Thursday, May 7, 2015

Aesthetic obsolescence in Hindustani music II

In an earlier paper, I have suggested (1) that aesthetic obsolescence is a reality in classical music, and (2) that a paradigm shift in aesthetic values can be expected at intervals of 50-60 years.  Those propositions were based on anthropological, and macro-economic constructs evolved in the American/ European/ global context. Despite their intuitive appeal, they are not sufficient to support a definitive view with respect to Hindustani music.  Indian evidence with respect to such phenomena needs to be considered.

Aesthetic obsolescence and paradigm shifts in Hindustani music I

The Hindustani music audience accesses and consumes music through an increasing variety of sources, and their mix itself is changing constantly. Many of these sources are either informal, or generate quantitative information on consumption patterns, which is available only to its providers. The Hindustani music market is just not large enough to spawn independent sources of reliable quantitative information. The glimmer of hope in this regard comes from YouTube, which now features an substantial and increasing volume of Hindustani music, and is emerging as a valuable source of archival music for music lovers.

YouTube as data source

Every video recording featured on YouTube now provides information on the date of uploading, and the number of views against each recording. By dividing the total viewership of a recording by the number of months/ weeks since the date of uploading, it is possible to get a measure (views per month/week) which enables a comparison of individual recordings and musicians on the level of audience of involvement and interest logged up to a given date. This simple measure can be submitted to statistical analysis for extracting valuable insights.

YouTube is, admittedly, not a perfect solution to our problem. Even amongst internet-based music repositories, it is one of the many, though perhaps the largest and the most popular. Net-based repositories are themselves one of the many media through which Hindustani music is being accessed. It is impossible to account for the various determinants of availability of any recording on YouTube or alternative internet music portals/ archives.  It is also impossible – without access to YouTube’s internal analytics – to appreciate how YouTube defines viewership, thus making a comparison between recordings and musicians an uncertain exercise.  

Another major issue concerns YouTube itself. The portal itself is growing constantly in terms of content diversity, content volume and usership base. Inevitably then, its global audience profile is also changing constantly. So, it becomes conceptually tricky to compare, say, 50 views per month for a recording Ustad Fayyaz in 2010 with 50 views per month of the same recording in 2014. Do the two represent the same level of public interest and involvement? 

The methodological issues raised by this data source are innumerable.  With all its limitations, however, YouTube is the most substantial repository of Hindustani music, which also reports quantitative information on the level of audience interest and involvement in archival music starting from the early years of the 20th century. It therefore makes sense to examine YouTube data for possible indications of aesthetic obsolescence and paradigm shifts with respect to Hindustani music.

Research design

This study is based on recordings of deceased Khayal vocalists because, in Hindustani music, only the Khayal genre enjoys considerable structural stability across the century we are looking at, and features a continuous flow of significant musicians to monitor. Admittedly, several Khayal vocalists have achieved additional popularity and stature because of their non-Khayal repertoire such as Bhajans, Thumrees, and Tappas. There is clearly no way of isolating the effect of this facet of their musical personality on their mainstream persona. To keep all musicians and recordings comparable, the study chose to ignore the non-Khayal recordings of the considered musicians available on YouTube.

The selection of significant musicians to monitor was based on the author’s knowledge of Khayal vocalism, sometimes constrained by the availability of sample data. An attempt was made to ensure that significant vocalists from every major Gharana of Khayal vocalism were included in the study. Even an otherwise significant musician was not considered if his/ her YouTube presence did not cross 5 different ragas. This gave a total listing of 21 vocalists, whose YouTube presence was even indicatively measurable.

For every significant musician considered, at least one recording of every raga available on YouTube was included. Wherever more than one recording of the same raga, or even the same performance was available, all were considered. Because of the varying pattern of availability, it could not be helped that, the study considers as many as 58 recordings of one musician at the upper end, and as few as 6 of another at the lower end.

In a vast majority of the cases, the considered recordings had been uploaded between 2010 and 2015. In very few cases, upload dates go back into 2008 or 2009. The number of months for which each recording had been available was computed using May 1, 2015 as the cut-off date. The data was recorded between May 2 and May 4.

The table below shows the computations of audience involvement/ interest/ viewership of the considered musicians. The graph below presents average viewers per month of the musicians plotted against their year of birth. Admittedly, the year of birth is not the ideal landmark for comparability because different musicians have acquired stature and influence at different stages in their lives. No stage-of-life-cycle alternative would have been satisfactory because that would have left out a musician like DV Paluskar, who achieved considerable stature in his short life of 34 years.


