Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Aesthetic obsolescence and paradigm shifts in Hindustani music I

At a recent event (December 2014) to release the CDs of two young Hindustani musicians, I had observed as follows:

A period of 30 years appears appropriate as defining a generation with respect to our musical culture. The first post-independence generation of Hindustani musicians, which appeared on the stage in the mid 1970s was performing music largely under the shadow of the pre-independence generation. This could explain why Hindustani music experienced shrinkage of audiences during the last quarter of the 20th century. The second post-independence generation emerging on the concert platform now (2010-2015), is exhibiting a perceptible freedom from the shadow of the pre-independence generation. They appear to be addressing their own generation of listeners more effectively, and drawing young audiences back into the concert halls.

Please see: The Emerging Generation of Khayal Vocalists

After I finished my speech, several young musicians approached me to say that they did not fully understand my argument. I promised to explain myself in greater detail at a later stage. This essay is intended to fulfill the promise made to my young friends that evening. But, it is also an opportunity for me to submit my public statements to rigorous scrutiny.

I wish to relate this issue to the observations I have made on an allied subject in my first book – Hindustani music: A tradition in transition (DK Printworld, New Delhi 2005). I summarize them here:

ONE: The Hindustani music tradition is so designed that, knowingly or unknowingly, every musician is a product of his generation, speaks on behalf of his generation, and addresses primarily his own generation of listeners. Implicitly, therefore, every musician’s music “shuts out” audiences belonging to a generation behind him, and a generation ahead of him.

TWO: Despite the fundamental stability of the “Operating System” governing Hindustani music, there is no such thing as “timeless music”. On the contrary, there is evidence to establish aesthetic obsolescence as a phenomenon which pushes the music of a certain past generation out of circulation, and allows more recent music to reach music lovers. The departed generation eased out of the market, however, retains a marginal presence in the market as academic reference material – perhaps a virtual “Guru”.

THREE:  Running counter to aesthetic obsolescence, there exists a phenomenon of “aesthetic sclerosis” among Hindustani music audiences, which makes listeners above a certain age (I suggested 50/55) unable to accept the musical values of the emerging generation of musicians (+/- 30).  I have also observed that elderly audiences retain lifelong loyalty to the musical values to which they were exposed between the ages of 20 and 50. And, as Indians are increasingly living longer, it is this phenomenon that sustains the market for recordings of vintage/ archival music.

I attempt a scrutiny of these observations by drawing upon profound anthropological and historical thought, and also on relevant macro-economic research.

The Method of Generations in History

Jose Ortega Y Gasset is regarded as one of the most influential European philosophers of the 20th century. I draw upon his landmark work “Man and Crisis” (George, Allen & Unwin, London, 1959) for his perspective on history as a product of inter-generational interactions.

Extracts from “Man and Crisis”

 “Community of date and space are the primary attributes of a generation. Together, they signify the sharing of an essential destiny. The keyboard of environment on which coevals play the Sonata Apassionata of their lives is in its fundamental structure one and the same. This identity of destiny produces in coevals certain secondary coincidences which are summed up in the unity of their style. A generation is an integrated manner of existence or, if you prefer, a fashion of living, which fixes itself indelibly on the individual…

“In the “today”, in every “today”, various generations co-exist and the relations which are established between them according to the different conditions of their ages, represent the dynamic system of attractions and repulsions, of agreement and controversy, which at any given moment makes up the reality of historic life. The concept of generations, converted into a method of historic investigation consists in nothing more than projecting the structure upon the past.

“A generation is the aggregate of men who are the same age. …. The concept of age is not (however) the stuff of mathematics, but of life. Age, then, is not a date but a zone of dates.”

For understanding the historical process as an interaction between various co-existing generations, he proposes the following analysis of generations:

ONE: Lives can be divided into five phases of approximately fifteen years each. (1) Childhood: 0-15, (2) Youth: 15-30, (3) Initiation: 30-45, (4) Dominance: 45-60, (5) Old age: 60+. In some ways, Ortega suggests, the face of the world changes every 15 years. However, he classifies the third and fourth stages, representing the 30-year period from age 30 to 60 as the historically significant phases of an individual’s/ generation’s life.

