India’s exclusive circles of competitive whistling

Local outfits of the Indian Whistlers’ Association hold meetings in which members practise whistling various types of music, from semi-classical pieces to popular songs from films. indranil mukherjee / afp / getty images
01 March, 2017

As a child, Kartik Kullar was always drawn to whistling. “When he was young, he used to watch me whistle, and wouldn’t let me go until I taught him how to do it too,” his mother, Seema Kullar, told me. Kartik picked up the skill so well that he won a school talent competition by whistling the patriotic song “Saare jahaan se achchha.” That victory, he told me, even prompted his school to exempt him from a strict ban on whistling in its corridors.

In January, I met Kartik and Seema in their flat in north Delhi. Seema told me that in 2010, when Kartik was 11 years old, she saw a newspaper advertisement about the Indian Whistlers’ Association. She contacted the IWA, and soon afterwards, took Kartik to an audition with the organisation’s Delhi cell. The audition took place in a dusty room in west Delhi, in front of eight old men. Kartik impressed them, and by the end of the day had become the IWA’s youngest member. “They were very impressed because I was able to whistle both blowing out and in,” he remembered. “Jagat sir especially congratulated me.”

Jagat Tarkas is a giant in India’s world of competitive whistling. In the early 2000s, a group of Pune-based friends in their late teens and early twenties—led by Rigveda Deshpandey, then a 19-year-old sound engineer—started a small club to practise whistling. They got more ambitious in 2004, when Tarkas, then a 57-year-old owner of a modest sports-equipment business in Chennai, contacted them and encouraged them to found an official club: the IWA.

The IWA, which Deshpandey has headed since it started, quickly expanded into a national enterprise, with chapters in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi and Ahmedabad. Local outfits began to hold regular meetings, in which hundreds of members trained to perform a repertoire that ranged from semi-classical pieces to hit songs from Hindi, Tamil and Telugu films. Its members have made a name for Indian whistling by winning prizes in international competitions. However, many of the IWA’s most devoted members fear that, absent an increase in interest among younger performers, the organisation—and with it, Indian whistling—risks fading away.

The members of the IWA’s Delhi cell, Kartik told me, were mostly old and middle-aged professionals—doctors, bankers and small-time businessmen, who made time on weekends to whistle. “There were some of us who put our entire heart into it,” Kartik said, describing one man from the Chandigarh area “who would travel for more than four hours every Sunday for a one-hour meeting, and then travel back for four hours.” The Delhi cell met each week in a hall in a business school in Patparganj, where one of the members was a faculty member. There, they would whistle songs with backing from a karaoke machine.

Sharanya Ramachandran, a Chennai-based PhD student, told me that trying out for the IWA is a rigorous, competitive process. First, a whistler must be nominated to audition. Once nominated, applicants must send a two-minute clip of them whistling a song, which is then reviewed by leaders in the organisation. If they clear this stage, they perform live at an IWA meeting, and, if the members determine them skilled enough, they are admitted. After that, they begin a one-month training period, at the end of which they are sorted into two categories: “aspiring” whistlers, for the less skilled, and “inspiring” whistlers, for the more skilled.

Competitions are a major part of the IWA’s activities. Kartik showed me a collection of trophies that he had won, including a plastic figurine of Mother India, draped in a green sari and holding the national flag. He had won that prize at a 2011 contest, he said, in which whistlers from all over the country competed in a ramshackle hall in a Chennai suburb.

Last July, the country’s whistling community had one of its proudest moments; many Indian whistlers—including seven from the IWA and four from Whistling World, another organisation—travelled to the World Whistlers Convention in Kawasaki, Japan. Three Indians won awards there: Tarkas in the contest for senior citizens; Nikhil Rane in the “Hikifuki” category, in which one must accompany one’s whistling by playing an instrument; and Shweta Suresh in two categories—including one for which she whistled while dancing Bharatanatyam.

The Chennai cell of the IWA used to hold monthly events, often with a particular theme. For example, all members might have to perform songs written by a particular composer, or whose lyrics related to the moon. The elders present at the meeting would then tell performers how they could improve—for example, if they might modulate dynamics more skillfully. “Whistling is not something that can be taught, only fine-tuned,” Tarkas told me.

Large crowds often attended these events. “Hundreds of people would come, not knowing what to expect,” MR Subramaniam, who was one of the senior-most members of the Chennai cell, told me, beaming with pride. “By the end of the evening, they would leave knowing whistling is an art like any other instrument.”

The events could also, however, be fodder for controversy and competition within the group. “You realise that in a two-hour programme you can only squeeze in about 20 songs, and so everyone can’t perform,” Tarkas explained. Because of such incidents, he said, “I was not happy with the way they were doing things in the association.”

Tarkas eventually parted ways with the IWA. In 2015, he and Subramaniam  started the breakaway Whistling World, which, Tarkas said, sought to be even more exclusive than the IWA, accepting only very skilled performers. Still, he assured me, “There is no bad blood between the two associations, just a competitive rivalry.”

In recent years, both the IWA and Whistling World have faced attrition. Kartik left the IWA in 2012, when he entered tenth standard and had to focus on school. Soon after, the Delhi cell of the IWA stopped meeting. The Delhi members “still keep messaging each other,” Kartik told me. “But there is no place to practise, and all of them are very busy now.”

To most of the senior whistlers whom I interviewed, it was clear that the heyday of whistling in India had passed. At its height, Tarkas said, the IWA boasted a membership of around 300 people. Now it has about 50 members. “I’m scared our passion for whistling won’t pass on to the next generation,” he said.

The burden of proving them wrong lies heavy on the shoulders of young whistlers such as Shweta Suresh and Kartik—but, fortunately, they seem to be rising to the occasion. After Suresh won her award in Kawasaki, she was asked to whistle in several hit songs in the Tamil film industry. Kartik, who is currently studying commerce at Delhi University, whistles in a band alongside four of his friends: a guitarist, a keyboard-player, a beatboxer and a singer.

But not all has been harmonious for Kartik. Though he applied to for a spot at Delhi University under its quota for students practising music as an extracurricular activity, he was brushed aside by the professors judging the auditions. “This is not singing, this is not an art,” he said they told him. “I felt sorry, and came back very disappointed.”