At a summer arts programme organized by UK-based Milapfest, I was caught off-guard listening to an al fresco concert given by young Jasdeep Singh Degun, a UK-born (and bred) sitar student. While the rendition itself was noteworthy, what impressed me most was the setting. A beautifully landscaped garden with tinkling fountains formed the front of the stage, while car,fully manicured hedges created a scenic backdrop. The ambiance was perfect for an “afternoon” raga. The audience, almost completely non-Indian, seemed wrapped in the music, swaying along with closed eyes.
It made me reflect on the strange and interesting journey the Indian arts have undergone since the first heady days of the 50’s and 60’s, when musicians such as Pt Ravi Shankar (and his illustrious brother, Ananda Shankar) were among the first to journey Westwards, becoming India’s first cultural ambassadors. The pioneering journeys made by Smt MS Subbulakshmi (with her memorable concerts for the UN and at Carnegie Hall in the 60’s and 70’s) and musical geniuses such as the late Shri Lalgudi G Jayaraman, Shri N Ramani and Shri T Vishwanathan among others are still talked about with awe and excitement.
It is hence entirely praiseworthy that we now have musicians born and brought-up entirely overseas who have painstakingly imbibed the Indian cultural aesthetic, trying their best to delve into the spirit of our music.
However, does this mean that we have done our bit to propagate our musical traditions?
When we consider the case of Western classical musical traditions, we find some interesting insights. We now have several leading Western classical musicians who are not of European origin at all. Indeed, some of the best practitioners are of East Asian origin. While imperial politics of the last century and the rise in immigration to European countries have a huge role to play in this trend, don’t we now have the means (and the technologies) to rightfully place the Indian classical arts in the world’s mainstream cultural venues and festivals? Should our best artistes be relegated to “Indian Exotica” themed South Asian festivals, which are fewer in number and largely dependent on favourable organizational politics?
Instead, what I find are a surfeit of Bollywood extravaganzas, larger-than-life film-based shows catering largely to an ex-patriate Indian crowd . Recent film award shows seen on television reserve a special segment for ministers of foreign countries making a mockery of themselves imitating yesteryear Bollywood actors in a misguided attempt to woo Indian money and investment into their economies. And the ecstatic crowds cheer on, reiterating the notion that as Indians, our only cultural capital is contained on celluloid.
The propagation of the classical arts both through performances and education have largely been undertaken by a precious handful of private individuals, many of whom are not of Indian origin (the efforts undertaken by the Sri Lankan community towards propagating Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam stand testimony to this).
Indeed, our classical arts (music, dance, literature, drama) reflect on our culture at its best. Efforts to support Indian arts education, performance and exchanges should be a priority in the 21st century.
As we celebrated our 66th year of independence, my fond wish is to see Dikshitar and Bach share stage at Carnegie Hall and at the Royal Albert Hall more often. Perhaps playing together.