On the Record

Technology continues to challenge Hindustani music in productive ways

Gauhar Jaan was one of the first Hindustani musicians to embrace sound recording, in the early 1900s. PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE
01 July, 2014

A FEW YEARS AGO, I was at the Rabindra Sadan in Kolkata; the auditorium was packed, people were squatting in the aisles. The Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj had just concluded an elaborate tihai, or closing sequence, and was holding the position: head tilted, eyebrows arched. His outstretched right hand was held in a familiar pose of finality, denoting both that the tihai was over and that there were few others who could have done it better. Taking in the applause, he started tapping his feet again, his ghungroos ringing to the rhythm of drut teentaal. Suddenly he brought his mouth to the mike and, while still keeping time with his ghungroos, asked, “Kya bathroom mein dekhoge Birju Maharaj ko?”(Will you watch Birju Maharaj in the bathroom?)

The words were so absurd against the na-dhin-dhin-na that it took a few moments to figure out that the maestro was addressing someone who was recording the recital on his phone. As a dancer who is well-versed in Hindustani music, Maharaj is no stranger to recording. And yet, at that moment of complete immersion in his art, the sight of a phone capturing it was so offensive that he, otherwise an exemplar of propriety, felt compelled to respond with equal crassness.

From the earliest days of analogue sound recording, technology has shared a tenuous relationship with the classical forms, including Hindustani music. When the American engineer and musician FW Gaisberg came to India in 1902, leading the Gramophone Company’s first recording expedition to the country, many Hindustani musicians were reluctant to face the phonograph. There were a number of reasons, including, apocryphally, an apprehension that the conical contraption would suck the sur out of an artist’s voice. Musicians’ more concrete concerns were centred around the sudden public availability of their art, and the limitations that recording imposed on performance time. Over the course of the last century, these two concerns have shaped both the practice and the content of Hindustani music. In its current form—especially in terms of the social milieu in which it is practiced—Hindustani music arguably owes its greatest debt to the arrival of sound recording. Over the years, as technology has advanced, musicians have adapted themselves, balancing adherence to classical structures against the pressure to remain relevant. Today, Hindustani music is riding high on the boom in music recording and distribution on digital platforms, rather than being muffled by its din.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Hindustani music was performed and appreciated in private chambers rather than at ticketed public events. For musicians, the notion of exclusivity extended beyond where they performed to the question of who had ownership of the music. A musician’s cheez, or material, was the marker of his musical lineage, and most performers were fiercely protective of their inherited knowledge. The cream of their repertoire—especially bandishes, or fixed compositions—was often not taught to disciples from outside their respective families; it was considered too valuable. Bandishes were regularly given as dowry in marriages between musicians’ families. In Gwalior, an artist could mortgage a raga for cash: any listener wishing to hear that particular raga by the artist at a gathering had to first pay off the debt to the moneylender to “release” it.

By the mid 1900s, it was difficult to imagine someone paying a premium to hear a raga in a recital. The listener could buy a disc for much less than the mortgage amount and listen to it as many times as he pleased. Not only that, any listener with decent vocal abilities could learn the piece on the disc and sing it. What was once the preserve of the elite was now open to the middle classes.

Some artists held out. The sarod maestro Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, for example, was famously appalled at this idea. He refused to make any commercial recordings (though he did record for All India Radio), with the explanation, quoted in a 1975 publication, that “I could not endure the thought that a disc of mine could be bought by some unworthy people and played casually anywhere—in paan shops and wedding parties with people jesting and making merry the while.” Other artists shared Khan’s sentiments, but not his resolve. The lure of sound recording was too great, since it offered a reach and popularity that could never be achieved by holding on to elitist sentiments.

The success of those artistes who did embrace the phonograph was evident. Tawaifs—courtesans—were the least resistant to the idea of their music being recorded and sold, and the popularity of artists like Calcutta’s Gauhar Jaan proved seductive for many others. The reigning ustads and pandits caved in, albeit gingerly. In some instances, instrumentalists recorded an incomplete bandishor played it differently at various stages of a recording, so that listeners would never know the “authentic” version. Vocalists often chose not to pronounce certain words of a bandish. But, despite this tentativeness, by the 1950s all the big names cut commercial discs.

The limits on recording length posed the other major challenge. The early, lac-pressed recording discs varied from about seven to 12 inches in diameter, allowing performance times of between roughly one-and-a-half and five minutes per continuous take. The three-minute length of a ten-inch disc soon became the standard. In the context of Hindustani music, this demanded Herculean acts of compression. In concert, musicians could unfurl a raga at leisure over thirty to sixty minutes, and often longer. This allowed them to achieve two equally important purposes: to do justice to the character of the raga, or its roop, and to establish their own versatility. To be taken seriously, an artist had to display a command over, preferably, all the different elements considered key markers of a recital. A well-structured vistaar—slow elaboration—could be orphaned if not followed by sharp, faster-paced taans. But structuring three-minute pieces posed new conundrums. Should recordings be miniatures of longer recitals with brief flashes of all the requisite elements? Or should they focus on a single element, and explore its select nuances?

