Monday, June 15, 2020

The Ragascape of Hindustani Music: II

Patterns in Audience Engagement

Table 1 presents the list of the 97 considered Raga-s in descending order of views per month (the audience engagement indicator). The indicators were also computed separately for vocal music and instrumental/ orchestral music.

The composite Audience Engagement Indicator across 97 Raga-s is 526 views per month, incorporating a vocal music score of 462 and an instrumental/orchestral music score of 645 views per month. The composite scores range from 13 views per month (Raga Jaitashree) at the lower end to 3475 views per month (Raga Bhairavi) at the upper end.

The higher aggregate rating for instrumental music can be misleading because the figures are distorted by a few extreme outliers related to events abroad.  A more realistic picture is obtained through a correlation run on the two series. It is clear that vocal music supports the composite rating of individual Raga-s more categorically than instrumental music. (The vocal music rating has a 0.94 coefficient of correlation with the composite rating, while the instrumental music rating has a correlation of 0.85.)

Composite Rating of Raga-s
 Audience Engagement Indicators for the 97 Raga-s yield a median value of 272 views per month, against an aggregate score of 526. Graph 1 displays the frequency distribution of the 97 scores, presented at intervals of 200 points.

 This is a highly skewed distribution. Interpreting such distributions can get quite complicated.  To keep things simple, we may use popular measures such as mean (490) and standard deviation (608). One simplistic (and scientifically questionable) interpretation would be a cut-off point at 1098 (Mean + Standard Deviation). This cut-off point would leave us with 11 “Prasiddha” Raga-s out of 97 Raga-s. A different, but “common sense”, view can permit a cut-off point at the mean (490). This point would give us with 28 Raga-s with “above-average” audience engagement indicators, and bring us closer to the Bhatkhande ratio.  

This “cut-off point” approach is, of course, unfaithful to the reality. In the real world, Raga-s have no appeal independently of the musician. Musicians shape Raga-s as much as Raga-s shape music. Time and again, it is proven that the comfort zone boundaries of audiences cannot resist the power of musicianship. Why, then, do we mention such a simplistic notion? We do so because musicians find its simplicity more appealing than the calibrated approaches of academics, and because it does not weaken our basic argument.  
This “above average” 28-Raga “Blue Chip” list would also fit neatly into a conventional analytical concept – “Share of views” (unadjusted for the duration since upload). Table 2 compares the duration adjusted views (views per month) for each Raga with the percentage share of gross views as accumulated up to the date of audit for the top 28 Raga-s reporting an above-average audience engagement indicator. The Table shows the two columns of ranking, representing two different approaches to the measurement of audience engagement, running almost parallel in terms of relative values. The cumulative share column in Table 2 suggests that these 28 Raga-s together account for over 70% of all views logged for the 97 Raga-s.

These results can be broadly interpreted as saying that 30% of the Raga-s account for 70% of audience engagement, while the remaining 70% of the Raga-s collectively account for only 30% of audience engagement.

The five Raga-s at the top of the rating have been widely heard in popular, semi-classical, and film music for as long as any living person can remember. This is a useful reminder that Raga-s are not the exclusive property of classical music. The dividing line we often draw between different categories of music (classical/ popular/ devotional/ martial etc.) is an academic construct. Raga-s reside in the racial memory, and are accessible to anyone seeking them. The Ragascape is shaped by all categories of music and, in turn, shapes all categories of music, though in different ways.

On close scrutiny, the 28 Raga-s in Table 2 reads like a sensible prescription of “standard repertoire” for a professional musician. The selection is well distributed across the various segments – Early morning (2), Late morning/ afternoon (7), Sunset group (2), Late evening group (7), Night group (2),  Thumree Raga-s group (4), Seasonal group (2) and Carnatic group (2).

The Raga-s at the bottom of the heap (Table 1. Rank 77 through 97) also reveal a fairly even distribution across categories. Early morning (4), Late morning/ afternoon (3), Sunset Raga-s (2), Late evening (4), Night Raga-s (1), Thumree Raga-s (2), Seasonal Raga-s (2) and Carnatic Raga-s (2).

It is natural for any curious mind to ask – what factors determine the rank each of these 97 Raga-s hold in the present output? The study is not designed to answer this question. What we have here is an audience engagement indicator as derived at the time of the study.  The resultant ranking is useful today and, perhaps in the immediate future. We know it is volatile; but we do not know how volatile.  

A Shrinking Ragascape?
These results tend to confirm the belief that the contemporary Ragascape is fairly narrow, with perhaps just about 50 Raga-s accounting for almost all performances, across all media.  It also supports the suspicion that enviable careers can be built relying on a repertoire of 12/15 Raga-s.  

One can argue that a narrow Ragascape enables musicians to aim for progressively greater depth in the exploration of a few Raga-s, in preference to achieving only a superficial treatment of a wider repertoire. This sounds reasonable if we are referring to a single musician’s career strategy/ choice. But, the argument loses traction if it tries defending a collective phenomenon – such as we have identified here. If audiences are being fed constantly on re-packaged doses of the familiar, they will tend to become indifferent – if not actually averse – to novelty/ variety. When this happens, musicians lose interest in enlarging their artistic resources. The natural consequence is the atrophy of imaginative capabilities. An imagination deficit is the surest path to artistic sterility. More fundamentally, then, who needs classical music?

We cannot ascertain whether the Ragascapes of the past were wider than they are today, or narrower. On reasonable reckoning, a shrinkage began in the 1960s, when All India Radio began to withdraw from its role as the dominant purveyor of   Hindustani music, leaving the recording companies free to fill the vacuum. The Long Playing record and subsequent storage media innovations – providing concert length recordings -- made this usurpation easy. Volume-driven strategies of the recording companies lead them to concentrate their resources on star musicians. Fewer musicians on the market meant fewer Raga-s in circulation. As a result, five decades later, we have two generations of audiences (and also musicians?) whose comfort zone may not exceed 30-40 Raga-s.

YouTube and other online repositories may alter this picture in the future because they appear to attract a growing diversity of content to achieve their commercial goals. But, we cannot be sure.  The evolution of these platforms is being guided by sophisticated Machine Learning applications designed for maximizing profitability globally. Even the designers of these AI systems cannot foresee how their systems will shape music across cultural boundaries.

The Top 28 ranked Raga-s.

... Continued in Part III