Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Ragascape of Hindustani Music: V

Whose music engages on YouTube?

We started with the hypothesis that the Ragascape is a dynamic cultural force constantly shaping, and being shaped by, the world of performance. Imperceptible changes take place every day, and   accumulate perhaps over a generation or two to become visible periodically as paradigm shifts. YouTube holds the music of perhaps four generations of musicians and has two generations of (adult) listeners having access to it. All the music is probably not engaging all the living generations of listeners. The data at our disposal allows us to examine the interplay of generations, though superficially.

I draw upon Jose Ortega Y Gasset’s landmark work “Man and Crisis” (George, Allen & Unwin, London, 1959) for his perspective on history as a product of inter-generational interactions.

Extracts from “Man and Crisis”

 “Community of date and space are the primary attributes of a generation. Together, they signify the sharing of an essential destiny. The keyboard of environment on which coevals play the Sonata Apassionata of their lives is in its fundamental structure one and the same. This identity of destiny produces in coevals certain secondary coincidences which are summed up in the unity of their style. A generation is an integrated manner of existence or, if you prefer, a fashion of living, which fixes itself indelibly on the individual…

“In the “today”, in every “today”, various generations co-exist and the relations which are established between them according to the different conditions of their ages, represent the dynamic system of attractions and repulsions, of agreement and controversy, which at any given moment makes up the reality of historic life. The concept of generations, converted into a method of historic investigation consists in nothing more than projecting the structure upon the past.

“A generation is the aggregate of men who are the same age. …. The concept of age is not (however) the stuff of mathematics, but of life. Age, then, is not a date but a zone of dates.”

For understanding the historical process as an interaction between various co-existing generations, he proposes the following analysis of generations:

According to Ortega, lives can be divided into five phases of approximately fifteen years each. (1) Childhood: 0-15, (2) Youth: 15-30, (3) Initiation: 30-45, (4) Dominance: 45-60, (5) Old age: 60+. In some ways, Ortega suggests, the face of the world changes every 15 years. However, he classifies the third and fourth stages, representing the 30-year period from age 30 to 60 as the historically significant phases of an individual’s/ generation’s life.

In his 30’s man acquaints himself with the world into which he has fallen, and in which he must live. Between 30 and 45, he begins to react on his own account against the world that he has encountered, starts to reshape his world, and learns to defend it against the generations that rule it. Between 45 and 60, he devotes himself fully to the development of the inspirations he has received between 30 and 45. The period of 30-45 is his period of gestation, creation and conflict, while the period between 45 and 60 is his stage for achieving dominance and command over his world.

Following Ortega’s argument, I divided all the musicians covered by this 97-Raga study into three broad categories.

(a)  Contemporary: This category consists of currently active musicians, typically between the ages of 30 and 65.
(b)  Modern: This category consists of musicians whose most influential period spanned the last quarter of the 20th century (1975-2000). Many of them are alive, above 65, and still have a following.
(c)   Vintage: This category consists of musicians whose prime performing period ended in, or before, 1975.

I regard 1975 as a defensible borderline between “Modern” and “Pre-Modern” (Vintage) Hindustani music. The significance of the year is notional and symbolic more than historic. Ameer Khan’s demise that year all but ended the era of classicism. Starting around then, the romanticists captured Khayal vocalism, to dominate the stage for two generations. This was also around the time when the first generation of post-independence musicians began surfacing on the concert platform. Incidentally, by this time, concert length recordings on Long Playing and Audio-Cassette media had commercialized Hindustani music, and stimulated an international market for it.

I isolated the “Modern” segment from the “Contemporary” on the criterion that, beyond the age of 65, even a living and active musician is past his influence period. The theoretical basis for this proposition, following the argument of Jose Ortega Y Gasett (Man & Crisis), is discussed above.  

Birth dates were not available for all the musicians covered by this study. The computations may, therefore, lack chronological precision. A different or more refined approach to this query is possible, and may lead to different conclusions. I am sharing my results fully aware of the limitations.

The aggregate rating (views/month) for all uploads across 97 Raga-s is 526. A sub-set of the data, music of the Contemporary generation, shows a rating of 721 points, while the Modern and Vintage generation ratings report 449 and 223 points respectively. From contemporary to Modern music, we observe a 30% drop in audience engagement levels. From the Modern to the Vintage, we observe another 50% drop. Thus, from contemporary music to vintage music, we observe a 70% drop.

Aesthetic Obsolescence

In a broad sense, this pattern supports the idea I have explored in my earlier writings -- that there is no such thing as “timeless music”, that aesthetic obsolescence is a reality. (Refer: Chapter 1.5: in Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition. DK Printworld. 2005)

The proposition is that Hindustani music, as performed, is an interactive product created by musicians along with their audiences. Every musician is a product of his generation, and tends to communicate most effectively with audiences of his own generation. Allied to this is the idea that audiences relate best to music that they grew up with, and develop a form of aesthetic sclerosis after a certain age. As a result, the greater the distance of time between a listener and the music, the lesser would be his ability to relate to it. Declining engagement across aging segments is therefore expected, but also supported by a demographic reality. The audience that relates well to the music of the older musicians is itself old, and steadily dwindling in numbers.