Western classical music overcame the time restriction problem by releasing long pieces as boxed sets of multiple discs, each containing a different movement or part. Operas and symphonies, already composed in sections, were suited to such staggered recording. But in Hindustani recitals, the elaborations were all expected to segue into each other; they are the invisible pillars that hold up the edifice of the raga as an organic whole. Separate discs would not have worked.

Yet it is remarkable how well Hindustani musicians adapted to the three-minute standard, and subsequently also to the time limits of newer technology. In a Hindustani recital, the individual elements—alaap, vistaar, taans, jhala—must cohere to emerge as something more than the sum of the parts: the essence of the raga, which is formed of distinct parts, but in itself remains abstract. Artists realised the difficulty of covering all the elements in three minutes, but there was no reason why the essence of a raga could not be captured. By choosing a bandish that was an apt melodic representation of a raga, by performing it at a pace that was amenable to a wide range of improvisations, and by choosing a select rather than exhaustive set of embellishments, musicians could ensure that a three-minute rendition was not a summary, but a melodic entity in itself.

Many iconic three-minute renditions by artists such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan continue to be used as reference points for understanding the delineation of certain ragas. As technological advances extended recording times—six minutes on EP; 23 minutes on LP; thirty minutes and beyond on cassettes after the 1960s and compact discs after the 1980s—Hindustani musicians adapted by using the same principle. Of course, with later mediums, recordings began to resemble live recitals, and the significance of selection decreased, though the process of editing remained vital. (While musicians can now theoretically record without restriction, thus far most have chosen to stick to the length conventions established over the last fifty years.)

The mass availability of recordings meant that artists like Ustad Faiyaz Khan and Kesarbai Kerkar were no longer grand, elusive figures behind the walls of private music chambers. Their recordings were, for a vast number of people, the primary point of entry into the world of Hindustani music. Amlan Das Gupta, a professor at Jadavpur University who has written extensively on the relationship between Hindustani music and sound recording, told me that the recordings had a profound impact on developing audiences’ tastes, which in turn influenced the content of the music. Maestros were not catering exclusively to a group of connoisseurs anymore; with the advent of recording, the content of Hindustani music came to be shaped more by the aesthetic preferences of music lovers rather than aficionados.

The music of the twentieth century maestros—Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Zakir Hussain—who are additionally considered superstars, has never been only for the purists. The wall “between reverence and consumption,” as the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in Fractured Times, his book on twentieth-century culture and society, has been broken. Audiences in the United States have hooted in excitement after a jugalbandi by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan; listeners in Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium have whistled at their first glimpse of Zakir Hussain. Today, recitals also evoke the excitement of seeing a celluloid star in real life, as fans put faces to the artists from their favourite recordings. The pieces most commonly requested in recitals are also the ones on the best-selling recordings: ‘Jo bhaje hari’ for Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, ‘Bhavani dayani’ for Parween Sultana, and, making him cringe every time, ‘Aaoge jab tum o saajna’ for Ustad Rashid Khan. For Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, it was ‘Aye na balam.’ Listeners in Calcutta would scream for it as soon they saw him. The ustad would smile and reassure them, “Balam ayega, balam ayega.

Despite being governed by the strict rules of a classical form, Hindustani music continues to be commercially sustainable because it has not resisted audiences’ tastes. Few classical forms of music, anywhere in the world, can attract audiences in the thousands, as many festivals in India still do. Most contemporary artists view new developments in technology as enablers, just as Gauhar Jaan did a century earlier. The iTanpura app is ubiquitous; it’s a familiar sight at concerts to see the tanpura sound being sourced from the artist’s iPhone placed in a mini-dock. In instrumental music, a new soundscape is being explored through electronic versions of traditionally acoustic instruments like the electric sitar and the sarod.

YouTube is flooded with private recordings of concerts that, even ten years ago, collectors zealously guarded. (I once stole, from my guru’s collection, a 1954 recording of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s rendition of the raga Chhayanat. It was one my most precious possessions—until I found the same recording on YouTube alongside many other “rare” pieces.) The greatest revolution in dissemination, though, has come in the form of teaching music through online gurukuls. Whereas singers once held on to their inheritance by omitting words from bandishes, Hindustani music is now taught over Skype. Established musicians like Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty and Sanjoy Bandyopadyay hold regular online classes, aimed largely at NRI students.

The movement to democratise Hindustani music can be traced back to the generation of artists who first acquiesced to freezing their music in time. Birju Maharaj need not have been uncharitable to the young man with the mobile phone. For over a hundred years now, Hindustani musicians have made their peace with posterity and ceased to fret about who their listeners are, or whether they are heard in private rooms, public halls or via cyberspace. After all, Kesarbai Kerkar’s three-minute rendition of ‘Jaat kahan ho’ in the morning raga Bhairavi even made it to interstellar space, as part of the Golden Record sent up on the Voyager probes in 1977. What greater abandon? In some faraway place, where time probably has no meaning, Kesarbai’s voice will land on pa after caressing komal dha, and her Bhairavi will signal dawn.