The Hum of The Machine

Why technology doesn’t necessarily help the cause of classical music

Recording and sharing technology has made the guru-shishya tradition more accessible. {{name}}
01 October, 2011

AMONG THE INDIAN CLASSICAL MUSIC world’s many memorable stories is the one about a Muslim Khansahib and his Hindu student, both great musicians of the early 20th century. The young Brahmin was desperate to learn from the maestro, but could only catch him for brief moments as and when his teacher passed through his village. On one such visit, the Khansahib popped into his house and told his student to order him mutton and wine. The young student was petrified; he stayed with a conservative uncle who spent most of his time praying and warding off Muslims and untouchables, sprinkling holy water on his path if even their shadow crossed him. But his uncle was out, and he was desperate to learn, so he did his teacher’s bidding. They ate and drank and then sat down to practice.

The next morning, the young student shook his Khansahib awake and said, “My uncle will be here any minute. What do we do now?” The Khansahib told him not to worry, picked up the tanpura, and slowly started an ode to Shiva in Raga Bhairavi. The older Brahmin walked in, stopped in his tracks and listened. When the Khansahib finished and put the tanpura down, the old man went and touched his feet and said, “I have been praying all my life. But today I actually saw Bholenath stand before me. Thank you.”

Now imagine: What if there had been Skype, or even tape recorders, in those days? The master and his disciple need not have even met, nor risked the wrath of family—the enthusiastic student could have mastered many more ragas by catching his teacher online. Maybe he would have become a very different musician.

But what took place that day was more than just a music lesson. It was something far deeper and bigger. Many things unravelled, and the world changed ever so slightly. The master was testing his student’s commitment, his ability to surrender even at the risk of going against convention. The student was making a choice, declaring his obsession. And that early morning, when the plaintive notes of Raga Bhairavi filled the room and beyond, music brought everyone to a place of surrender, which is what it is supposed to do. Music created a state of love, of change, of beauty, in a manner that is hard to quantify—sometimes the most important notes are the unseen ones, the ones that are not even sung.

There is absolutely no question that technology has had an enormous and important impact on music as well as on the guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) tradition. First, the microphone changed the way in which music was delivered, allowing for expanded audiences. Then, recording technology revolutionised and democratised music, forcing it out of closed circles, making it less arcane and more accessible. A youngster who may not have had the resources to learn from a great master could listen to records, tapes—and now, multiple Internet sites—and actually learn and improve his music. He didn’t have to wait endlessly at the feet of the master before getting nuggets passed his way.

The only problem is that waiting is as important a part of learning as is the raga itself. It teaches patience and quietness. It creates the space that is integral to this music. There is no room for instant gratification; there are no ‘two-minute noodle’ ragas. Which is why any great old master will tell you that it is only towards the latter half of your life that your music really unfolds to form something that is worth presenting to the world. Ustad Rashid Khan is clearly an exception.

One of my favourite musicians, Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande—a trained microbiologist, so definitely not a Luddite—says, “I do not approve of teaching by Skype. When you sit face to face, it’s not just the technique you are imparting. You are learning humility, patience. It is that connection that happens between the two. And only if that secondary connection is established does the learning take place.” She doesn’t approve of students recording their lessons either, because she feels that it distracts them from concentrating and absorbing what is taking place in the present. “However much you want to refer back to the recording, the effect of the primary impact on your subconscious goes a long way in taking root in the mind of the disciple.”

There is also a technical aspect to this. Indian classical music has never been notated. It is impossible to transcribe the fact that when you hit a particular note, you have to first caress the half-note just before it—undulate it, in a way, for just that instant. It is only when you sit in front of your teacher that you can learn such things, which will be revealed to you by the raising of an eyebrow, or that slight frown, or a hand movement, or a smile.

It is true. When I think of my own training under Dhondutai Kulkarni, which started when I was a reluctant 10-year-old, I can see the way in which being with her over the past 30 years has transformed me and helped me surrender. What I learnt from her was so much more than music. Being around someone who was so unconditionally devoted to music and to God—which were the same thing for her, really—gradually carved out a music room inside me. This music room is not merely a repository of ragas and compositions. It is a space that I retreat to periodically, a quiet space, an antithesis to babble, a counterpoint to cacophony. It has saved me.

Technology is an extraordinary enabler. It makes life easier, more productive. For example, I could not do without my plug-and-play electronic tanpura, a neat little box which I can transport with me wherever I go, which can instantly create that background drone that is every musician’s support system. But every time I run my fingers along my old wooden tanpura, and twist the knobs to tune it to perfection, and hold it upright, so that the four notes resonate right next to my ear, I am convinced that my voice responds differently.