TWO: In his 30’s man acquaints himself with the world into which he has fallen, and in which he must live. Between 30 and 45, he begins to react on his own account against the world that he has encountered, starts to reshape his world, and learns to defend it against the generations that rule it. Between 45 and 60, he devotes himself fully to the development of the inspirations he has received between 30 and 45. The period of 30-45 is his period of gestation, creation and conflict, while the period between 45 and 60 is his stage for achieving dominance and command over his world.

The Ortega perspective implies that, after accounting for imperceptible changes that are taking place constantly because of the interaction between various co-existing generations, a perceptible change, a paradigm shift, can be expected to surface every 60 years. This is because all the forces acting upon the values of the earlier generations have, by now, either faded away or become impotent.

This implication would support my observation that the second post-independence generation of Hindustani musicians (emerging 60+ years after independence) is charting a new path, which may create some dissonance among their senior generations of listeners.

Ortega describes the 30-45 stage as representing strategy development and the 45-60 phase as that for strategy implementation. This description matches the widely held belief about the evolution of Hindustani musicianship. It is well articulated by the contemporary maestro, Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, in the Foreword to my book – “Khayal Vocalism – Continuity within Change” (DK Printworld, New Delhi, 2009), and also his interview carried in the book.

“Today, a vocalist – if he is good – is exposed to public scrutiny right in the middle of the most vulnerable stage of his evolution – the stage when he is struggling to break out of the shell of his training, and to make his own original statement. … Even with the best of training, the process of self-discovery in a vocalist matures only around the age of 40”.

Briefly, then, we are looking at three periodicities implicit in Ortega’s argument as being relevant for plotting the generational dimension of change in Hindustani music:

ONE:  Human life is most meaningfully divided into five stages of 15 years each. As a reflection of this, the face of the world changes in some way every 15 years.
TWO: Historic changes can be expected to become evident every 60 years.
THREE: The 30-year period between the ages of 30 and 60 is the historically most significant period in the life of each generation.

By Ortega’s own argument, the clue to these periodicities of perceptible or imperceptible change lies in the “keyboard of environment on which coevals play the Sonata Apassionata of their lives [which] is in its fundamental structure one and the same”.

The keyboard of the environment

It appears fair to argue that culture is substantially a reflection of the economic environment in which each generation seeks to express its unique destiny. In the light of this hypothesis, it seems appropriate to examine empirical evidence and theoretical constructs related to the patterns of economic activity. Specifically, we should be looking for evidence of periodicities of 15, 30, and 60 years postulated by Ortega in patterns of economic change. The various theories of business cycles are relevant from this perspective.

Business cycle or economic cycles are waves formed by the expansion and contraction of economic activity. Our argument can be that the cultural manifestations of buoyant economic activity would be substantially different of depressed economic activity. As an extension of this argument, we may also argue that each phase of expansion and contraction will leave behind some cultural residues, which carry forward into the next upswing/ downswing. But when a society has seen the complete long wave of contraction and expansion, it will emerge from the experience with a changed perception of itself, and its arts will exhibit signs of a paradigm shift.

Theory and evidence of economic cycles

ONE: In the 19th century, Clement Juglar first identified a cycle of 7-11 years signified by accelerated or retarded societal investments in fixed assets. Juglar did not, however, claim any regularity for these waves.

TWO: In the 20th century, Simon Kuznets identified a cycle of 15-25 years, signified by the expansion and contraction of societal investments in infrastructure (also called the
“building cycle”).

THREE:  In 1947, Edward Dewey and Edwin Dakin identified a 54-year cycle, based on a statistical analysis of wholesale prices in the US.

FOUR: In 1925, Nikolai Kondratieff estimated a long business cycle of 50-60 years, based on a study of trends in commodity prices, interest rates, wages, production, coal consumption, private savings, gold production, as well as political trends from 1790 to 1920. Kondratieff’s work also established that each expansion of economic activity is associated with the emergence of productivity enhancing technological innovations. Because of the comprehensiveness of the phenomena considered, Kondratieff’s work is also the most significant cyclical formulation from the cultural perspective.

The Kondratieff model has been confirmed by rigorous statistical testing, using spectral analysis. These procedures also suggest that each Kondratieff wave subsumes three sub-cycles of 17 years each, partially supporting the Kuznets suggestion of shorter cycles of 15-25 years.

