An increasingly provincial city trying to catch up with metropolitan glitz will inevitably breed philistine audiences
The appreciation of classical music is as much a matter of passion as of good manners. Ravi Shankar thinks that audiences in Calcutta could do with more of both. According to the maestro, Calcutta loses out on three counts, compared to other cities. First, enthusiasm is waning. The applause at the end is never rousing enough, and people often sleep through all-night performances. Second, there is a noticeable lowering of taste, a preference for cheap thrills which turns the classical artist into a performing monkey. A handful of popular ragas, acrobatic jugalbandis with the tabla, and virtuosic tempi are loudly demanded and vulgarly applauded. Third, sheer bad manners, brought on by mobile phones and clipped attention-spans.
All this is quite true, and Calcuttans should think twice before getting offended. It would have been nice to be able to tell Ravi Shankar that audiences here have been sedated by Western classical music, which only allows in winter a little clearing of the throat between movements. But this is unfortunately not the case. That particular tradition is quite dead in the city, apart from a few little gasps now and then, and people have clapped between items of excellent sacred music at St Paulís recently. What Ravi Shankar is pointing out then is the death of the high-brow in the city, the demise of the serious, no-frills classical traditions ó and with that, of all the graces and civilities of appreciation, the effortless good taste which usually accompanies such things. This is certainly the result of the commercialization of high art, modern publicity machines, the obligations of corporate sponsorship, and the marketing of artists ó or artistes, as they are called nowadays ó as brands and commodities. There is also the anti-elitism argument: the arts have to be made accessible to the masses, and therefore nothing should be too difficult to listen to or watch, and one should put up with a bit of bad behaviour. But this argument does not work for Calcutta, since the elitism of the cognoscenti has given way here to a more obnoxious elitism founded on the wrong kinds of privilege. Major events in the arts, when they do manage to get world-class performers, are most often organized by people who are clueless about the nature and value of what they are arranging. Classical music performances, when not part of a private soirée, are attended by page-three glitterati, corporate sponsors, charity divas and their cronies. Understanding and appreciation have little to do with such audiences or organizers. An increasingly provincial city trying to catch up with metropolitan glitz will inevitably breed philistine audiences.
Yet, Indian musicians will also have to take some responsibility for the death of the high-brow in the arts. Lovers of classical music would be far more enlightened by an artistís serious reflections on his own art than by moving details from his family life. The kind of publicity courted by artists, the books they write or are subjects of have very little to do with the real stuff of their excellence. Great artists ought to be as much the creators as the creatures of their desired audience.