Friday, May 15, 2015

Aesthetic obsolescence IV

In the earlier essay, we found that the non-Khayal repertoire of Khayal vocalists achieves a much higher level of audience involvement than their Khayal repertoire.  The musician lives with this reality every day and responds according to his temperament and inclinations. He does not need to figure out the extent to which this is attributable to his Khayal-related status, to the independent appeal of his non-Khayal repertoire, or to the uniqueness of the combination. But, the researcher does need to resolve this issue.  

If we are to judge the strength of the non-Khayal segment of the musical culture as a possible challenge/ distraction to the fundamental character of the Khayal as we know it, we need to isolate the non-khayal segment for measurement. Circumstantial evidence of this can be obtained from the analysis of audience involvement in the music of the specialist performers of the non-Khayal genres. In this analysis, the absolute numbers delivered are as important as the trend of obsolescence. This essay attempts to look at these patterns.

Research design

The methodology followed is identical to the earlier studies conducted on samples of Khayal vocalists.

The sample of available Youtube recordings was drawn from the leading specialist performers of non-Khayal genres in the segments of the Thumri and allied genres, Ghazals, and Bhajans. For want of the author’s knowledge, specialist performers of the regional devotional genres were not included.  The musicians were chosen for the significance of their presence on the concert platform over a long enough period.

In the Thumree segment, two of them – Girija Devi and Chhannulal Mishra – are still alive, and are included.  In the Ghazal segment, the sample selection was restricted to the singers of the classical ghazal – Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan, while the more recent singers of the modern ghazal have been excluded.

This approach has given us a sample of 11 musicians in whose case, a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 35 recordings were available for the measurement of audience involvement.


The graphic plot shows a long-term growth trend of audience involvement. But, it also exhibits two waves within the period considered. The two peaks are represented by Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan. Two waves, within a long-term growth trend is a pattern very similar to the pattern noticed in the earlier study of the non-Khayal repertoire of Khayal vocalists. The generational interpretation of this graph could be similar to that of the graph seen in the earlier study. 
 It would appear that at this particular juncture in history, two generations of audiences are involved with the music of the specialist performers of the non-Khayal genres. However, the two titans who dominate the two visible peaks – Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan are born at an interval of only 13 years. This might mean that, in effect, only one generation of musicians appears to dominate the non-Khayal music-scape at the moment. This compares with three, perhaps four, generations of audiences involved with the Khayal music of the past generations of vocalists.

While we may consider these two giants as representing the same generation and appealing to the same generation, a certain obsolescence factor is evident even in their relative scores.  It is probably the younger end of the audience generation which gives Mehdi Hassan a score almost four times the score obtained by Begum Akhtar -- ostensibly emanating from the older end of the same generation. 

The power of the specialist non-Khayal indicator as an influence on Khayal music is more sharply reflected in its absolute numbers than in the obsolescence trend. The bar-graph tells the story.

The Khayal music of Khayal vocalists begets only 203 viewers per month of recording availability. Compared to this, their own non-Khayal music notches up 914 views, and the non-Khayal music of the specialist performers of non-Khayal music crosses that 1000 views per month. 

Admittedly, this average for specialist performers of the non-Khayal genres is greatly bolstered by Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan, and not every musician achieves their level of audience involvement. However, the average of over 1000 views per month cannot be ignored as a perceptional reality of the musical culture and of relevance to professional musicians.

By pure arithmetical coincidence, if we add the audience involvement ratings for Khayal and non-Khayal repertoires of Khayal vocalists, we get a figure almost exactly equal to the audience involvement rating of the specialist non-Khayal performers. We may then surmise that the primary motivation for Khayal vocalists to perform non-Khayal music is reaching out to a much larger audience.

The interaction of genres

With audiences exhibiting a marked preference for non-Khayal repertoire, the Khayal will tend to shrink in terms of its durational presence on the concert platform. As this trend gathers momentum, Khayal vocalists will begin to lose their aesthetic grip over the Khayal as a genre. Their approach to the Khayal will increasingly reflect the aesthetic values of the non-Khayal repertoire in vogue.

This process may be better understood with a historical analogy from the print medium in the country, which is familiar to most of us.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the mainline dailies published a sports page only twice a week.  In those days, several sports magazines (weeklies/ fortnightlies/ monthlies) showed a healthy growth in sales and revenue. The mainline dailies saw this opportunity for an enlargement of their share-of-mind and share-of-market, and stepped up sports coverage to every day. By the 1980’s all the specialist sports magazines had died for want of readers and advertisers.

The same thing happened to the film-magazine boom of the 1960s and 1970s. By the year 2000, mainline dailies which earlier had only weekly/ bi-weekly cinema supplements, began cinema coverage on a daily basis. Almost all film magazines have since been gasping for breath. This history repeated itself with the arrival of specialist society/celebrity magazines in the 1980s.  By 2010, society and celebrity coverage has become regular Page 3 material in the mainline dailies. The specialist magazines in this segment of journalism are now virtually extinct.

As a result of these changes, India's mainline English dailies have changed almost beyond recognition in the last 30 years.

In the present context, there is no reason to believe that a transformation of the Khayal will drive the Ghazal or Thumree totally out of circulation. But, as the Khayal starts resembling the relatively Raga-neutral genres in some respects, it will shrink the aesthetic space available to them for remaining in independent circulation. And, some would argue that this tendency is visible already.

It has been argued, for instance, that Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan brought so much melodic sophistication to the Ghazal, that they left the original Banaras Thumree struggling for survival. It has also been noted that once the Khayal genre annexed and enriched the Bandish-ki-Thumree as the Chhota Khayal, the Bandish-ki-Thumree lost its footing in the musical culture.  Further, it is observed that with the advent of the romanticist brigade in Khayal vocalism – Kumar Gandharva, Jasraj and Kishori Amonkar – the Bol-banav Thumree and some other semi-classical genres lost a good deal of their aesthetic  territory.  These are purely aesthetic observations, which are impossible to either prove or disprove. But, they are not  rendered invalid by this alleged infirmity.

Here we go back to Prof. Ranade’s argument stated in the earlier essay. The dominant mainstream genre tends to protect its dominance – amongst other tendencies – by adopting the musical features of ascendant rivals.  By this reasoning, Khayal, the dominant mainstream genre, is likely to respond to the threat/ opportunity presented by the non-Khayal genres by adopting their musical values. This possibility does suggest a paradigm shift because the Khayal is founded on the durable musical value of Raga exploration, while the aesthetic assumptions of the non-Khayal genres are fundamentally Raga-neutral, even though Raga-s may in practice, inform their melodic content.

Is this happening already?

The Youtube data studied so far pertains to vocalists who are either already departed, or in their advanced years. We need to examine several additional pieces of contemporary and/or  trend-related evidence to support the hypothesis emerging here. These may constitute the objects of continued enquiry.

© Deepak S. Raja 2015