Monday, June 15, 2020

The Ragascape of Hindustani Music: I

About a hundred years ago, VN Bhatkhande published compositions in 181 Raga-s, of which he described 45 as being “Prasiddha”. The remaining were classified as “Aprasiddha”. This classification is often mentioned in contemporary musicological discourse, along with an unstated question: If a similar classification were to be attempted today, what kind of numbers would it yield? This question inspires this enquiry.

Bhatkhande was a Sanskrit scholar. What precisely did he mean? He did not use “Prakhyat” (प्रख्यात) = famous. He did not use “Prachalit” (प्रचलित) = common/ popular. He did not use “Pratishthit” (प्रतिष्ठित)= respected/ elitist. He used “Prasiddha” (प्रसिद्ध), derived from the Sanskrit “Siddha” (सिद्ध्) = established/ proven. “Prasiddha” carries all the connotations of the candidate words not used, but elevates the issue to a different level. The “Siddha” quality here has two angles – of mastery by performers, and of being proven to listeners. It denotes fame attained through proven excellence/ mastery, and wide acceptance/ endorsement by public opinion. In the present context, therefore, Bhatkhande’s notion of “Prasiddha Raga-s” may be interpreted as Raga-s established in the musical culture on account of accomplishments (of musicians, in performance), and their widespread acceptance by listeners.

To arrive at his assessment, Bhatkhande interacted extensively and intensively with musicians and other influentials, such as scholars and patrons, across the country for several decades. His was the most authoritative assessment that could have been made of his times. But, by today’s standards, the music world he surveyed was small, and uncomplicated. Today’s Hindustani music is a vibrant sub-culture -- larger, more complex, more diverse, and connected by a more transparent web of self-interest amongst its participants. It neither asks simple questions, nor accepts simplistic answers.

Today’s professional musician is a service-provider in the market for Raga-based music. He has a well-developed notion of “career strategy”. The strategy accounts for the repertoire in which he has a high level of performing competence. But his “command repertoire” does not necessarily ensure professional success.  His success also depends on the receptivity of the contemporary Ragascape – the set of Raga-s within the “comfort zone” of contemporary audiences.

The idea of a Ragascape connects with the notion that Raga-s are archetypal entities residing in the racial memory as distinct banks of musical ideas, each associated with a particular region of the community’s emotional life. Musicians draw upon these banks to relate meaningfully to their audiences and, while doing so, also contribute new ideas to these banks. Raga-s drift in and out of circulation and public consciousness through community-wide recalling and forgetting. Conceptually, then, the Ragascape of an era is comprised of Raga-s whose ideational banks are being actively/ frequently/ constantly tapped and replenished in the present.

Veteran observers of the music scene have noted that, from a universe of possibly 1000+ documented Raga-s in Hindustani music, not more than a 100 are “in circulation” at any given time – say, a generation understood as 30 years. There is also considerable agreement that, of these 100, perhaps just about 50 Raga-s account for the vast majority of performances across all media. If informed-jury estimates are to be believed, 50 to 100 Raga-s may be sufficient to paint the Ragascape of any era.  

Whatever the truth, it has to connect with the reality of the musician being an economic being.  Throughout his career, he explores and cultivates a “goodness of fit” between his artistic resources and public receptivity through some awareness of contemporary trends. If he has the makings of an epochal musician, say of an Ameer Khan, Alladiya Khan, or a Faiyyaz Khan, he may actually alter the Ragascape. But, even these worthies had to reckon with the Ragascape of the era, before they began to alter it. They obviously did some good, even if informal, “market research”. Their kind of research can now be a little more “formal”.

The Ragascape idea also impinges upon the grooming of aspirants for careers in classical music. Individual Gurus and educational institutions impart skills either without utilitarian considerations, or without organized knowledge of the Ragascape in which their wards will seek a career. With even imprecise information, educators can enhance the value of their training. It is, of course, true that the worldview of the active Guru-s (and teaching institutions) in each generation will collectively shape the Ragascape through what is taught and how. But, this is a two-way process. For every musician, the Ragascape is a “given” reality, which also permits him to enrich or alter it.  

The dynamics of the Ragascape are surely of interest to musicologists. Raga-s drift into, and out of, the Ragascape in response to changes in aesthetic values, and the changing profiles of musicians and audiences. Every Raga has its distinctive personality and performing stance. Every Raga entering or exiting the Ragascape says something about society and its expectations from classical music. Such clues are mostly encountered without being sought, and deserve more than a glance from scholars.