The graphic representation of the analysis should be considered first for its conceptual and theoretical implications.

The graph supports the proposition that aesthetic obsolescence is a reality in Hindustani music. It exhibits a clear trend of viewership favoring musicians born more recently as against musicians born in earlier years. A long-term trend-line would suggests that, on an average, a musician born in 1930 would have 5 more YouTube viewers per month than a musician born 60 years ago, in 1870.

In addition to a linear trend, the graph also exhibits a cyclical trend. Every once in a while there appears to emerge a breakthrough vocalist whose music achieves a higher level of audience involvement than expected. And, this booster evidently provides the momentum for the subsequent breakthrough to seek an even higher intensity of audience involvement. Here, of course, we do not know how much of this booster effect is attributable to the music, and how much to the dynamism of the media environment – most notably YouTube itself.  But, then, media grow on the strength of their content. Therefore, which is the cause and which the effect, is an intractable issue.

This three-wave pattern has a defensible generational interpretation. From this, it would appear that currently, there are a three -- probably four -- sets of musical values which command the involvement of Youtube audiences. The first wave, represented by Abdul Kareem Khan, the second by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the third by Mallikarjun Mansur, and the fourth by Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, and DV Paluskar. This would suggest that three -- perhaps four -- distinct generations of listeners are currently involved in the recorded Khayal music of the 20th century.

In the history we have plotted, Abdul Kareem Khan (born: 1872) appears as the first breakthrough Khayal vocalist. After him, Bade Gulam Ali Khan (born: 1903), represents the next peak.  Ameer Khan (born: 1912) defines the following peak. The last peak covered by this study is defined by Bhimsen Joshi (born 1922). It will be noticed that the time-gaps between the successive peaks are not even approximately similar. This is not surprising because art is not obliged to provide the econometrician with convenient solutions to his problems.

The peaks are, undoubtedly, defined by those we consider “landmark” musicians. But, do we have any indications here of a paradigm shift or a long cycle of 50-60 years? Possible, we do. On the graph presented here, we are looking at three smaller waves with the chronological distance between the first and the fourth peak being exactly 50 years. We could well be looking at an Indian version of a large Kodratiev wave of 50-60 years, which subsumes three shorter Kuznets waves, as described in my earlier paper on this subject. If this speculation has any merit, Hindustani music could today be on the threshold of a paradigm shift – this being the hypothesis I have articulated during my speech in Bangalore in December, 2014, which triggered off this inquiry.

Of course, we need to be circumspect about such speculation because this study does not permit a view on this aspect of the obsolescence theory. This is so mainly because the data source itself is constrained by the history of electronic amplification and recording technologies. It is known that developments in recording and storage-media technologies made a significant contribution to making Abdul Kareem Khan, Bade Gulam Ali Khan, Ameer Khan and Bhimsen Joshi “landmark” musicians. By the same logic, the recordings of “landmark” musicians from the early days of sound engineering – such as Kesarbai Kerkar and Fayyaz Khan – could have suffered truncated aesthetic lives on account of a comparatively primitive acoustic environment.   

With the recording industry itself being less than 120 years old, it would be impossible to observe even two full long-cycles of 50-60 years, even if they existed, because reliable quantitative data to support such a theory would be impossible to compile. Therefore, the notions of paradigm shifts or long cycles will perhaps remain in the region of scholarly opinion and public debate.

Gharana perspectives

While the individual viewership ratings of the various musicians are of wider popular interest, the Gharana affiliations and stylistic legacies reflected in this study are of greater importance in understanding the cultural process. The groupings, as attempted, reflect my understanding of stylistic tendencies.

Those who described the demise of Bhimsen Joshi as the “End of an Era” were probably more prophetic than they realized. If there is a 50-year cycle culminating with the musicianship of Bhimsen Joshi, the event might have been acceptably described as the “End of the Kairana Era”,which began with Abdul Kareem Khan born exactly 50 years before Bhimsen Joshi, and spawned a veritable galaxy in between. 

It is easy to see the Kairana group heading the list with an average of 313 viewers per month. It does so, on the strength of Bhimsen Joshi (652), Ameer Khan (486) and Abdul Kareem Khan (410). Patiala stands tall alongside (301) with just one vocalist, Bade Gulam Ali Khan holding the fort.

