Nurturing excellence at a global level in the Indian performing arts
Published in First Melody Magazine, November 2018
That Karnatik music is one of the most refined, evolved and sophisticated forms of music is a well-established fact, or at least a belief that is deeply entrenched in the psyche of the Karnatik music community. It continues to have generations of dedicated practitioners, teachers and audiences who form an all-important ecosystem to nurture and nourish its growth. Over the years, it has expanded its geographic reach to resound in many corners of the globe.
And yet, in many ways this art form does not seem to espouse standards of excellence that can be compared to or benchmarked against the best performing arts in the world. It does not seem to have captured the global imagination the way that yoga, Indian film or even Indian food has. It is not often featured at the top venues or performing arts festivals apart from as a rare occasional phenomenon. Its teaching is, at best, unstructured and informal. Of course, one could debate whether it is necessary at all to hold oneself in comparison to global standards, but in today’s day and age, where people, places and art forms are increasingly interconnected, we must constantly try to raise the bar and create environments and systems that support excellence. So, what are some of these standards, where can we look to for inspiration, and how can we adopt these systems to Karnatik music, and by extension to the Indian classical performing arts?
The area of sports is one where India has been playing catch up to the rest of the world with quite some success. Some of the systems that seem to be working are, for example, the TOPS scheme that identifies young athletes with a potential to win Olympic medals and provides them with everything they need – coaches, international exposure, nutrition, and financial support- to achieve their potential. While we do have sporadic scholarships and fellowships in the performing arts, just imagine how much excellence we could produce if young and gifted artistes could be identified, supported through their learning years, their performances planned and analysed until their art shines as a polished gem!
Another area that one could look to for ideas is in academics. The best universities of India and the world pride themselves on the amount of research and new ideas that they engender. They cannot risk being stuck in doing the same thing for years on end. In our classical arts, the majority do not seem to be interested or incentivised in discovering or trying to add new dimensions to the art forms. In terms of new compositions, new approaches to teaching and performance, these efforts need to be lauded by the community as a whole. The idea of peer review is of utmost importance in academic circles, where each work of research is analysed, critiqued and also encouraged by peers. While this perhaps happens at a personal, informal level in our arts, we could discover ways to systematize this process, where works of art are peer-reviewed. Similarly, the corporate world offers several models that support excellence, where there is a well-defined ladder of success that promotes the truly deserving; personal preferences and biases are mitigated when promotions are determined by using several data points, and not just the likes and dislikes of one’s immediate manager. This is quite a contrast to the Sabha system, which, while set up with noble intentions, often falls prey to the whims and fancies of one decision maker.
Of course the challenges in the art world are unique, and it is not easy to adopt models that have worked in other spheres. One of the biggest issues in the arts is that of subjectivity – what may be held up as a shining example of excellence by one person, may not pass muster for another. It is also very difficult to develop metrics to measure quality in the arts, as opposed to, say, sports, where the winner is fastest, highest or strongest. There is also the issue of mass appeal versus retaining authenticity. For example, when it comes to Indian cuisine, while curry may be the national dish of the UK and extremely popular, it bears very little resemblance to the authentic recipes that would be cooked in a traditional Indian household.
So what are some of the areas that we could look to bring in global standards in our arts? Very broadly, these standards would have to encompass both its teaching and performance. When it comes to teaching, the music university model has met with limited success in producing excellent performers in the Indian context. A notable exception is ITC’s Sangeet Research Academy, which has consistently produced good performers and occasionally, some truly legendary artists such as Ustad Rashid Khan and the young star, Kaushiki Chakraborty. SRA has somehow been able to combine the best of the guru-shishya model with the process-driven approach of an institution to continually produce a high standard of performers. If one would look to global institutions such as, say, Berklee College or Juilliard School of Music, both in the United States, the sheer difficulty of getting in (very low acceptance rates), the teaching rigour, the quality of peers in the class, and the exposure almost guarantees that the graduates are by default of a very high standard. While every genre of music is unique, there are some techniques which are universal. For example, when it comes to vocal music, certain aspects of voice culture such as breathing, enunciation, diaphragmatic support, tonality, smoothness and range extension are universal. Just as there are guest lectures or visiting professors from other parts of the world in academics and corporate, can we not have the best voice experts come and train our artistes in use of voice or instrument such that our technique matches the best in the world?
Given that a vast majority of learning in an art form like Karnatik music happens through private music lessons, it then begs the question – should anyone be allowed to teach? Can there not be a certification for teachers that gives them a certain credibility? The Ayush Ministry has recently introduced certification for yoga trainers, I wonder if the same could not be extended to music trainers as well.
When it comes to performance, of course there are concerts of every size and shape in venues big and small. It is very hard to bring some sense of standards to this. However, even the basics – such as a venue with good ambience and acoustics, and a decent quality sound system- do not seem to be adhered to. One sometimes wonders – do we really need so many concerts? Specially in the December music season, an artiste is performing sometimes more than 20 concerts in the month, sometimes even two a day. Perhaps if there were fewer concerts, and artistes focused on each concert to make it unique and exclusive, there would be better output from the artiste and reception by the audience.
Sometimes excellence can also be achieved in the packaging. Serious practitioners of yoga will avow that yoga is much more about spiritual upliftment and the mind, and it is not really about the body. And yet, it has become a very popular form of exercise globally, because it is packaged as a stress-buster. Perhaps by playing up these inherent characteristics of our music – that it can alleviate stress and aid in healing ailments – we can expand our reach and listenership, and find homes in the best music venues around the world, beyond just the diasporic community.
I am reminded of a popular framework we used in our marketing course in MBA, where we learnt that the 4 Ps of marketing, according to marketing guru Philip Kotler are – Product, Price, Place and Promotion. The key to nurturing success in the arts is of course to offer an excellent Product that is needed by the audience. The Price in this case would refer to the value people attach to it – the more value they perceive, the more our audiences would be willing to buy tickets and sponsor our art forms. The Promotion would refer to how we would attract more people to this art form – using the right positioning of music relieving stress and healing. Place would refer to how this art form is disseminated and consumed, either at world-class venues around the world, or through the internet and social media.
It is only if we focus on all these areas that we can truly achieve the highest standards of excellence that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world. And only then would we truly be able to say with pride that Karnatik music is indeed among the best in the world!