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Beginning of “No Freebies” in Classical Music

Mercifully, the relentless barrage of unsolicited free music and dance available online is easing now; with the realization that online concerts will remain a way of life in the immediate, foreseeable future, paid online concerts have started. While the opportunity of visibility for young artists is undeniable, in the long run perhaps the trend of freely available music online will not prove beneficial, as listeners have got used to hearing music free, and are not taking the presentations seriously or listening with the undivided attention that the classical arts warrant.

Gradually, organizations that promote the classical arts are learning the ways of the new online virtual world, and the opportunities presented by its limitless audience. There are many logistic problems involved, including know-how of streaming and booking tickets.

Bangalore based, which is not new to the virtual world took an early lead by having ticketed concerts as early as April; this is now slowly becoming the norm, with several entrants in the arena, including Banyan Tree, Aarti Foundation, Kanebua Pratishthan and recently Ustad Rashid Khan’s foundation, The Fifth Note, streaming concerts for a price.

Pune based Swarazankar (the brainchild of violinist Pt Atul Upadhyay) has been a promoter of music festivals for the past 10 years; their model of online concerts works on an inclusive principle where several concerts are available for a modest price, for an extended period of time. Pune based Sawani Shende, the attractive Kirana Gharana exponent (she has also learnt from Vidushi Veena Sahasrabudhe of Gwalior Gharana) recently presented a polished concert for Swarazankar. Her main Raga was Gorakh Kalyan whose precise ‘shakal’ she presented with a pleasing thoroughness; her very evident enjoyment of the masterly accompaniment of Bharat Kamat on the tabla and Suyog Kundalkar on harmonium, adding to the overall effect of her concert. An artist who is able to immerse in the music, without needing an audience is always attractive. Sawani’s ‘taan’ patterns were interesting and innovative, and she took pleasure in presenting these at leisure, adding notes, and phrases to take the original pattern even further, revelling in the embellishing thoughts of Suyog on the harmonium. Such is the basic premise of Indian classical music – that the musical process being spontaneous is an integral part of any presentation.

Debanjan Bhattacharjee

Debanjan Bhattacharjee, currently a disciple of Ustad Aashish Khan, (he learnt from Ustad Dhyanesh Khan, and later Vidushi Ameena Perera till their demises) played a beautiful Raga Chandranandan for Kolkata based Aarti Foundation. The Raga is a creation of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and being a combination of 4 Ragas, requires careful handling. Debanjan handled it like a master, his “jor” and “jhala” exhibited his ‘riyaaz’; and his ‘layakari’, was, as always a delight. On the tabla was Sandip Ghosh whose tabla accompaniment was noteworthy. Debanjan is indeed a sarod player to look out for in the future, as his undoubted ‘taalim’ is enhanced with a visible introspection and thorough absorption of the music, and, as importantly, a sense of proportion. His clear leaning towards ‘laya’ is another added asset.

Ustad Rashid Khan’s Raga Puriya Kalyan for Aarti Foundation seemed to lack that extra special quality one has come to hope from him. Despite excellent arrangements and superb accompaniment by Pt Subhankar Banerji on tabla, Hiranmay Mitra on harmonium and Sarwar Hussain on sarangi, the Ustad seemed distracted while singing, apparently not able to slip into that realm of introspection that makes for a great concert. Of course, he sang with as much verve and mastery as a singer of his stature does, but one felt something was missing. Son Armaan was in full form; one can see that the last 5 months of isolation have been well spent.

Ustad Rashid Khan | PC: Rakesh Bharadwaj

However, Ustad Rashid Khan’s concert for Banyan Tree Events was simply superb; this had been recorded in 2015. His masterly rendition of Raga Miyan ki Malhar was simply sublime; the vilambit khayal was the Adarang composition ‘karim tero naam’; grand, dignified and sombre. The concluding drut teen taal khayal ‘barasan laagi’ was a real treat, with the characteristic ‘jhoola’ effect of Miyan ki Malhar in clear evidence.  Slowly building up the tempo, the Ustad’s recital was truly great; accompaniment by Pt Vijay Ghate, Pt Ajay Joglekar and Ustad Murad Ali Khan, as always brilliant. The vocal accompaniment of his disciples Nagesh Adgaonkar and Om Bhongane was good too. Ustad Rashid Khan’s second Raga, Ramdasi Malhar, sung with both ‘gandhars’ (some versions have only one ‘gandhar’) was also sung with feeling. It would, however, be premature to assume the absence of a Live audience was the reason for the marked difference between the two concerts.

What was disturbing were the ad breaks and the additional visuals during the concerts. One wondered at the need to include shots of clouds and flowers, with the option of watching the artists on stage very much available.