The Gwalior group (156) stands almost on par with the Jaipur-Atrauli group (125). But, they present a picture in contrast. With the exception of DV Paluskar, the Gwalior group claims its share-of-mind entirely on the strength of highly original, individualistic, or reformist musicians – starting from Ramakrishna Vaze and ending with Yashwant Buwa Joshi. In sharp contrast, the Jaipur-Atrauli group consists entirely of orthodox vocalists, trained by the founding family.

This confirms Prof. Bonnie Wade’s view (Khayala: Creativity within India’s Classical Music Traditions, Cambridge University Press, 1984) that in the second quarter of the 20th century, the Gwalior gharana suffered a loss of identity, and was obliged to reinvent itself. This crisis resulted in several Gwalior trained vocalists drifting towards the dominant style such as Agra (e.g. Yashwant Buwa Joshi),  the ascendant style such as Jaipur-Atrauli (Mallikarjun Mansoor), or to emerge as highly individualistic originals (e.g. Omkarnath Thakur, Kumar Gandharva).

This contrasts apparently with Jaipur-Atrauli, which holds its share-of-mind alongside Gwalior so far on the strength of its orthodox musicianship. It is not, however, insignificant, that the Gharana group rating is being held up substantially by Mallikarjun Mansur, who performed orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli music, but was in fact a mature migrant from Gwalior. It is also debatable whether Mansur's music ever lost traces of Gwalior vocalism. Also, what is not reflected in this study is the immense influence of Kishori Amonkar of the same lineage, starting from the mid-1970s, which has left the orthodox stream of Jaipur-Atrauli gasping for breath.

Therefore, in the Gwalior group, as well as the Jaipur-Atrauli group, we are looking at a reformist phase struggling against the forces of aesthetic obsolescence.

The Agra group (45), headed by Fayyaz Khan (110) is pulled down to the fifth position by his successors.

Individual highlights

In the Kirana group, Roshanara Begum (104) is a surprise with a viewership rating on par with Kesarbai Kerkar (99) and Fayyaz Khan (110).  This is all the more interesting since she migrated to Pakistan at the time of independence, and visited India only rarely thereafter. She is not known to have performed in India after 1947. Her recordings have been her sole contact with Indian audiences. Merely by belonging to the next generation, and by virtue of her musicianship, she stands today on par with titans of just a generation before her.

The Gwalior group (156) is held up in the third position by DV Paluskar (243) who died in 1955 at the age of 34. His present-day rating is almost twice that of Omkarnath Thakur (127) who acquired immense stature and popularity a generation before him. In addition to the perennial youthfulness of his musical legacy, Paluskar enjoyed the advantages of a buoyant recording industry and media environment just a quarter of a century after Omkarnath Thakur.

The Jaipur-Atrauli group (125) is currently placed in the fourth position by Mallikarjun Mansur (208) much more than by Kesarbai Kerkar (99), the empress of the concert platform a generation before him. In this, we once again observe the effect of a generational shift in musical values, supported by the dynamism of the electronic media.


Despite the limitations of the data source, this study supports the notion of aesthetic obsolescence as a reality in Hindustani music. This constitutes valuable confirmation of reports to the same effect received from significant players in the commercial recording industry as well as the barter market for archival recordings.

This study does not provide clear support to the supposition of a paradigm shift in musical values which, I have observed, is currently taking place. However, considering that the study shows wave patterns resembling three short components of the Kondratiev wave of 50 years, the possibility of an imminent paradigm shift cannot be ruled out either. The argument in favour of such a possibility is that if musical values are changing constantly, the change cannot remain imperceptible indefinitely. At some stage, the accumulation of imperceptible changes will become perceptible in the form of a paradigm shift. Whether such a watershed can be expected every 50-60 years, or at shorter or longer intervals-- or even at irregular intervals -- in the context of Hindustani music is, as yet, inestimable. 

At this point, one may devote a thought to how the accumulation of imperceptible changes over a period becomes perceptible as a watershed or a paradigm shift. When a musical, considered fundamental to the acceptability of sound music, is abandoned by a majority of performing musicians -- without necessarily identifying an emergent alternative -- a paradigm shift can be said to have taken place. If such a shift is impending at this juncture, I expect much will be written on this subject in the next few years by astute observers of the Hindustani music culture. 

There is, of course, no reason why the change and periodicity patterns evident in Hindustani music should fit neatly into anthropological or econometric models developed in the developed world. We need, therefore, to be cautious in drawing upon such theoretical constructs for interpreting the Indian reality, with all its probable uniqueness.

However, with sufficient indications favoring the essence of our argument, there could be justification in pursuing an examination of social and economic forces that might help refine our understanding of the musical culture.

© Deepak S. Raja, May 2015