Friday, May 29, 2015

Aesthetic obsolescence: V

Earlier essays in this series have looked at this subject from several angles. I now attempt to tie up the various strands of thought by including data on contemporary Khayal musicians, using the same measure of audience involvement as in the earlier studies.

Unlike earlier studies, however, I shall not report the audience involvement measures for each musician individually. I avoid this for two reasons: Firstly, such measures are irrelevant to the purpose of this study. Secondly, there is a danger that individual measures for contemporary musicians might be interpreted in a manner unwarranted by the limitations of the data and the nature of the study. 

The contemporary vocalists covered by this study are: MaliniRajurkar, Veena Sahasrabudhe, Kishori Amonkar, Jasraj, Shruti Sadolikar, Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, Shruti Sadolikar-Katkar, Ulhas Kashalkar, Rajan+Sajan Mishra, Venkatesh Kumar, Ajoy Chakravarty, Gauri Pathare, Arati Anklikar-Tikekar, Manjusha Kulkarni-Patil, Rashid Khan, Kaushiki Chakravarty, Jaiteerth Mevundi, Dhananjay Hegde, Manjiri Asnare-Kelkar, Sanjeev Abhyankar.

With respect to contemporary musicians, a small change had to be made in the selection of sample recordings. For this sub-sample, I have only considered recordings uploaded after January 1, 2010. This is because Youtube viewership data is cumulative from the day of upload of the recordings. This would have made data for the senior and the very young musicians non-comparable. By limiting the duration of the upload dates between January 2010 and May 1, 2015, I have made sure that the data across the contemporary sample remains broadly comparable. This of course assumes that even the youngest of the considered musicians has been on the horizon of significant musicianship for at least five years. This was the only refinement possible to the methodology of a study made using data of known and admittedly limited value. 

The focus

We are looking at the involvement of the present YouTube audience in the Khayal vocalism specimens of musicians born between 1872 and 1980, a period of 108 years. Assuming that the earliest uploaded recordings were made after the musician had reached at least 30 years of age we are looking at music of the period 1902-2015. At the audience end, we are looking at listeners who are between 30 and 75 years of age in 2015.

By the Jose Ortega generational model of 30 years constituting a distinct cultural generation, we are looking at music made by 3.8 generations of musicians, and its hold on the minds of 2.5 generations of audiences. However, Ortega also suggests that the face of the world changes in some ways every 15 years – which is half a generation. We are therefore probably looking at the music of a period within which the world has changed, in some ways, as many as seven times.

Graph 1 plots the average monthly Youtube views reported for the Khayal music of 33 Khayal vocalists, born between 1872 and 1980. Significant patterns are as follows:

ONE: The long-term trend-line confirms our view that, the older is the music on offer, the less likely it is to be heard by listeners of Hindustani music. The obsolescence hypothesis is adequately supported.

TWO: The wavelike pattern reflects the simultaneous effect of multiple generations of listeners relating to the same music. In any given population, at any given time, there will be emerging generations, and receding generations of listeners as well as musicians.  The musical values and preferences of the two will diverge partially while also being partially convergent. This partial overlap creates a wavelike formation.  The graph shows seven or eight waves of varying durations over a period of 105 years of music, perhaps suggesting that the musical culture has thrown up significant representative musicians each time the world has changed a little.

THREE:  The suggestion of a long-wave postulated by the Kondratiev Model discussed earlier in this series of essays is also evident in this graph. After Abdul Kareem Khan (born 1872), the graph shows the next big upsurge in culturally relevant musical value with Kishori Amonkar (born 1931) – a period of 59 years.Though it may be a bit early to speculate on the emerging scenario, there are signs that the Amonkar peak may be bettered by vocalists born around 1980 – 50 years after her.

FOUR: If the world changes in some ways every 15 years, it is proper to look at groups of musicians born within the same 15-year period (rather than individual musicians) as collectively expressing the “zeitgeist” of the era. The complex pattern of Graph 1 can be simplified, and made historically more relevant, in Graph 2, derived from the same set of computations as Graph 1.

This graph once again confirms the obsolescence hypothesis, and does so perhaps more sharply than the previous one. In addition, it suggests that the world has perhaps changed significantly six times (rather than seven or eight) in the last 105 years. The peak of this step-graph represents the era of DV Paluskar, Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Jasraj, and KishoriAmonkar (birth: 1920-1935).

Two successive half-generations after them do not appear to claim a comparable share-of-mind amongst audiences. This appears to validate my contention that the first post-independence generation of Hindustani vocalists remained under the stylistic shadows of the pre-independence giants, failed to address their own generation effectively, and thereby caused a substantial loss of audiences to Hindustani vocalism.

