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