The implications of this refresher course in macro-economics for our subject of enquiries are as follows:

ONE: Ortega’s suggestion of 60 years as the fulfillment of a generation’s historic mission would result in the appearance of a paradigm shift every 60 years. This finds support in the 50-60 year cycle of economic activity observed by Kondratieff, Dewey and Dakin.

TWO: The shorter 17-year sub-cycles within the Kondratieff long wave support Ortega’s observation that our world is changing in some ways every 15 years because the stages of human life are most meaningfully seen as periods of 15 years each.

THREE: The Kondratieff long cycle is 50-60 years will tend to represent 25-30 years of contraction and 25-30 years of expansion in economic activity. This would support Ortega’s view of the 30-year period (age 30-60) as being the historically most significant period in the life of each generation.

While viewing these indications of periodicity, it is important to recall Ortega’s own observation that “The concept of age is not (however) the stuff of mathematics, but of life. Age, then, is not a date but a zone of dates.” 

Corroborating this perspective, economists studying economic cycles have not been able to assess the occurrence of peaks and troughs with astronomical precision. But, their attempts have certainly been respectable considering the fluidity of social and historical processes. Keeping this in mind, an attempt may be made to represent this concept graphically.

A conceptual-graphic model of generational shifts

The model is not intended to either prove or establish any theory pertaining to the periodicity of perceptible changes in musical values. It attempts merely to demonstrate the interactions between the various significant participants, creating an interplay of continuity and change.

Five historically significant roles are considered in this model. (1) The performer generation (2) The Guru generation to the performer which is 30 years senior to him (3) The traditional Benchmark of musicianship which may be the Guru's Guru or other influential musicians -- 60 years senior to the performer (4) Rival to the Performing generation which is partly his own generation and partly his senior generation, and (5) the audience of the Performing musician which we assume to be the same as the performing generation. 

Following a combination of Ortega and Kondratieff arguments, the model divides the time-scale into distinct 15-year periods, with two of these consecutive periods constituting a significant 30-year generation with respect to all participants in the musical culture. The point to remember here is we are not talking of a generation as a birth-to-death duration, but a 30-year time span which is historically the most significant for the performance of each generation. Each generation has been given a number for ease of comprehension.

The emerging pattern

G-1, the performing generation of 1925-1955, begins to perform the Guru role for G-2, and continues to do so for G-3 and G-4, and thereafter becomes the Benchmark generation, with decreasing influence till G-5.  By G-6, it has fallen totally off the radar of the musical culture.

The Guru generation of G-1 (1895-1925) retains part of its influence as a Guru for G-2, and then drifts into the Benchmark area through G2- and G-3, drifting into insignificance thereafter.

The Benchmark generation of G-1 (1880-1895) remains partly relevant as a Benchmark for G-2 and fades into history thereafter.

The Rival generation of G-1 (1910-1940) becomes a part of the Guru generation in G-2 and thereafter remains relevant, with diminishing influence, till G-4 as a Benchmark generation.

The Audience generation of G-1 (1925-1955) remains an influential force for G-2, and thereafter gives way to younger audiences.

By the time we come to the Performing generation G-6 (2015-2030), none of the generations of participants of G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, and G-5 have any historically significant influence. The world has changed far too much between 1955 and 2015 for the musical values of G-1 to either to exist, or to deserve an audience. A paradigm shift is to be expected.

The structuring of this conceptual-graphic model merely happens to deliver a paradigm shift expectation in approximately 60 years. It could have been 50, 70 or even 80 years. The exact periodicity is not as important as is demonstration of aesthetic obsolescence and periodic paradigm shifts.

© Deepak S. Raja 2015

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The musician and his art

This essay has now been published under the title
"The Raga-ness of musicians"
in my fourth book:

Removing it from here was proper, though not obligatory, in order that my publisher's investment in the book is protected. 


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Neuroscience and Hindustani music

My interest in neurological facets of music is nascent. My familiarity with the subject is negligible.  My first serious look at it was occasioned by a chance exposure to an eminently readable paper by Alasdair Wilkins, titled “Music and Neuroscience” which came to my attention on Facebook. 

Before making observations on the report with specific reference to Hindustani music, I present below a selective summary of its relevant indications.


