Shailaja Khanna | Surprise! Indian classical music now has young ears


The new listener gives standing ovations with alacrity; but is not hesitant to walk out if the performance does not arrest his attention

Post pandemic, auditoriums hosting classical music and dance performances have a changed look. Instead of the largely grey-haired audience, a younger more vociferous listener now attends classical events. This listener is also happy to pay for tickets — an attribute sadly lacking in his more affluent seniors.

This seems to hold true of most of the larger, more cosmopolitan, cities — Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata. Popular vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty who has been credited with bringing in a younger audience for some years now, clarifies her take on the subject: “I think they have been coming to classical concerts for a few years now, in large numbers. If not 50 per cent but at least 30-40 per cent of them are coming to concerts in India. But in other countries the ratio is not the same. I’m travelling in the United States doing 14 concerts in one month, and here, in some particular cities there are many youngsters, but in most of the cities, mainly elders come for classical concerts.” 

Mumbai-based vocalist Dhananjay Hegde who organises concerts all over Karnataka under the banner Sapthak, also feels “even though the listeners mainly consist of the old generation, the percentage of youngsters attending classical concerts has gone up considerably all over India”.

Kolkata based sarod player and organiser Indrayudh Majumder, whose Swara Samrat Festival opened in three other cities apart from Kolkata (Delhi Bangalore and Mumbai), concurred: “Yes, I am observing a sharp spike, skewed towards the attendance of the younger generation, many of whom have developed the interest in Indian classical music from online broadcasts during the Covid-19 lockdowns.”

Even in Delhi, which was always perceived as a difficult city in terms of audience for classical events, is now seeing packed halls, with more young than old people. This extends to classical dance and music and not merely Sufi, qawwali or fusion music concerts.

A recent festival held in Kamani auditorium organised by the Shri Kamakhya Kalapeeth even saw a full house for two days of folk music and dance. The organiser, Padma Vibhushan Sonal Mansingh, noted, “The young generation of today is not different from the generation of my youth. I was absolutely delighted to see my festival (‘Shashwat Bharat’) was full; there were fewer of the usual faces and more young faces, brimming with excitement. I think it depends a lot on the material you offer; it is up to the ‘kalakaar’ to find how to convey a message through his art, how to convey something ‘shashwat’ beautifully. The young generation will definitely come.”

Kaushiki shared: “I like singing for both elders and youngsters, but I think the young audience brings a beautiful energy and enthusiasm to the concert which I love. I also love their honesty.”

Dhananjay Hegde said, “As a young musician, I certainly prefer performing with a younger audience in attendance. It bodes well for our music as they can be trained listeners when they mature and grow old. Also, we are building a new audience for our music for the future. The only drawback is that they are not a mature audience, so it is doubtful if they can grasp the nuances of our music.”

This new listener gives standing ovations with alacrity; but is also not hesitant to walk out noisily if the performance does not arrest his attention. Wolf whistles for appreciation, which were unheard of in the classical arena, are now commonplace, especially for ‘stars’ like Kaushiki Chakraborty, sitarist Niladri Kumar, and tabla whiz kids, Mumbai-based Yashwant Vaishnav and Ishaan Ghosh. 

In fact, percussion ensembles have become much more popular. Organisers, especially in north India, scurry to present diverse combinations, and these sell more tickets than traditional vocal or instrumental concerts. From two tablas to three tablas, to tabla and mridangam, to a combo of khanjira, ghatam and djembe drums with tabla — the possibilities of rhythm interplay are endless. Unarguably, tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain Khan is the most popular classical musician today.

While no one disputes the vibrancy of the musical forms and the constantly evolving content, perhaps a disturbing trend is that the content of music concerts is being dictated by the youngsters. They require a racier presentation, crisply rendered within a shorter time frame. The traditional two-hour concert is increasingly being whittled down to one hour, sometimes even only 45 minutes.

Sixty-eight-year-old vocalist Padma Shri Pt Ulhas Kashalkar admits the changes. “Every generation of artistes has made changes. This is nothing new. An artiste, even over a 50-60 year career, changes how and what he presents. ‘Laya’ has seen changes — pehle zamane mein jo laya mein khayal gaate the, aaj uss laya mein nahin gaate hain. I feel music itself is about change — what one is taught by the guru has to be internalised and made one’s own. No one wants to hear a copyist,” Kashalkar said.

Another consequence, however, of the artiste bending to the audience preference, is that the concert repertoire is becoming narrow. This is because familiarity with the content is another huge selling point. Rare ragas and unusual compositions are thus put aside for private ‘baithak’ concerts. The big stage repertoire is confined to the usual suspects like Aiman, Jhinjhoti, Bihag, Des and Bageshwari. And, more focus is given to the lighter, concluding pieces of a concert.

Pt Ulhas Kashalkar, with more than 40 years of concert experience under his belt, sums it up: “Eventually only that which is accepted by the audience, remains.”


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