Before Ustad Rashid Khan’s concert, Banyan Tree had streamed the Live recording of Vivek Sonar on the flute, accompanied on the tabla by Pt Kalinath Mishra. Vivek is a disciple of Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia, and played the brief ‘auchar’ of Miyan ki Malhar in the dhrupad style. His “gat” was in ‘rupak taal’, and the frequent interaction with the tabla, expertly played by Pt Kalinath Mishra, scintillating. Vivek ended with Raga Des.

It is indeed laudable that along with playing recordings of masters recorded earlier, (Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Pt Venkatesh Kumar, Ustad Shujaat Khan and Ustad Rashid Khan), Banyan recorded and streamed good artists from the younger generation –  vocalists Ronkini Gupta and Prasad Khaparde, and Debasmita Bhattacharya were the other artists showcased.

Speaking about the issue, Mumbai based Mahesh Babu of Banyan Tree Events talked about drying up of corporate sponsors, which is a major concern. He shared that 24 years of his organization presenting classical music concerts in various cities had resulted in a confidence level amongst his sponsors, who did not question his choice of artists or the size of the audience the event would garner. However, in today’s scenario, companies were reeling and there was less sponsorship money – “pehle agar Rs 10 milta tha, ab Rs 1 milta hai”, he said, “but still they are willing to support us. Its like, we are all drowning together so must help each other.”

Mahesh Babu is indeed passionate about promoting classical music and dance – he was drawn to the arts initially through Spic Macay. Having trained in tabla, he understood the need to provide a platform to artists, and thus was borne the concept of Banyan Tree events. Despite all odds, he and his team are manfully continuing their task. “We are not sticking only to paid concerts; we are also uploading content recorded earlier free on to our YouTube channel. Artists need a platform, and also need payment, so we are also recording them in sanitized studios; when we broadcast concerts recorded earlier, we are paying the artists again. We are finding so many different ways to reach our audience; I feel the online audience in India itself should be around 30-40000 people but we have not managed to get that sort of ticket sale. I don’t know why; people pay for physical concerts, why should they not pay for online concerts. When concerts are free, there is less value for music. Actually its a learning process for us too; its a very difficult process because recordings have to be edited, copyrights of all the artists bought, so many things! But we are confident that all this will pass; my team is learning, and I am confident in the next 2 months, we will attract a larger audience. Through ‘Bookmyshow’, we are currently only reaching Indian audiences, we will try for a foreign audience too. The purpose of Banyan Tree is to reach good music to as many people as possible. Tomorrow, if a TV channel supports us, I will be the first one to share my content. We are definitely exploring all possibilities to reach out to as many people possible.”    

Debasmita Bhattacharya

Sarodiya Debasmita Bhattacharya of the Senia Shahjahanpur Gharana acquitted herself magnificently with both the Ragas she presented;  the main Raga was Jaijaiwanti, she ended with the seasonal Raga Surdasi Malhar. She maintained the traditional approach of her ‘gharana’ not giving in to the easier option of playing lighter, more lyrical note patterns. Indeed, both Ragas are intrinsically so very melodious they don’t need to be embellished with any “dodgy” note patterns, but one finds increasingly, musicians giving in to the temptation to please the audience with novel approaches. Debasmita, despite her youth, was steadfast in her playing; in every aspect, the ‘chaap” of her Gurus (father Pt Debashish Bhattacharya, and Dada Guru Padma Bhushan Pt Buddhadev Dasgupta) was very evident; the use of stroke work in every phase of her recital.  On the tabla was Sandip Ghosh; mature, and steady; this again was a deeply satisfying recital.

The Kanebua Pratishan in Sangli, the brainchild of vocalist Manjusha Patil organised vocal concerts showcasing the ’10 Thaats’. Intending to be informative as well as pleasurable, the 3 vocalists Aarti Ankalikar, Manjusha Patil and Raghunandan Pansikar sang 3 compositions each in different Ragas taken from the 10 different ‘thaats’; each singer ending with Raga Bhairavi. Pt Bhatkhande at the turn of the last century had divided several Ragas into 10 main groups of ‘thaats’, based on their note structures. Manjusha Patil thought it would be novel to show different aspects of these Ragas, in ‘madhya’ or ‘drut’ laya compositions of different types, including khayal, thumri, tappa, tarana. Bhairavi being regarded as a ‘sada suhagin’ raga, appropriate for any occasion or time, was sung by all 3 singers, again in 3 different styles. Not confining herself to time-bound Ragas (virtual concerts have the advantage that they can be heard at any convenient time), Manjusha selected both morning and evening ragas.

It is interesting to note that so far all the organisers of ticketed online concerts are also musicians; hence the deep concern to protect their world of classical music. (Aarti Foundation is the brainchild of noted Maihar gharana sitarya Pt Kushal Das and his  sitariya son Kalyanjit.) One looks forward to more ticketed online concerts in the coming months, and hopes audiences support these by buying tickets in great numbers.

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