unusually high order. His fanatical zeal to pass on all that he had learnt—he had a repertoire of a staggering 3,000 bandish (compositions) in a variety of ragas. His list of pupils reads like a Who’s Who of Hindustani instrumental music: Ravi Shankar (one-time son-in-law), Umashankar Misra, Nikhil Banerjee–sitar; Annapoorna Devi (daughter)– surbahar; Timir Baran Bhattacharya, Ali Akbar Khan (son), Bahadur Hussain Khan (nephew), Virendra Kumar Mathur and his cousin Sharan Rani Bakliwal– sarod;Pannalal–flute.

Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta, a retired engineer, is the foremost pupil of an outstanding sarod player, Pandit Radhika Mohan Moitra, scion of a zamindar family from Maimensingh in erstwhile East Bengal.

Radhu Babu, as he was affectionately known in music circles, was a pupil of two old sarod masters, Ustad Amir Khan and Ustad Abdullah Khan. He was also a student of an eminent veena player in the Dhrupad tradition from Rampur, Ustad Mohammad Dabir Khan.

Radhu Babu, holder of a Master’s degree in law, was a reluctant advocate. His disciple Buddhadev Dasgupta was a quiet, competent professional when he worked for the government of West Bengal. But he never let his musical quest be overshadowed by his job. He did his riaz —practice—with the same dedication as any top flight Hindustani musician. Over a long stretch of time he achieved an enviable level of excellence. Pandit Uma Shankar Misra—among the greatest masters of the Khula Baaj on the sitar, ideally suited to the small mehfil with few time restrictions—called Dasgupta’s musical conception of presenting ragas on the sarod the neatest among his contemporaries. At 78, he is a senior fellow at the Sangeet Research Academy, Kolkata, set up at the initiative of the Kichlu brothers— Ravi and Vijay—and funded by ITC. The brothers were classically-trained vocalists, who gallantly tried to stem the tide when Hindustani music began to falter as the old masters died one by one, and the number of paying listeners dwindled.

They set up ITC Sangeet Research Academy to salvage what was left of a vast heritage of music accumulated over 500 years. 

Dasgupta is sceptical about the state of Hindustani music, instrumental and vocal. In a telephone conversation, he said in Bengali: “Aage aamra aamshottor boro boro pata chire chire khetam. Aekhon sheyi aamshotto toffee hoye gaechey.’’ The equivalent of this sad quip in English would be, “We used to tear off large strips of mango candy and eat; now that same mango candy is being served up as little pellets of toffee!”

He elaborated that the intensive, long sessions of training that he and others like him underwent have become a thing of the past. “Students these days want to perform in public before they are ready. Bhalo korey ekta raager shongey parichay hoye naa…” (They hardly get acquainted with a raga).

“Nobody has the time to learn anything in depth. The listener too does not have the time for beautiful, contemplative music. He cannot tell the fake from the real. He is looking for excitement. As long as a musician has the (outward) technique to charm the listener he is in demand.

You can only have musicians with depth and knowledge if there are listeners to appreciate and encourage them. Now there are hardly any serious musicians left or, for that matter, listeners.”

He feels lack of time is the root cause. He is also saddened by the fact there is such a lack of primary music education. In a mix of Bengali and English, he says, “Puro baepar ta otonto shallow (The entire business is extremely shallow.”

Dasgupta praises Carnatic music and its aficionados. “Things are very much better in the South because musically informed listeners inspire musicians to maintain a high standard. Even today, in many middle-class households children learn to sing or play an instrument. They learn Carnatic music seriously.”

He says the overwhelming influence of light music, in turn heavily influenced by Western pop music, has vitiated the atmosphere, and in a decisive way prevented young people from understanding and appreciating Hindustani music, because it demands a long attention span. 

“There are various kinds of light music in Europe and America but their presence has in no way affected the teaching and performance of Western classical music. They have taken good care to protect their musical heritage. There are enough informed listeners to sustain musicians who play and sing with utmost dedication.

You ask me, will Hindustani music survive? My answer is yes it will, but in a truncated form. You need time to learn and love this music but who has the time these days?”

Today, Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar is perhaps the most well-known Hindustani vocalist, said to be last of the traditionalists. He is 56 and widely respected for his musical integrity. The Nagpur-born Kashalkar is a student of Rambhau (Puroshottam) Marathe and Gajanan Rao Joshi. Ulhasji learnt the Gwalior Gayaki from Ram Marathe, a pupil of Pandit Krishna Rao Shankar Pandit, a stalwart of the Gharana. An optimist, he sees a bright future for Hindustani music.

"Kuchh loge apne liye gaatey hein, aur kuchh log public ke liye gaatey hein,” he says. (Some people sing for themselves and others sing for the public).”

In the old days, he says, Hindustani music was meant for a limited number of people like Maharajas, Nawabs and such like. In the 20th century people like Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, a famous singer, who started the Gandharwa Mahavidyalaya, most prominently in Lahore, to popularise raga music among the educated middle-and upper classes.

Thanks to the public festivals Paluskar and other like-minded people organised after the advent of the microphone and the loudspeaker following World War I, hundreds, even thousands, could listen to the masters of Hindustani music.

Paluskar felt that the need for “Kansen” —listeners with ears trained to appreciate good music—was as great as the need for Tansens, one of Akbar’s Nine Gems whose musical achievements are still discussed with awe. He says it was Vishnu Digambar who took Hindustani music to the public. “Today thousands of people come to listen to classical music.”

Kashalkar is not too worried by the decline of the mehfil tradition. 

Kuchh jagah ziyada sunnewale hotey hein aur kuchh jagah kum. Chotimehfil ho ya bada hall, main hamesha pura chav lekar gaane ki koshish karta hun” (I sing with the same pleasure in a small mehfil or a big hall. At some venues the number of listeners is small, and at others, large).

He sees a bright future for Hindustani music. He points to the dramatic increase in the number of concerts in the country and its rising popularity abroad. He feels many Europeans and Americans are seriously learning Hindustani music, even an older genre like Dhrupad.

Listeners abroad are serious and genuinely curious about our music.

It is worth considering both points of view on the future of Hindustani music. Masters like Sharat Chandra Arolkar felt the real pleasure (ananda) of margiya sangeet (spiritual raga music) could only be experienced in a small gathering.

Large audiences, mostly uninformed, could easily send conflicting vibrations, forcing the artiste, into a state of musical compromise.

Arolkar and others like sitarist Pandit Umashankar Misra presented the best of their art in the intimate contact of a small, select audience. So did the great Khayal singer Ustad Ishtiaq Husain Khan of Rampur.

Appreciating their art demanded a long attention span and an awareness of the spiritual dimensions of Hindustani music.

The great sitariya and spiritualist, Ustad Hamid Hussain Khan of Lucknow played for his fellow musicians and jaankars or knowledgeable listeners.

Occasionally, he would play in public, as at the annual music conference organised by the Maris (now Bhatkhande) College of Music, where he taught an Advanced Class when the mood seized him.

Singing or playing before a large audience at home is an inescapable reality, as is the necessity of frequent foreign tours. Dwindling attention spans among listeners is also a reality.

People answer calls on their cellphones during concerts or chat with each other if they find the music “boring”.

Aalap are getting shorter and listeners can only be amused, even entertained if the singer or instrumentalist burst into frequent volleys of fast taans.

Elements from other light classical forms like Thumri can, and are, incorporated into a weightier form like Khayal, to make it more attractive.

One is torn between the unrelenting pessimism of Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta and the optimism of Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, who believes that, “Gaana banta hai apne aap”. (One makes one’s own music).” It is a tough call, to say the least.