The challenge, then, is to devise a methodology for mapping the Ragascape to provide useful insights to the various participants in the Hindustani music ecosystem.

The contemporary Ragascape is the cumulative product of Raga-s performed with distinction by several generations of musicians working with a multiplicity of Raga-based, (and even Raga-neutral) genres, and delivered to audiences through a variety of personal and impersonal media. Mapping such an activity involves musicians and audiences scattered all over the world. This is a formidable task for which neither the methodology, nor the funding, can be envisaged. One may, therefore, consider existing data sources that can yield workable, though not authoritative, insights.

This study draws on public-domain information on YouTube viewership to extract some insights that may be helpful to the classical music community. YouTube data is increasingly being used for musicological research, while its value remains a subject of academic debate. There are good reasons to utilize the data prudently, and with an awareness of its limitations. Appropriately, then, the numerical outputs are to be interpreted as “Orders of magnitude” rather than categorical measures of what is being specifically measured. The limitations of using YouTube data have been discussed in detail at the end of this study.

The data used here for computing the Audience Engagement index of Raga-s was capable of yielding a few additional insights. Such leads have been pursued to the extent the data would permit.

YouTube as data source
YouTube is, by now, the largest open-access repository of Hindustani music, hosting recordings going back to the earliest years of sound recording. It appears to have replaced every other access to Hindustani music – other than, possibly, a live concert. But, increasingly, any significant (or even insignificant) contemporary concert or recording taking place in any part of the Hindustani music world, finds its way to YouTube before long. YouTube may now be considered more than merely “representative” of contemporary Hindustani music – it could possibly qualify as the primary platform. The long-term/ cultural implications of this phenomenon need not concern us here. It suffices to acknowledge that YouTube audience measurement numbers can be treated with respect.

Could the flood of live Hindustani concerts on Facebook during the global pandemic shut-downs (April-May-June 2020) have diluted YouTube’s status as the dominant music platform? There is enough reason to believe that, fundamentally, nothing has either changed or is likely to change. However, it is safest to state that we do not know; or that it is too early to judge. In any event, this present study is insulated against even a temporary disturbance on this account. The research database was compiled between March 25 and April 5, 2020, before Facebook became an online auditorium.

YouTube remains a viable business by selling advertising exposure. In order to maximize advertising value, it operates a sophisticated system of managing viewer behavior. The system uses internally generated information and navigation prompts to guide users into spending the maximum possible time on YouTube. The same system provides advertisers with reach and impact data on the content to establish its advertising value. Except perhaps under special arrangements, the analytics generated by YouTube are not available to researchers outside its circle of commercially valuable users.

The data available publicly on screen is all we have. We have (i) the date of upload, and we have (ii) the total viewership from the upload date till the day we are looking at the numbers. This study draws on these fragments of information for pursuing its query.  

 The Audience Engagement Indicator
The Raga-s considered for rating for audience engagement were selected by merging the under-graduate and post-graduate syllabi of the major universities and examining institutions involved in Hindustani music. This framework was valuable as an indicator of organized activity aimed at preserving their character, and keeping them “in circulation”.

The computation of the Audience Engagement Indicator is based on the belief that Hindustani music is a highly individualistic art, and hence audience loyalties/ preferences are centered upon individual musicians rather than around Raga-s. Isolating Raga-specific engagement from viewership measures needs mountains of data and some arithmetic. The objective is substantially achieved by aggregating the metrics of videos of the same Raga performed by a large number of musicians across various genres of music, performing in various contexts, across diverse geographies. A total isolation of the Raga effect from the musician effect is neither possible, nor necessary. Musicians shape Raga-s, as much as Raga-s shape music.

The arithmetic is simple. The videos covered for this study were uploaded at different time distances from the date on which we are logging their total viewership. Each video has thus had a different time-span over which to accumulate viewers – or be forgotten. So, the aggregate viewership of all included videos has to be adjusted for these differences in order to obtain a standardized measure of audience engagement. The resultant number is computed as “Views per Month”. However, it is safest to regard it as an unrefined “Audience Engagement Indicator”.

  It is fair to ask whether what we are measuring is, in fact, what we wish to measure. The truth is that we neither know, nor can alter, the manner in which YouTube measures and reports viewership on the screen.  We are only incidental beneficiaries of the information available, and of whatever meaning we can extract out of it. The limitations of the data source are discussed in some detail at the end of this study. 

... Continued in Part II