1.    From the perspective of neuroscience, listening to music is one of the most complex things you can do. Many parts of your brain have to work together to comprehend even the simplest tune. The act of processing music is so diffuse and decentralized throughout the brain that describing it as being centered in the right side of the brain is an oversimplification.

2.    An intriguing side-effect of listening to music is the activation of the visual cortex, found in the back of the brain in the occipital lobe. Research indicates that some music can provoke a response in this part of the brain, as the engaged listener tries to conjure up appropriate imagery to match the changes and progression in the music.

3.  There is no real objective measure of what counts as “musical” and what doesn’t. Memory is one of the most obvious influences here – you are most likely to like a particular of piece of music if it carries positive associations with it.

4.  If there is one constant in this, it is that songs carry as tremendous ability to provoke emotional responses – indeed, it can even seem our brain’s primary concern, when it comes, to music. In fact, the brain hangs onto the ability to understand the emotional impact of music, even if the finer points are lost. Brain imaging studies have shown that “happy” music stimulates the reward centers of the brain, causing the production of the chemical dopamine – the same chemical produced from eating great food, having sex, and taking drugs.

5.    Brigham Young University researchers report that infants as young as five months are able to discern when a happy song is playing, and by nine months, they have added comprehension of sad music to their repertoire. They observed that all the happy songs were in major keys with fairly short phrases or motifs that were repeated. Their tempo and melodic rhythms were faster than any of the sad selections and the melodies had a general upward direction. Four of the sad songs were in minor keys and all had a slower beat and long melodic rhythms.  

6.   We actually can have physiological reactions to music – happy music with a fast tempo and major key can make is breathe faster, while sad music and minor key can slow down our pulse and cause blood pressure to rise.


The significance of music

1.    Prof. Daniel Neuman, amongst the most respected ethno-musicologists today, has studied the social organization of Hindustani music for over four decades. In his recent book – Studying India’s Musicians (Manohar books, 2015) – makes the following observations:

“Music is a special instance of human behavior. The fact that  it is universal – no peoples are known not to have music – and species-specific to homo sapiens, suggests and adaptive basis for music in the evolution of our species. In other words, music has been important in the evolution of our species, although it is not clear in what way this is the case. But, the fact that societies such as India spend so much energy in the training of musical specialists, raises for me questions of why this is so.

These observations are well supported by the neurological finding that listening to music is a far more complex neurological process, involving many more part of the brain, than has for long been believed. Music may therefore be considered an integral part of human evolution, and justify the massive amount of energy that societies like India have invested in the cultivation of music professionals.

Music elicits an emotional response

2.  Indian musicological thought is consistent with the neurological finding that songs (which are pre-composed rather than largely improvised like Raga-based music) carry a tremendous ability to provoke emotional responses – indeed, it can even seem our brain’s primary concern, when it comes, to music. In fact, the brain hangs onto the ability to understand the emotional impact of music, even if the finer points are lost.  This finding would validate the phenomenon of a maestro’s music bypassing the intellectual discernment of its contents, and enabling the enjoyment of its emotional content.

In my first book – “Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition” (2005) – I have observed as follows:

The word “Raga” does not have a musical or melodic meaning at all; it has only an emotional meaning. The notion of the “Raga” deals with the totality of the communication process – generation of the stimulus as well as the elicitation of the response. In common usage, the word has come to describe a melodic structure, the stimulus, because the music world has accepted a correspondence between the stimulus and the response, and feels comfortable in using the word “Raga” to describe the former. This leads to the proposition that the “Raga”, as commonly understood, is a melodic representation of an emotional statement, and a vehicle for its communication.

In the second edition of the book (2015), I have developed the idea that a Raga is, in reality, a psycho-acoustic hypothesis.  Each Raga shapes a distinct pattern of melody by its unique selection, sequencing, and treatment of the swara-s.  Because of the distinct pattern, each Raga suggests a different emotional idea to the listener. But, the swara-s of the scale have no musical meaning in isolation. So, when a Raga organizes them in a specific manner with the intention of communicating an emotional idea, there is a tacit assumption of a cause-and-effect relationship – something akin to a theory.  But, a theory requires a substantial predictability of effect from a given cause. 