The proposition is simply elucidated by relating the generations mentioned here notionally to approximate periods. Contemporary musicians: Born: 1960 +, Modern musicians: Born:  between 1930-1960, Vintage musicians: Born: between 1900-1930. The patterns evident in the graph here are effectively telling us that the world has changed totally since the “Grandfather” generation was setting the rules. None of the influences operating in the Grandfather’s times are operating any longer. The “Grandson” generation is now in command. It is natural that his music would neither be similar to that of the Grandfather generation, nor meet the Grandfather’s approval.  

Aesthetic obsolescence may not, however, totally explain the loss of audience engagement we notice. There is also an element of technological/ acoustic obsolescence hidden behind these numbers. A lot of Hindustani music is in monochrome video, or audio of varying/ indifferent acoustic quality. These weaknesses may be more prominent in modern and vintage segments than in the contemporary segment. Technological factors may depress the engagement of audiences. On the other hand, the scarcity / vintage / nostalgia value of some Modern and Vintage uploads may elevate their ratings. We have no way of knowing how the two forces balance out.  

The combined effect of aesthetic and technological obsolescence could be assessed by running a linear correlation between the three ratings series. The coefficient of correlation between the Contemporary and Modern series is 0.33; the coefficient between the Modern and the Vintage is 0.29, and the coefficient between Contemporary and Vintage is 0.22. This is possibly as sharp a “generation gap” as could have been measured from so unlikely a database.

The drop in audience engagement levels across generational divides is, by and large, expected. This line of enquiry permits us to go a bit farther – to map three different Ragascapes, one for each generation. Though the data-base does not permit authoritative conclusions, some indications are available. Table 3 shows the “Top-30” Raga-s on the audience engagement rating under (i) contemporary (ii) modern and (iii) vintage categories.

Continuity and Change

We observe that 25 of the top-30 Raga-s are common to the three lists. This suggests a considerably stable Ragascape in terms of visibility on the horizon. The low correlations between the three series highlight how differently today’s audiences relate to the same Raga-s performed by different generations of musicians.  The divergences surface sharply in the following detail.

The “Contemporary top-30” list has five Raga-s that are not amongst the top-30 of the other two groups. (i) Jaunpuri (ii) Madhuvanti (iii) Multani (iv) Nat Bhairav and (v) Shuddha Sarang. Based on our results, these five Raga-s may be considered distinctly/ prominently “Contemporary” in their appeal. In the “Modern” generation top-30, three Raga-s are exclusive to this list. They are (i) Jaijaiwanti (ii) Madhmad Sarang (iii) Sohini. The “Vintage” list has only two Raga-s exclusive to its top-30 table: (i) Pahadi and (ii) Shree.
These are, once again, analytical outputs suggestive of the present-day reality. We have no evidence here to explain how and why each of these “star” Raga-s of each generation acquire their special status.

By unselectively hosting the music of three or more generations of musicians, YouTube has become a pivotal player in the cultural processes of Hindustani music. Its role is most potent as a platform for contemporary music and musicians. Contemporary musicians feed it with content because platform is engaging relevant audiences who seek/need a connection with contemporary music. Musicians use it for accessing the faceless global audience, for monitoring the music and activities of their rivals, and for circumventing the hold of intermediaries over the concert market. Because of its broad-based usefulness, the volume of music in the Contemporary segment is likely to be growing the fastest, bringing with it a growing usefulness.

Despite technological and aesthetic obsolescence, the Modern and Vintage inventories on YouTube are valuable for their cultural significance. They service the musical needs of the older generations of listeners, who may not relate to contemporary music. Modern and Vintage recordings also provide the reference point against which contemporary music establishes its conformity and registers its dissent. All contemporary music will, some day, cease to be “contemporary” and become Modern, and ultimately Vintage. Besides “internal” accretions, YouTube also receives modern and vintage uploads from individual and institutional collectors. As a result, YouTube is becoming an increasingly valuable cultural resource, the kind of which would be beyond the capacity of any individual or institutional collector to assemble, maintain, and offer online.  

The pedagogical value of this asset is limited only by the imagination of our educators. Almost every facet of Hindustani music can be taught more efficiently with the aid of landmark recordings than an exclusive reliance on personal tutoring or books. Of the three processes in music making – ideation, individuation, and ritualization – it is ideation that distinguishes the great musician from the merely good. And, there cannot be a more effective ideational guide than an archive so generously endowed.  

The contemporary Hindustani music inventory on YouTube is aiding the creation of an “efficient market” for classical music talent, while the modern and vintage repositories are shaping the YouTube into a valuable archive. YouTube policies, terms of use and commercial practices are global, and designed to generate profits for YouTube. In the process of pursuing profits globally, YouTube has created a valuable cultural asset for Hindustani music. The continued success of YouTube policies worldwide will decide how secure and useful India’s cultural asset remains in its hands, and for how long.

... Continued in Part VI