Classical music, till the early 20th century, was restricted to the privileged classes comprising royalty, aristocrats and landlords. By the second and third decades of the century, common people could get access to music through 78 rpm commercial discs, All India Radio broadcasts, as well as ticketed classical music performances and conferences (as festivals were called in those days).
In the 1930s started the music circles, which ran their activities through annual subscriptions. In Bombay, circles like Kalyan Gayan Samaj and Suburban Music Circle were set up in the early 1930s, and they have managed to survive despite heavy odds. Dadar Matunga Social Club, which has now been re-christened Dadar Matunga Cultural Centre, was established in 1953. The Vile Parle Music Circle was started in 1957 and the first concert was given by the then reigning queen of Hindustani music, Kesarbai Kerkar, who charged a princely sum of ` 1200 for her performance to that circle, which had an annual subscription of Rs. 12 for one person and Rs. 20 for a couple. The circles could manage their affairs and yet feature musicians of the calibre of Bhimsen Joshi, Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Halim Jaffer Khan, Bismillah Khan, Hirabai Badodekar, as well as other lesser known but highly talented artistes. The word ‘sponsorship’ did not exist in the lexicon of music oragnisers or artistes in those days.
The death of music circles
The scene began to change in the 1970s. In a city like Mumbai, some music organisers began to solicit sponsorship for their programmes and their efforts met with instant initial success. The immediate result was the steady hike in the fees charged by the musicians. Those who were charging a few thousands (generally a four figure amount) began to demand a five figure honorarium. This trend began to affect the economics of concert organisation. The music circles, with their limited resources, could not gather enough funds to fulfill the expectations of the so called big artistes. This, in turn, decimated their capacity to register fresh members or retain the existing members. They were thus caught in a vicious circle. Many music circles have folded up and those who have managed to survive are leading a precarious existence.
The death or emasculation of music circles has radically changed the economics of concert organising. The artistes who spend their life time over rigorous riyaz expect a fat or respectable remuneration depending on their standing in the fast expanding concert market. They tend to compare themselves to glamorous film stars, playback singers and cricketers.
In a democratic society, there is no bar on expectations, but the harsh reality is totally different. Classical music does not command the price which the artistes think is their due. Over the years, and particularly since the decline of music circles, it has become an unwritten rule that classical music is available to the auditor or recipient for free. Can one think of entering a cinema hall without being charged an entrance fee? Is it possible to watch a one-day international in a stadium without being charged for the entry? Then why do people raise their eyebrows when a classical music show is ticketed even reasonably? The mental make-up of the audience has compelled the organisers to waive entrance fees, which has caused a major upset as far as raising resources for music concerts is concerned. The entry of so called event managers into the field has further spoiled the atmosphere. Event managers as well as the media in general tend to look upon classical music as mere entertainment, which it is not. It is a serious art which needs serious treatment. The presence of event managers has further pushed the fees of the so called star artistes to unaffordable limits.
An unhappy situation for a classical art
Sponsorship is nothing else but subsidising music programmes. Subsidy for whom? The young and aspiring musicians, or the established ones who tend to corner all the available assignments? This is one field where there is no retirement. Artistes go on performing even when they are past 80. With a number of teaching institutions producing so many talented and competent artistes, there is a deplorable dearth of performance opportunities for them.
This inevitably breeds frustration. There are pools and cartels of a few musicians who tend to grab most of the big ticket events. Even celebrated musicians indulge in subtle or not so subtle arm twisting to solicit programmes for their progeny, and the organisers easily give in to the emotional blackmail. Leave aside ordinary young musicians, their pupils too get frustrated because of this attitude. Such an unhappy situation forces the neglected musicians to start their own organisations. They struggle to raise their own resources and present either their own programmes or invite other organisers musicians who are prepared for a ‘barter’ concert arrangement. This is not at all a happy situation for a classical art. But this
is the reality today. Ultimately, the question boils down to the simple issue of making classical music sustainable and distributing the available resources in an equitable manner. Here lies the crux of the matter.