Since the Raga is a “formless form”, its impact depends on the quality of the communicable form which interprets it for the audience, and the receptivity of the audience. In addition, the impact may depend on a host of non-musical factors associated with the performance. Because we are in the region of “known possibility” rather than “predictability”, the cause-and-effect assumptions of the Raga may therefore be called a psycho-acoustic hypothesis, which is tested uniquely at every performance for its effectiveness in producing the desired emotional response.  

Familiarity is the basis of "musicality"

The phenomenon of the Raga in Hindustani music is supported by the neurological finding that there is no real objective measure of what counts as “musical” and what doesn’t. Memory and familiarity are the most obvious influences here – you are most likely to like a particular of piece of music if it carries positive associations with it. In my first book – “Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition” (2005) – I have observed as follows:

The phenomenon of the Raga, as the foundation of music making in the Hindustani tradition, ensures that the aesthetic experience of every performance enjoys the benefits of familiarity along with novelty. But, the tradition accepts that, in time, everything changes. Each generation of musicians and audiences is free to choose the parameters of continuity/ discipline/ conformity / familiarity, and impose on them their own parameters of change/ creativity/ individuality/ novelty. Raga-s have thus evolved as ever-growing and ever-changing repositories of aesthetically coherent melodic ideas.

Is the Raga an archetypal entity?

4.      Neuroscience relates the responsiveness of listeners to the association of melodic patterns to pleasant/ unpleasant memories stored in the listener’s mind. Simultaneously, it also suggests that infants as young as five and nine months – an age with hardly anything by way of an accumulated variety of musical/emotional experience – can respond differentially to musical stimuli known to be either “happy” or “sad”. These indications of neuroscience would suggest the possibility that specific melodic patterns are potent at least within a culture specific context -- if not universally potent -- as triggers of associated emotional responses , and this linkage is perhaps stored in something akin to a "collective unconscious" or a “racial memory” rather than a mere storage of accumulated associations in the individual memory.  

I have suggested this perspective in the second edition of my first book – Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition

Several years ago, a Western scholar, intrigued by the Raga phenomenon, had asked me a question: – “Does the Raga exist? And, if so, where?” Having lived and worked with Raga-s for almost six decades, I am attracted to the idea that a Raga is an archetypal entity in the Jungian sense. Though this direction of speculation continues to engage my mind, I prefer, for now, to use more familiar linguistic analogies.

A Raga, indeed, exists as definitely as a language exists. By the same analogy, the Raga does not reside either in treatises on Raga grammar or in any document that claims to be a lexicon of Ragas. Like a language, the Raga exists in the collective memory of the community, as a set of associations related to specific sound patterns. As a cultural force – and like a language – it is shaped by usage, and in turn, governs usage. We may say that the Raga resides in its performance, which, in turn, shapes the Raga.

Since each performance is shaped by the interaction between the musician and his audience, the repository of Raga-ness in the collective memory is constantly shuffling and reshuffling its inventory of melodic images to keep the aesthetic resources of the Raga perennially relevant.

Music has a visual component

5.  The relationship between melodic patterns and visual imagery is well established in the Hindustani music tradition.  Many Raga-s are named after deities, and the mythological associations of these deities are expected to guide the musician in their effective interpretation. There exists a considerable volume of Raga-Dhyana poetry, which enables a musician to visualize a Raga to aid him in the process of drawing a sound-picture of it. There also exists a substantial body of paintings, popularly known as the Ragamala paintings, which represent an artist’s attempt at portraying his interpretation of the Raga experience.

Namita Devidayal’s famous book titled The Music Room (Random House, 2007) opens with a quotation from Ustad Vilayat Khan – “A Raga should be performed such that within a few minutes, both the performer and the audience should be able to see it standing in front of them”.  I had occasion to query Khansaheb on this issue. In reply, he said – “You have not discovered it yet. But, there is actually an eye hidden inside a musician’s ear, with which he can see the Raga.

These notions prevalent in the Hindustani musical culture find support in the neurological discovery -- listening to music results in the activation of the visual cortex, found in the back of the brain in the optical lobe. Research indicates that some music can provoke a response in this part of the brain, as the engaged listener tries to conjure up appropriate imagery to match the changes and progression in the music.

