Coronavirus Outbreak: Will Indian classical world's move online prompt offline paradigm shift, reimagining of future?

Devina Dutt

As the coronavirus outbreak rips through the world, countless Indian classical musicians and dancers €" along with many other sections of society €" have had to contend with its swift and savage trail of destruction. Overnight there have been cancellations of concerts and festivals in India and overseas; nobody knows when the days of live performances will resume.

Till then, those who are privileged enough to connect with their audiences online while the pandemic rages, have taken to the digital platform via Facebook Live, Zoom and similar apps, presenting concerts and performances from their homes, and usually by themselves.

Staring collectively at an uncertain future has ushered in some unusual sharing, introspection and generosity in the arts among institutions as well as artistes.

Global cultural institutions like the Bolshoi Theatre, Met Opera and Berliner Philharmoniker have made content from their archives freely available to audiences on their websites and social media handles. Many others have followed suit.

On Firstpost €" A database of books, performances, tours, events and courses available online in these times of lockdowns and social distancing

Broadly, in the Indian classical space, these initiatives could be categorised as:

Streaming archival material for free €"

Like the UK-based cultural organisation Darbar, which has offered its archive of concerts in the Hindustani and Carnatic genres on its Darbar Player App, or the National Centre of Performing Arts' NCPA@home programme €" two weeks' worth of theatre, classical music and dance content from recent shows (including concerts by Zakir Hussain and Girija Devi), uploaded to their YouTube channel. The Royal Opera House too is sharing some of its archived material on its social media platforms.

Online lessons €"

Such as those being offered by celebrated sarod artiste Pandit Tejendra Narayan Mazumdar, tabla maestros Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri and Ustad Zakir Hussain, as well as the brilliant Hindustani violinist Kala Ramnath among many others.  Ramnath's classes, conducted over Facebook Live and Instagram, have attracted over 5,000 students.

Or online workshops, as offered by Bengaluru-based Bharatanatyam dancer Parshwanath Upadhye, whose first three-hour module was shared on 31 March. Priced at $45, the module can be purchased from the Punyah Dance Company's website, and more than 100 students from 17 countries have already signed up.

New material, premiered online €"

For instance, Kolkata-based tabla artiste Bickram Ghosh's online series €" Out of the Box €" comprises short and often quirky films on music, musicianship and the tabla. One film draws parallels between different aspects of his tabla repertoire and the iambic pentameters favoured by Shakespeare. Ghosh has even filmed himself in a classic double role as his "twin", to present a jugalbandi between the Hindustani tabla and the Carnatic kanjira. "I wanted to do something that inspires and reminds us that life is still interesting and fun, even in tough times," Ghosh said.

Outreach €"

As Kolkata-based Odissi dancer Saswati Garai Ghosh has engaged in, sharing short videos of her daily rehearsals since the coronavirus-related nationwide lockdown was announced. "It is changing my concept of a rehearsal and workspace since the feedback already seems wired into it through the lens of the camera," she noted.

Concerts and recitals €"

As organised and streamed over Facebook Live by groups like Artists United (AU), and  'Hindustani Classical Music and Everything' (an anonymous fan page created five years ago by a group of students to raise awareness about music and musicians, that has over 2,63,000 followers).

Other noteworthy acts: Durga Jasraj of Art and Artistes' Utsaah festival of music and dance, sitar artiste Purbayan Chaterjee's collaborative recitals and conversations with musicians, Varanasi's annual Sankat Mochan Festival via Facebook Live, and an upcoming recital by the Gundecha Brothers (on 24 April, live on Facebook).

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As the coronavirus outbreak escalated rapidly, Pune-based sarod artiste Abhishek Borkar saw live performances being cancelled. Colleagues in Pune and other cities had similar stories to share. By the second half of March, having lost out on more than six concerts in India and abroad, Borkar €" considered among the finest musicians of his generation €" came up with the idea for Artists United (AU).

As one of the earliest movers in the Indian classical music space, AU seems to have captured the zeitgeist more acutely €" comprising in equal parts, a certain panic at the loss of the known, and an excitement for the new and untried.

Arising out of a young musician's simple desire to seek the comfort of connecting with his community in the sudden vacuum created by the cancellations, AU has featured more than 175 artistes in its programme and clocked 11,000 followers. Presently, there is no selection process; performing artists have to simply write in to AU and indicate convenient dates. A schedule is then shared on the AU page, and concerts and recitals are shared via FB Live.

An online concert by Artistes United

An online concert by Artists United

Delhi-based Dhrupad singer Sumeet Anand performed, and so did Pune-based Hindustani vocalist Anuradha Kuber. Anand says the current situation is hard for everybody, but "specially hard for all freelancers, a community to which we musicians also belong". The AU programme "is a way of connecting with audiences and getting a new kind of listener hopefully," he said. For Kuber, "the live element and the ability to take my music to someone else's space as they too are homebound" was a unique and comforting aspect of performing with AU.