It is with the third half-generation after the peak (born 1965-1980) that audience involvement shows a brisk rise with the possibility of matching – and perhaps surpassing – the highest peak evident so far. If a long wave of 50-60 years heralds a paradigm shift, this indication suggests that Hindustani vocalism could be on the threshold of one.

Non-Khayal repertoire

Unlike Dhrupad vocalists, Khayal vocalists have always maintained a non-Khayal repertoire as an integral part of their musicianship. In an earlier essay, we have observed that this non-Khayal repertoire of departed musicians dominates the interest of contemporary Youtube audiences. This is, of course, a commentary on the musical values of contemporary audiences more than the musical tendencies or temperaments of the musicians of the past.

We may now consider whether the pattern holds true when contemporary musicians are considered along with departed musicians. This relationship is reflected in Graph 3, which superimposes audience involvement measure with respect to non-Khayal repertoire upon the measure for the Khayal repertoire. In order to preserve the historical focus of this study, the comparison is, once again, presented by 15-year periods, rather than for individual musicians.

The inferences from the emerging pattern are as follows:

ONE: The long-term trend-line for Non-Khayal repertoire exhibits a much sharper obsolescence factor than the trend-line for Khayal repertoire. This confirms our earlier observation that Non-Khayal repertoire responds more efficiently to changing aesthetic values and musical needs of society because of the freedom it enjoys from the relatively more durable musical values characteristic of the Khayal genre.

TWO: It is also significant that the upswings in the viewership of Khayal recordings have consistently been accompanied by much sharper upswings in the viewership of non-Khayal recordings. Likewise, a stagnation or depression in Khayal viewership is accompanied by a stagnation or depression in the viewership of Non-Khayal recordings. This would imply that the appeal of a musician’s non-Khayal repertoire is more crucial to his/ her professional success than that of his/her Khayal repertoire.

THREE: The long-term trend line of the Non-Khayal repertoire runs at double the audience-involvement level of the Khayal repertoire trend line.  This pattern confirms our view that contemporary audiences are far more involved with Non-Khayal repertoire of any era within their frame of consideration than with the Khayal repertoire.  This may be interpreted to imply that The Khayal genre, as hitherto understood, is fast ceasing to satisfy the musical needs of a vast majority of contemporary audiences.

FOUR: Genres may become obsolete; but musicians do not – because they have to survive. The Khayal genre must therefore now take a back-seat in the total musical persona of a classical vocalist, and/or undergo a major re-calibration of its aesthetic assumptions in order to remain relevant to contemporary society.

FIVE: From the contemporary perspective, the last paradigm shift in Hindustani vocalism is traced to the 15-year period that felt the impact of DV Paluskar, Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Jasraj and Kishori Amonkar. For that period (See Graph 3), the audience-involvement for Non-Khayal music runs at about 900 viewers per month above that for Khayal music. For the first time since then, the latest period under review shows a gap of over 600 views per month between the two graphs.

When such a large gap emerges between durable musical values and ephemeral musical values, the community of musicians can be expected to narrow it in the interest of their own economic security. How does this happen? For an answer to this question, we draw on Prof. Ranade’s observations on how a mainstream genre builds, maintains and protects its supremacy. Amongst other processes, it does so by (a) adopting the features of the ascendant or rival genres and (b) by attracting talent from all kinds of sources.

Firstly, the proportion of Non-Khayal repertoire to a musician’s total public presence will shoot up. Instead of being the “dessert” at the end of a meal, it will progressively become the “Main Course”. Secondly, the stylistic distinction between Khayal and Non-Khayal repertoires will narrow. Khayal renditions will have to start reflecting the musical values of Non-Khayal genres, if they wish to command an audience at all.

The same process may also be viewed a little differently. The predominance of Non-khayal repertoire as a success factor for professional musicians will tend to attract vocalists who have the training and temperament more suited to Non-khayal music than to Khayal music. Their presence in the Khayal segment – such as they may be able to achieve – will give them the respectability of the “Classical Music” platform, without putting their competence to test. Under such conditions, their Khayals can only remain unconvincing by the traditional yardstick of Khayal vocalism. Both these processes would be logical manifestations of a paradigm shift -- either imminent or already under way.

What is Khayal or Non-Khayal?

The present author has surveyed the Youtube portfolios of 33 departed and contemporary Hindustani vocalists for this study, recorded over a century. With particular reference to contemporary musicians, he has had to resolve interesting conceptual issues while classifying individual recordings as belonging either to the “Khayal” or “Non-Khayal” categories.

The researcher in Hindustani music today encounters a bewildering variety of “genres”, many of which neither have appropriate names, nor a well-defined character. An attempt is made here to list some of the names that have suggested themselves.

