Attending a concert in Delhi set me thinking about the changing trends in the audience and their perception of classical music. The concert that I attended was of Ustad Ashish Khan at the Swami Haridas-Tansen Sangeet Nritya Mahotsav held last month. Accompanying him on the tabla was none other than the great Ustad Zakir Hussain. It was very heartening to see the auditorium filled to the brim even before the concert started. Many people kept coming in during the first concert of the evening. It was very clear that the majority of the audience had come to see and hear Zakir ji. After all, he is an icon and his very name draws audience into any concert hall.
Sponsors, organizers and many artistes line up to have him perform for them. Much credit for popularising the tabla internationally and taking it beyond conventional boundaries goes to this living legend. The role of the tabla and the tabla artiste in our music has changed over the decades. From being just an accompanying instrument that gives the “theka” (the tala pattern) or keeps the time; from tabla artistes being made to sit behind the main musician and at many times, on a lower dais, today the tabla artiste is given the respect he deserves. If the artiste happens to be Zakir ji, then he becomes the star attraction. The younger generation worships him and every tabla artiste dreams to be like him. His greatness lies not just in his fame and his complete mastery over his instrument and his iconic status but for me, it also lies in his humility and how he conducts himself so beautifully despite his fame, always setting an example for others to follow. At this particular concert, the audience was very thrilled to see him on the dais. Many were clapping and some were even whistling in appreciation. This may be okay at a rock concert, but it surely crosses the line of etiquette when it comes to classical music. Just five minutes into his playing, one could see Zakir ji getting disturbed by the constant applause and whistles. He stopped playing and took the microphone to request the audience to stop all the noise. Very beautifully but sternly, he went on to say that classical music is a form of prayer, and as artistes, we are all worshipping Ma Saraswati when we are on the dais. The dais deserves the sanctity of a temple where we all worship.
Would the audience whistle or clap if they were at a place of worship? After Zakir ji spoke, the serious listeners were surely a happy lot since they could enjoy the music without the disturbances. As an artiste, I often get disturbed by the callous attitude of some people in the audience who walk in and out with their cell phones. Then, there are the videographers who throw the lights either on the audience or the artistes; the slamming of doors as people enter and exit—the list goes on. Once, I even had to stop performing since tea and snacks were being served to the chief guest in the front row! Classical music entertains us in very ways different than popular music. It calms us down. It is the entertainment of the soul. Let us all enjoy the great music and the musical choices we fortunately have access to.
— Rao is a Delhi-based sitar maestro