The sheer number of performing artistes who are approaching AU, many of them unknown and from towns away from the main urban centres, serves as a reminder of just how many thirst for a chance to perform and are unable to do so through the existing channels.

It is poignant too, to be in the spare and simple confines of a variety of rehearsal rooms, the ordinary homes where large swathes of virtually anonymous musicians with little or no connection with the concert circuit, are at work.

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In the short run, the immediate purpose of enabling and refreshing connections in the performing arts sector has been met by AU and initiatives such as HCMAE.

The pressing question, however, is if the current situation continues for a year or two, can initiatives like AU and others operating in the digital space have any significant impact on the way the Hindustani music ecosystem is configured? Will these digital concerts counter the complex mesh of hierarchy, power structures and inter-relationships that rule the world of Indian classical music, and determine the opportunities and career paths that are available to a wider group of musicians?

For the moment, perhaps it is sufficient to say in the case of AU certainly, that the more democratic access inherent in the digital space and the relative absence of hierarchy is enabling new conversations among younger artistes and blurring the lines between the utterly unknown and those who have wider stage experience as they perform in the same festival. This is a welcome change; importantly, this altered equation, albeit in its very early days, is also serving to demonstrate the audacious idea that it might be possible to imagine a future for classical music which is somewhat independent of the reach of powerful musicians, their progeny and big impresarios. Upgrading digital literacy and related skill sets among musicians, will be a challenge as this has been an area in which the Hindustani ecosystem €" specially when compared to the Carnatic €" has always been at a disadvantage. Also, some sort of a payment model has to come into play for musicians.

This may well be the most serious challenge in the long term as the Hindustani ecosystem and its more traditional followers don't seem ready for this critical shift. Away from the big-ticket live concerts dominated by marquee names and a small clutch of superbranded and well-connected, well-paid musicians, sponsors and rasikas alike are not willing to consider supporting even modestly-priced concerts with a wider set of relatively lesser-known but very fine musicians. Besides, increasingly, the pockets of serious listeners who stay away from the star-studded shows and have the discernment to appreciate good musicians on their own terms appear to be dwindling. It will take the young team of musicians and co-workers at the helm of AU sustained collaborative efforts and a great deal of innovative thinking in every aspect of the digital space to resolve some of these critical challenges and begin to establish a more professional and sustainable set-up in the long term.

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Perhaps the Indian Classical Music Society of Vancouver (ICMSV; initiated by a 22-year-old University of British Columbia student Akhil Jobanputra) is an example of what is possible when dedicated grassroots work over several years in the offline traditional live concert space, audience building, and a wide patron network (comprising individuals, local businesses and stakeholders) come together with a shared vision.

Faced with the cancellation of a scheduled live programme in March, ICMSV put together The Sahabhava Festival, a virtual Indian classical music and dance festival, from 31 March to 2 May. Proceeds from the festival €" there is a nominal C$15 registration fee €" will go to teachers and musicians in the area.

"We've projected that if 20 people purchase tickets, then we can give each presenter a C$100 honorarium. We're hopeful that with the collective reach of all collaborators, we can surpass our projection," Akhil says. The festival also pledged to offer funds to support artistes in the area who are unable to perform or teach in person due to the pandemic.

Clearly it is offline relationships and equations that provide a foundation to make the transition to the digital space in the current situation.

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But many of these on ground conditions require an ecosystem that is already primed for collaborating; the bald truth is that in the Indian €" and specially in the Hindustani €" context, this is an alien concept. Numerous organisations of various shapes and sizes each with their own homegrown hubris regard each other as competition rather than as potential partners sharing the responsibility of building audiences and securing the future of a sustainable classical music. Fundamental grassroots changes are needed before a sustainable ecosystem can be in place.

At AU, Abhishek Borkar believes it will be possible to take the newly formed group into a more curatorial direction in the future. Already, the second season of the concerts has begun with separate sets of instrumental and vocal recitals. "Thanks to AU I have come across artistes that I had never heard of and would not have heard of given that the live concert scenario is so commercialised and dominated by names that sell tickets. The idea is to now create an association with like-minded artistes and to try and open chapters in other cities too," he said.

Even if the current lockdown and immediate crisis ends soon, it is clear that live concerts are several months or even a year or more away. There is also no telling how this long break will change audience behaviour eventually. Curating the digital experience and setting up some key quality checks along the way at AU is the immediate challenge which will also bring more credibility to the entire experience. A fresh perspective, a panel of (preferably) younger musicians and listeners €" with little baggage and fewer links to the traditional power structures that have governed the Hindustani world offline €" could be the beginnings of a long awaited change.

Fresh ideas might also be found in the example of the London Carnatic Foundation (LCF), an initiative set up in 2019 by nine young professionals and students of Carnatic musicians looking to raise awareness of Carnatic music in London and motivate young learners of the form.

LCF was to set up their first series of concerts in June 2020 in London with senior artistes like mridangam maestro Trichy Sankaran and Carnatic vocalist Ashwath Narayanan. When the concerts were cancelled, they began to share online some of the material they had prepared as publicity promos. One depicted "Hangouts" with musicians €" 25-minute "fun-filled, interactive and relaxed podcasts with people's favourite Carnatic musicians", explained Adesh Sundaresan, a recently graduated doctor who is learning Carnatic vocal music with Dr Mala Mohan in Chennai.

