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.