Monday, May 11, 2015

Aesthetic obsolescence III

In the earlier essay, an attempt was made to ascertain the patterns of aesthetic obsolescence in Khayal vocalism across the last century over the period 2010-2015. Appropriately for the focus of the earlier study, the non-Khayal repertoire of the considered vocalists was left out of the measurement. However, as a parallel reality, and a component of the share-of-mind a musician enjoys with audiences of his own and future generations, it cannot be ignored.

Unlike practitioners of the medieval Dhrupad-Dhamar genre, Khayal vocalists have, for long, retained an involvement with the semi-classical genres. This facet of Hindustani vocalism acquires greater importance because of the major changes that have taken place in the music-scape, particularly after independence. The specialist singers of the semi-classical Thumree and its allied genres have virtually disappeared from the scene. Simultaneously, vocalists trained in the Khayal genre have adopted these genres in performance, and also added the Bhajan to their musical persona. Several leading Khayal vocalists of the 20th century are acknowledged to have contributed significantly to the evolution of these two genres.

It is neither possible, nor necessary, for us to ascertain whether their non-Khayal repertoire has contributed to their share-of-mind as Hindustani vocalists, or the other way round.  There exists a synchronous relationship between them, which needs to be examined from the point of aesthetic obsolescence. This essay attempts to explore this relationship.

Research design

The research design is identical to the design of the study of aesthetic obsolescence of Khayal repertoire. The sample consists of the same vocalists, truncated by the non-availability of data for some of the vocalists.  Of the 21 vocalists considered in the earlier study, 8 had to be dropped on account of inadequate or missing data. Expectedly, the number of Non-Khayal recordings available for logging was consistently much smaller than Khayal recordings. The minimum readings considered acceptable for considering any vocalist were 3, and the maximum readings available for any musician was 34. Average views per month of exposure were computed precisely in the same manner for comparability of results.

The repertoire considered in this study covers Thumree, Tappa, Dadra etc., Ghazal, Natya Sangeet, Bhajans, patriotic songs, regional devotional music, and songs performed in Hindi or regional films.


The first table and graph plots average views per month of recording availability against the year of birth of the musician. The picture differs substantially from the pattern seen in the earlier study of Khayal recordings. While the Khayal viewership graph showed a long-term linear trend accompanied by a series of wave patterns, this graph is predominantly an exponential graph, with the hint of a wave within it. This means that the more recent the musician, the more disproportionately he gains viewership amongst present-day audiences for his non-khayal repertoire. Worded differently, non-khayal repertoire music tends to become obsolete faster, and with greater certainty, than Khayal music.

The two-wave pattern evident in this graph also has a defensible generational interpretation. It would suggest that, currently, the non-Khayal musical values of two distinct generations of musicians engage the attention of Youtube listeners. The first is represented by the musical values of Bade Gulam Ali Khan and the second predominantly by Bhimsen Joshi, but also Kumar Gandharva and DV Paluskar. It is interesting that the same set of musicians showed a three-wave pattern with four peaks for Khayal music. This further establishes the difference between Khayal music and the non-Khayal repertoire of the same musicians. Their Khayal repertoire has an audience of three or four generations, while their non-Khayal repertoire repertoire commands the attention of only two. 

These patterns support what is known about the semi-classical and allied genres of vocal music. Relative to Khayal vocalism, they are designed to appeal to a much larger audience, which is more likely to respond to ephemeral musical values the the more durable musical values. 

There are no significant cycles apparent in this graph, and the possibility of a paradigm shift does not appear to arise from available data.

The second graph below provide further insights.

On an average, vocalists considered here have logged almost double the viewership for Non-Khayal recordings compared to his/ her Khayal repertoire. Even within the overall pattern of faster obsolescence of non-Khayal recordings, the absolute level of durability of appeal is substantially higher for non-Khayal music than Khayal music. But, the pattern deserves a closer look.

DV Paluskar’s non-Khayal repertoire logs twice the rating of his Khayal repertoire. After him, the multiplier shows a smart rise. Bhimsen Joshi’s non-Khayal repertoire is almost 4 times more popular than his Khayal repertoire. And, finally, with Kumar Gandharva, the non-Khayal repertoire almost touches 8 times the Khayal level in terms of audience involvement.  The sharpness of this trend would suggest a backdrop of fairly radical changes in the social and economic environment of which musicians and their audiences are concurrent products.

It appears that the non-Khayal repertoire, which has a faster rate of obsolescence, is claiming a progressively higher share-of-mind amongst audiences. This has several implications for the musical culture, all of which are already on the horizon.

Implications of the patterns

The inflow of fresh talent into classical vocalism could shrink, with more and more trained singers opting for a career in the non-Khayal genres. Because of this, the non-Khayal genres could witness the emergence of high quality specialist performers. Khayal vocalists  -- once they have established their credibility as trained classical singers -- will be drawn towards increasing their involvement with non-Khayal repertoire to protect their share-of-mind and share-of-market.  

The most significant implication of the patterns evident here is that the Khayal appears to be a receding genre in terms of the society’s share-of-mind, and the non-Khayal genres of vocal music appear to be the ascendant genres. This indication may require further evidence to be stated with greater certainty. But, it is not insignificant even with the evidence available here.

The eminent musicologist, Prof. Ashok Ranade made some interesting observations about the behavior of the dominant genre in times of challenged dominance.

“.... we should look at how any musical form achieves and sustains its dominant position. First, it attracts all kinds of performers towards it. Second, it tries to assimilate the musical tendencies of other forms. Third, it allows individuals enough freedom to express themselves, especially in the initial stages. Fourth, it makes allowances for a distinction between the larger disciplinary model of a gharana, and the style of an individual musician.” (Journal of the Indian Musicological Society, 1999)

This summarises the history of Khayal vocalism fairly accurately. For the present, we may focus  sharply at the prospect of the Khayal as the threatened genre adopting musical values of its challengers as a protection against its own extinction. 

The Khayal is three-dimensional genre – it is a contemplative art, an expressive art, and a communicative art. Its contemplative facet involves an improvised exploration of the Raga’s melodic and emotional personality. It is this facet that distinguishes it from the non-Khayal genres of vocalism. If the Khayal is tending towards imitating the non-Khayal genres, what it is abandoning is either the Raga discipline or the deliberate exploration of the Raga’s melodic-emotional personality, or both. It is in this context that the issue of an impending paradigm shift may be relevant.

At this point, we may recall what a paradigm shift means in the present context.  When a musical value, considered fundamental for long, is abandoned by a majority of  performing musicians -- without necessarily identifying an emergent alternative -- a paradigm shift can be said to have taken place.

The contemplative facet of Khayal vocalism, and the centrality of Raga elaboration to it, is a musical value considered fundamental for at least more than a century.  It faces the prospect of being abandoned in favour of the more ephemeral musical values of the non-Khayal genres.  The architecture of Raga rendition  characteristic of the Khayal may remain in circulation even with a shrinking presence. But, its distinguishing feature, as has been understood so far, could be headed for extinction.

This study began with looking at aesthetic obsolescence of the music of eminent Khayal vocalists, and incidentally of the major Khayal gharanas. Now, having considered the divergent patterns in the non-Khayal music of the major Hindustani vocalists, it has raised issues relating to the aesthetic obsolescence of the Khayal genre itself. There is insufficient evidence yet to permit a categorical view on this possibility. It may therefore remain, for now, a hypothesis based on astute observation, and theoretical speculation.

© Deepak S. Raja 2015