While neurological research appears to focus on the listener’s visualization of a musical experience, the implications are far greater in Hindustani music from the music maker’s perspective. The musician’s task in performance is to explore a Raga, “formless form” and interpret it in communicable form which enables the delivery of emotional meaning to the listener.  “Form” itself is a visual idea, and visualization is inherent in the process of manifesting the formless form of the Raga as a communicable and intelligible experience. In shaping a manifest form which delivers emotional meaning, the musician also goes through an auto-suggestive process which is, once again, aided by visualization.

Raga grammar and Rasa

6.   I find it interesting that neurological research relates the “key” of the music, the swara-density, tempo, and the directional thrust of the music to its classification into “happy” and “sad” music. The major and minor keys in Western music come closest to the Hindustani notion of a Raga. Its relevance to the communication of emotional ideas validates the melodic wisdom of Hindustani music.

Hindustani Raga-s are classified as “Aroha-pradhan” (ascent-dominant) or “Avaroh-pradhan” (descent dominant) based on the prescribed dominance of ascending/ descending melodic thrusts in their performance.  Likewise, they are also classified as “Purvanga-vadi”, “Madhyanga-vadi” or “Uttaranga-vadi”, based on the region of the melodic canvas in which they most effectively communicate their emotional meaning. In fact, there are groups Raga-s in Hindustani music (e.g. Marwa, Puriya, and Sohini), which feature identical swara-s, and are differentiated largely by their differential emphasis on the directional dominance in their melodic treatment, and the epicenter of the melodic action in their rendition. This aspect of Raga grammar is also evidently validated by neurological research.

Musical aesthetics of the Hindustani tradition also acknowledge that Raga-s deliver different emotional values in different tempii. This is why exceptionally fastidious Hindustani musicians will not render serious Raga-s in fast tempo compositions, and skip slow-tempo compositions in some others, which are considered vivacious. There appears to be considerable scientific support for this fastidiousness.

At a broader level of consideration, it appears that neuroscience is so far classifying the emotional effects of music only on a bi-polar continuum of  “Sad-to-Happy”. The Indian aesthetic tradition, with the highly evolved notion of Rasa prevalent since Bharata’s Natya Shastra, would appear to have intuited a far more complex spectrum. Neuroscience may probe this area further and, some day, help us understand our aesthetic traditions better.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2015

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Who is a maestro in Hindustani music?

I grew up in an era generously populated with Hindustani music maestros – both vocal and instrumental.  Over the years, I sensed a shrinkage in the number of musicians I could place in this category.  I might well have been wrongly applying an obsolete yardstick of musicianship, to which my juniors amongst musicians were not obliged to conform – after all, their music was addressing their generation and not mine! 

However, the Hindustani tradition expects a fundamental continuity in its musical environment, while permitting the peripherals to change over time.  This expectation arises from the fact that the “Operating system” of Hindustani music – its total resource of raga-s, tala-s, genres, and bandishes – is fairly stable. The yardstick of musicianship can therefore safely be considered valid for a couple of generations. 

This is why I often witness, and get drawn into discussions about whether a certain contemporary maestro matches up to a certain departed maestro; or how many real maestros we have today in Hindustani music, who they are, and what qualifies them for this stature. To discuss this issue intelligently, one must begin with defining a maestro.  The issue often gets controversial because even a consensual grading mechanism – such as did exist till the first half of the last century – has faded away without an adequate replacement, and any musician now feels free to anoint himself a “Pandit” or “Ustad”.

It is not my purpose here to provide answers to these oft debated issues. Instead, I intend to test a formulation I stated recently in one such discussion. The proposition was articulated rather casually, then with no purpose beyond delivering a quotable turn of phrase. The proposition is as follows:

“A maestro is a musician who is able and willing to perform as long as the audience is willing to listen.”

In retrospect, I felt this formulation requires to be tested against a more rigorous definition of a maestro. Hence, this inquiry.

Maestro, Pandit, Ustad: The definition

The Short Oxford English Dictionary (Fifth edition) defines a “Maestro” as: (1) An expert in music; a great musical composer, teacher, or conductor (2) a great performer or leader in any art, profession etc.  An Urdu word of comparable usage is “Ustad”. The Urdu-Hindi Shabdakosh, published by UP Government Hindi Department has the following entry against the word: A teacher of any art, clever/crafty.  The Nalanda Vishal Shabdasagar (Hindi) defines “Ustad” as: Teacher, (especially of courtesans), highly skilled, adept, and knowledgeable. The Hindi/ Sanskrit word of similar usage is “Pandit”. The Nalanda dictionary defines a Pandit as:  Learned man, intellectual, competent, clever, a person with exceptional theoretical knowledge of his subject, a Brahmin.