Khayalised Thumree, Thumriised Khayal, Khayalised Sargam, Sargamised Khayal, Bhajanised Thumri, Bhajanised Khayal, Thumri-ised Bhajan, Khayalised Bhajan, Kriti-isedKhayal, KhayalisedKriti,  Bhajanised scriptures, Scripturised bhajans, Scripturised Khayal, Khayalised scriptures, Vocal-instrumental jugalbandi, Hindustani-Carnatic jugalbandi, Hindustani-Carnatic fusion, Hindustani-Carnatic-Western Pop/ Jazz  fusion, Hindustani-Opera fusion.

All these “genres” respond to a notion of Raga-ness, even if only tangentially or remotely. But, the relationship is incidental more than purposive. Even where the Khayal is encountered in its original architecture, the manifestations of Raga-ness in the rendition rarely cross a set of identifying phrases.

This suggests that Hindustani music audiences are now so hungry for novelty, that almost any well-trained vocalist can create a niche for himself/ herself by creating a new "genre", as long as he/ she can execute it with competence and confidence. And, if his/her non-Khayal repertoire clicks with the audiences, he/ she need not fear being astutely evaluated by orthodox audiences for his/ her Khayal competence.  

A highly fragmented aesthetic environment does not, of course, push the orthodox Khayal featuring a deliberate Raga exploration entirely out of circulation, or place it under an immediate threat of extinction. As we have observed earlier, today’s audience consists of several generations of listeners and several generations of musicians. The orthodox Khayal can still remain (like Dhrupad) in marginalized circulation for another couple of generations; but perhaps not longer. And, even during its residual life, it will change beyond recognition. This is because the very essence of a paradigm shift is that it changes society’s perception of itself, never to return to its original state.

Cultural projections are difficult at this stage because, tangentially, the age-profile of the Indian population has to be a determining factor. Long term trends suggest that the youngest age group is growing fast as a proportion of the total population, while longevity is also improving steadily. This will soon leave the nation with the very young and the very old constituting the vast majority, with a very lean middle-age group.

According to an authoritative study reported on April 17, 2013 by The Hindu, every third person in an Indian city is a youth. In about seven years the median age in India will be 29 years, very likely a city-dweller, making India the youngest country in the world.

It is impossible to foresee how these schizoid realities will affect the future of the Khayal. This is relevant because the Khayal (along with Dhrupad) represents the more durable aesthetic values in the musical culture valued presumably more by the receding generations, while the non-Khayal (and non-Dhrupad) genres represent the more ephemeral values, supposedly valued more by the emerging generations.

The totality of the contemporary Hindustani vocal experience suggests to me the features of Post-modernism.


As a cultural movement, postmodernism has its epicenter in Europe. Its original triggers obviously have nothing in common with the Indian socio-economic reality. It is therefore difficult to define postmodernism in the Indian context. It is, however, possible to relate some of the well-documented features of postmodernism to the manifestations of their worldview in the contemporary Hindustani vocalism.

Charles Jencks, a reputed interpreter of postmodernism, describes a postmodern building as – “part modern, and part something else: vernacular, revivalist, local, commercial, metaphorical, or contextual”.[Jencks, Charles: What is Postmodernism, quoted in Key Ideas in Human Thought. Ed: Kenneth McLeish, 1993. Facts on File Inc., New York, Pg. 584-585]. McLeish observes that “There are no boundaries [in postmodernist art] save our individual competence: creator and spectator are locked in a conspiracy against history, against geography, and against specificity, which may be seen as liberating or destructive (the lunatics taking over the asylum!}, but which is entirely without precedent in the story of the arts”.

Foster points out with reference to postmodern films [Foster, Hal. Postmodernism: A Preface, Ed. Post Modern Culture, Pluto, London, 1985], that postmodernism is “a combination of lots of different genres, signs, and cultural elements. The features of postmodern films are hedonism, and decadence – things that are often seen towards the end of a culture’s life. … A feature of postmodernism is its ability to shock, without linking this device to a message”. In a similar vein, Jean Luc Goddard described his films as having “a beginning, a middle and an end; but not in that order.”

The postmodernist worldview rejects the existence of anything called “human nature” [Chagani, Fayaz. 9095/ postmodernism. html] . It argues that there is nothing universal  – whether in a global context or in a culture-specific context, or even across time  – about the manner in which people convert sensory stimuli into meaning. This "weltanschauung" does not therefore accept any established assumptions regarding the proper, or even the most efficient, means of communicating in any language – whether verbal or otherwise.  In the postmodernist world, there is no fundamental purpose for something to be what it is, except that it is what it is.

Note: The computations supporting the above graphs can be provided on request to scholars and researchers at the author’s discretion.

© Deepak S. Raja 2015