The Hangout sessions feature segments like rapid fire questions, musical discussion and demonstrations, and head-to-head challenges among others. Veena artiste Ramana Balachandrana and violinist Vittal Rangan, among others, feature in these 'hangouts'.

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When Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a Janta Curfew on 22 March, Chennai-based Pianist and educator Anil Srinivasan posted a message for fellow artists on his Facebook page. In response, more than 181 artistes from 18 countries became part of a daylong event that encompassed music, dance and storytelling; their performances clocked in over 44,111 unique views.

Buoyed with the success of the Janta Ka Curfew Online Festival, Srinivasan planned another fest, called Playitforward, soon after the 21-day lockdown was announced. He tied up with Bhumika Trust, an NGO working with the elderly and underprivileged in Chennai, and introduced a crowd funding campaign for distributing food and other supplies to the marginalised, who had been made more vulnerable by the pandemic.

The 10-day festival saw a half-hour performance each evening, and featured Tamil actor and singer Andrea Jeremiah, actor Prasanna, lyricist Karki, actor Arya, as well as Carnatic vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan. (The fundraising goal of Rs 10 lakhs was met soon after.)

"Any activity that brings together a country and community is what we need now," Srinivasan said. "The planet is revolting. It is time for us to reexamine what role we perform in society."

The ability of the arts to function as an enabler for community action during a crisis is irrefutably a boon. But in the bigger picture, the remit of the arts is more than the delivery of comfort and even funds in a critical hour.

At this moment, faced with a crisis, another critical role of the arts is often glossed over: The arts are also expected to be at their most vigilant and critical now, laying bare the missing links in social justice, asking inconvenient questions about society and politics, and showing us the unequal ways in which human suffering plays out at times like this. This is especially true of the classical arts and artistes that have always enjoyed a natural consanguinity with the State and its power structures. There is often a certain pressure to spread "positivity", and an unspoken diktat to simultaneously refrain from asking too many questions. When artistes accept this then there is every danger of the arts losing their edge and purpose and they can often end up offering anodyne, inoffensive platitudes instead.

As we celebrate the emergence of the digital space in the wake of the pandemic it is essential to consciously work towards a more progressive ecosystem warding off the possibility of ending up as a sanitised, self-censored space susceptible to subtle control.

***

On 29 March, Carnatic vocalist and writer TM Krishna offered a live solo concert, 'The Home and the World', as a fundraiser for performing artistes across genres and job descriptions who had been hit hard by the abrupt cancellations of concerts, mainly in Tamil Nadu. Delivering a moving concert in the home environment, from a tanpura-lined music room, Krishna took requests (including one from Pakistan, for the popular 'Damadam Mast Kalanar') from the audience who had paid for access.

The fundraising has continued in the weeks since the concert as part of the Covid-19 Artists Fund (operationalised by the Sumanasa Foundation, which works with the arts, artists and the community, and of which Krishna is a trustee). Almost Rs 30 lakhs have been collected and disbursed to 852 artists €" including makeup artists, parai artists, koothu, instrument makers, karagattam, nadaswaram and thavil artists, regional theatre artists and Bharatanatyam as well as light and sound technicians.

The process of identifying these artists began soon after the concert, based on conversations with state-level and local networks including social movement groups as well as artist groups operating in a specific cultural space or geography. This process alone has been instrumental in understanding how vulnerable large sections of the performing arts community are. It has also been a revelation to learn of how many villages have this community as the largest section of the population.

Krishna believes we are poised on the cusp of a significant change in which the digital space as an alternative to the traditional live concert halls and sabhas comes into its own. But there are a series of questions and perspectives that sensitive artistes must take cognisance of:

First, in the larger context of the Indian arts ecosystem, even the option of being able to consider and communicate via the digital medium is the rarest of privileges that is simply not available to large swathes of performers and artistes. As we rush to embrace the digital space, we cannot presume that it will sweep away the accumulated overhang of the traditional hierarchies and power structures of the offline space unless musicians and audiences consciously and continually seek and commit to a change of behaviour and outlook.

"The whole illusion that the internet is an equaliser needs to be broken. It gives access to all but the ability to access and who can benefit from it is decided elsewhere," he says. The privileged art world is also the most claustrophobic as it seeks to reiterate its set of privileges.

The larger question is how the welter of issues related to the presentation of concerts offline will manifest in the digital space if it emerges as the sole means of communicating with audiences for an extended period.

"One way artists from among the privileged can function in the digital space is to use it to unshackle themselves from their socio aesthetic order and reimagine their art form and themselves," says Krishna, adding that it will probably be a younger emerging generation of musicians, not yet part of the establishment, who will be nimble and open enough to steer this new space towards resembling a genuine alternative.

The author is a writer, co-founder and curator at First Edition Arts, Mumbai.

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