The auditorium was packed to capacity, members of the audience tense with anticipation as they waited for the concert to start. If you hadn’t known who was playing that evening, you’d have thought the concert featured singers from Bollywood, or a maestro of classical music perhaps. Few other musicians could call for such a crowd.
But the musicians that evening were three young unknowns playing the flute, the santoor and the hansa veena. Who would have thought, given that classical music is supposed to be dead or at least dying? Who would have imagined that an audience would have gathered for a classical concert not performed by someone world famous?
Classical music has been dying with every passing generation or so people have been saying. But it never actually dies. Instead it thrives. And that’s because, even though there may not be as much hype about it as there is for modern forms of music, music is music. Tastes may differ but humans can’t exist without music. And every generation has its share of people who yearn to learn an instrument.
Indian music on a high
It’s no wonder, says santoor maestro Bipul Ray, who teaches at Delhi University: “I have been researching music therapy and have found that Indian musical instruments like the santoor and the flute are very effective in providing positive results,” he says. “In fact, learning a musical instrument not only improves and sharpens the memory but also helps combat stress.”
Ray teaches short-term and full-term music courses at Delhi University, as well as the santoor – not an easy instrument to master. Recently, he says, he’s had a considerable number of enquiries about santoor lessons, particularly from young people. “The best thing is that, today, the majority of my students are girls,” says Ray. “This is quite amazing because girls don’t usually opt for a complex instrument like this.”
Perhaps this is because as time passes, we grow further and further away from the cultural imbalance caused by colonialism. Pandit Barunkumar Pal has another take. He is a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar, pioneer of the hansa veena (an improvised version of the Hawaiian slide guitar suitable for Indian ragas), faculty member of the Ravi Shankar Academy, Delhi, and founder of the talent promotion society Shubham Music Circle.
He points out: “While globalisation brought western influence into music, Indian classical music and instruments also gained a lot of attention and appreciation worldwide. That too has triggered interest among young people. The credit goes to their parents as well.”
It’s in our genes
Dr Kiran Seth is the founder of the pioneering, indeed by now legendary cultural organisation, Spic Macay, formed in 1977 to popularise and promote Indian classical music. According to him, everyone, at some point of time, wants to know more about where they come from, and as they grow older, they start realising the importance of their own culture. “Indian music comes naturally to us Indians,” he says.
That’s exactly what happened with Ramanan Venkatraman. No one in 25-year-old Ramanan’s family is musically inclined, so it took him much time and thought to convince them he could have a career in music.
“I have been playing the guitar for the last ten years, and I play the drums and keyboard too,” he says. “But to convince my family to allow me to do this, I had to take them to watch the film 3 Idiots.”
The film that suggests youngsters should do what they’re inclined to do helped his parents change their minds about Ramanan’s future, and he joined AR Rahman’s music school in Chennai to study audio engineering. After finishing the two-and-a-half month course, Ramanan interned with Rahman’s studio for a while, then returned to Delhi and set up a studio and a band called Dementia.
Ramanan performed with Dementia and a couple of other bands, but he felt a void within himself. “I had created my own space in western music, but I didn’t feel satisfied,” he says. “In music, people say, it is important to satisfy your soul. But that feeling was missing.”
One day Ramanan attended a concert by Pandit Barun Kumar Pal who was performing on the hansa veena and he immediately fell in love with the instrument. “It was simply amazing. The sound it created was awesome. It transported me to another world altogether. I immediately decided that I had to learn this instrument.”
So for the last one year, Ramanan has been learning the hansa veena from Pandit Pal. “Yes, there is better money in western music, but the kind of satisfaction and depth there is in Indian music and instruments is incomparable,” he says. “My friends have often heard me play the guitar and the drums, but now they ask me to play only the hansa veena. And because they see the kind of satisfaction I get from my Indian instrument, some of my drummer friends too have started learning the tabla, mridang and even the pakhawaj.”
Ricky Kej, the first Indian to win the Grammy award in the New Age Album category 2015 for Winds of Samsara, is excited about the way perceptions about Indian classical music are changing. “This is a fantastic trend,” he says. “I guess there is a lot of awareness now among parents to ensure each child develops overall, not just academically. Bollywood music is appreciated the world over, but it’s mainly among the Indian diaspora. Classical music and instruments have broken cultural barriers. See how Pandit Ravi Shankar is synonymous with India and everything Indian.”
Get smart with music
Research in the field of music proves that people who have received music education are generally smarter than their non-musical counterparts. In fact, Dr Kiran Seth feels that musical education should begin even before a child goes to school. “Music training is far superior to computer instruction in dramatically enhancing children’s abstract reasoning skills – the skills necessary for learning maths and science,” he says.
Perhaps that’s why 25-year-old Chayanika Raman, a sociology student at Jawaharlal Nenru University (JNU), was transported back to her childhood in Assam when she first heard the santoor at a concert some years ago.
Totally enchanted by the sound, Chayanika looked for a good santoor teacher, and after several attempts, met her guru Bipul Ray. “Many people I approached as a student told me that I was confused and actually wanted to learn the sitar, because girls don’t usually play the santoor,” says Chayanika. But for the last five years, she has kept at the instrument, performing at college festivals in JNU. “My friends really enjoy the music and a few of them have even joined santoor classes themselves,” says Chayanika.
Though Chayanika is busy with her studies, she makes time for the santoor every evening. “Even 30 minutes of playing the santoor makes me unwind and transports me to a beautiful place,” she says.
Singer, musician and Bollywood composer Shankar Mahadevan believes that playing a musical instrument brings you joy, peace and a sense of fulfilment that helps lift the spirit, not to mention a sense of fun and contentment.
That may be why no one was more surprised than 22-year-old Prateek Saxena himself when, as he started learning the flute seven years ago, his adolescent angst vanished.
“Just like other teenagers, I got angry about little things and felt that no one at home understood me,” recalls Prateek. “But that changed after I started playing the flute. Not only were my parents happy, but the soothing notes of the flute also helped me improve my grades in the class 12 board examinations.”
Prateek had always been musically inclined and used to play the mouth organ till he watched a flute performance by musician and composer Raghav Sachar. “I was fascinated by the soothing sound and decided to buy a flute for myself immediately,” he says. “Then I tried learning how to play it from instructions I found on the Net, but I wasn’t very successful.”
So Prateek began checking out music schools. “The Gandharv Mahavidyalyas just offer a certificate course. I wanted something more comprehensive. Then I learned about the Ravi Shankar Academy and attended a concert there which was amazing. I enrolled immediately and have been learning there ever since.”
Currently doing his masters in travel and tourism from Amity University, Prateek’s big dream is to perform solo one day, and also learn the saxophone. “Mixes of classical and western music work really well,” he says.
No one knows that better than Ricky Kej. “My Grammy winning album had a strong influence of Hindustani classical music and was appreciated critically and commercially the world over. I urge parents to encourage their children to take up an Indian classical instrument. The benefits in their overall growth will be tremendous.”
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From HT Brunch, December 6
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