Collectively, these connotations would qualify an artist for the pinnacle of stature by virtue of: (a) exceptional theoretical knowledge (b) exceptional capabilities as a composer (c) exceptional performing competence (d) tendency towards craftiness/ manipulation, and (e) noteworthy competence as a teacher.

The “Brahmin” connotation of the word “Pandit” might seem irrelevant because of its casteist connotation. If contextually interpreted, however, it need not be so.  “Brahminism” may be viewed here as a way of life dedicated exclusively to the acquisition, preservation and dissemination of knowledge, irrespective of consequences. The “Brahmin” idea may here suggest the highest level of sanctity to the relationship between the artist and his art, which values knowledge above all else.  

Implications of the formulation

“A maestro is a musician who is able and willing to perform as long as the audience is willing to listen.”

Before I submit the formulation to scrutiny against lexically derived connotations, it helps to verbalize the assumptions and implications of this formulation.

Audience profile

In this formulation, I have not either specified or qualified the “audience” with any adjectival or adverbial description.  This omission obliges us to consider several scenarios.  The music of a real maestro delights listeners at the intellectual level and at the emotional level. 

The first scenario is that, by the time he reaches such stature, a maestro has acquired a well defined “loyal” following. “His” audiences know what to expect from him, and he delivers it to them, thus holding them “captive” at an intellectual as well as emotional level as long as he wishes to do so. 

The second scenario is of an audience which has a “normal” distribution of highly discerning, moderately discerning, and almost undiscerning audiences. In such a scenario, it is fair to assume that the appeal of a maestro’s music is not dependent entirely on audience profiles, and bypasses their variable levels of discernment.  If the real test of music is the delivery of emotional meaning through the raga experience, the relatively more discerning and the less discerning audiences could well be equally receptive to it. By this argument, a maestro can stimulate an insatiable thirst for his music, cutting across all levels of aesthetic discernment. Such a phenomenon can result in a concert which will end only when it will end.

The third scenario to consider is that of an audience which is almost totally uncultivated. In such a scenario, a maestro – if he wishes to win that audience – could avoid taxing them altogether, and present music that is wholly undemanding and emotional in its appeal.

Concert duration

I am more than suggesting that a maestro does NOT contract a concert of 90 or 120 minutes of music. His contract, as he sees it, is for sending home a group of people filled with joy. 

Rarely, if ever, is a concert announced as being of indeterminate duration. This feature takes shape progressively during the concert, as the unstated “standard” duration is ignored by both, the musician and the audience by mutual consent.

The mutual consent inherent in this situation implies that a totally interactive and consultative relationship is established between the musician and the audience.  Inevitably, this means that the musician receives requests for repertoire of the audience’s choice, and is willing and able to satisfy them without the need to have planned it beforehand.

In this context, the most obvious qualification of a maestro is extraordinary physical stamina. This implication is certainly obvious, but not the dominant consideration. The more important facet of indeterminate concert duration is a maestro’s aesthetic stamina. By aesthetic stamina, I mean the ability to counter the aesthetic fatigue of audiences -- listening to the same artist through six, or eight, or ten items, many of which would be of the same genre. Without the aesthetic stamina to sustain interest through a marathon, the musician cannot have audiences asking for more after each item.

These two aspects of a maestro concert define the single most important qualification of a musician so described. A maestro has authoritative command over a vast and diverse repertoire, and can deliver almost any part of that repertoire without advance planning or preparation.  And, to be able do so engagingly over a long duration, possibly cutting across levels of audience discernment, a maestro needs also to command a variety of stylistic resources even within each genre. 

The maestro personality 

It is obvious that a maestro is a musician of exceptional talent. It is also obvious that he is committed to almost super-human effort towards the perfection of his craft.  What, however, does need to be emphasized is that a Hindustani music maestro is obsessively in search of wider knowledge and skills in terms of repertoire and stylistic resources. In this search, he draws constantly upon external and internal resources. He has neither time, nor energy, nor fondness for any activity other than the cultivation of his musical personality.  Even his ability to charm audiences is only a result of what he is, and not of what he attempts to do, or does.  A real maestro is a musician, and nothing else.

Testing the formulation

In the above implications and connotations of my formulation, I appear to have adequately conveyed the notions of expertise, composing and performing competence.  The contextual “Brahminism” of the maestro is also adequately reflected.  Three aspects of probable mismatch require to be reconsidered. The first is the relevance of audience profiles to the appeal of a maestro’s music.   The second is that of cleverness or craftiness. The third is that of competence as a Guru/ teacher.

With respect to audience profiles, we have considered three scenarios above. Under the third scenario -- an audience which is almost totally uncultivated -- the formulation being tested exposes its limitations. Faced with such a situation as described, a maestro can no longer perform music worthy of a maestro. The possibility of such a situation may seem negligible. But, the music world is known to have placed the greatest of musicians in the most unenviable positions, with varying results.

The clever/crafty connotation hints towards a flaw of character. It may appear irrelevant here, but need not be summarily dismissed in the present context. There is an element of artifice in art which cannot be denied.  Besides being contemplative and expressive, Hindustani music is – like all music -- also a communicative art, and involves the deployment of devices designed specifically to elicit certain qualities of response.

When a musical performance makes you cry, the musician is not actually unhappy. He has artfully communicated to you the idea of sorrow. In turn, you too are not unhappy when you cry in response to music. You cry in appreciation of the cleverness with which the musician communicates to you the idea of sorrow without actually being unhappy himself.  Your experience of sorrow in this context is actually a pleasant experience because it has made you aware of your heightened emotionality.  By the same logic, the communication of even more unpleasant emotions such as violence, hatred, and disgust can also deliver a pleasant experience – because of the artifice that lies in art.

Therefore, a maestro who can hold audiences in voluntary surrender over a concert of indeterminate duration must be accepted as “crafty” because he has a command over a massive range of musical devices appropriate for eliciting the desired emotional responses.

The “Guru” connotation of a maestro/ Pandit/ Ustad does not fall -- whether explicitly or implicitly – within the scope of this formulation.  The omission is substantive and represents an infirmity. 

Obliquely, the Guru connotation is related to the Brahminical value, which enjoins upon a maestro the additional role of knowledge acquirer, preserver, and disseminator. In acknowledgement of this supposedly non-remunerative responsibility, Indian society has traditionally devised various ways to keep maestros materially comfortable. One such device is remunerating them for transmitting knowledge. However, quite independently of this, perpetuation of the tradition is seen as a part of a maestro’s social responsibility. So, a maestro who does not teach – for whatever reason -- falls short of the Brahminical tenet related to his profession.

Does a performing maestro with an insignificant presence as a teacher, then, weaken or forfeit maestro status? In Hindustani music, the verdict of recent history is unclear. Yes, indeed, several maestros have groomed brilliant disciples. On the other hand, several acknowledged performing maestros have been reluctant or ineffective teachers. Several maestros who did not impart systematic personalized training became immensely influential models of music making through their recordings. And, history is replete with near-legendary teachers who never attained the performing competence characteristic of maestros.

Despite this lack of clarity on the connection between the roles of a performer and teacher, every maestro insists that a serious musician must teach and that teaching is as beneficial to his own growth as a musician, as to his disciples, and to the tradition.  How this happens would be beyond the scope of this essay.  Suffice it here to observe that process of imparting knowledge and skills of music requires a maestro to force upon himself a clarity of musical thought, ideation, and intent, which he may otherwise practice only by rote, imitation, or intuition.  His teaching experience may therefore be considered contributory and germane to his excellence as a performing maestro.

In the contemporary scenario, performing excellence is rewarded by the music community, irrespective of what goes into the making of a musician. It may therefore be fair to presume that such excellence will generally be associated with a musician who has all the qualifications of an effective teacher, but may not actually be active as one.

In conclusion, the above formulation may be treated in the contemporary environment as being broadly defensible, though limited by its focus on performing excellence, and partially by its unstated assumption relating to audience profiles.  

I am sorry to disappoint readers who expected me to name contemporary musicians who qualify for the status of a maestro – either by this partial or a more comprehensive formulation.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2015