It’s 5 o’clock on a nippy December evening in Kolkata. Generally, the sprawling green landscape inside the heritage ‘Aldeen’ building complex is a picture of contrast to the narrow—but significant—Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Road outside, which carries a considerable amount of traffic throughout the day. This day, however, is different. Several workers are busy giving final touches to a massive, semi-open-air performance area that has been especially set up on the lawns of the 14-odd-bigha property, once owned by an heir of Tipu Sultan. Chairs have been laid out to accommodate up to 2,000 people, claim the organisers. There is a certain excitement in the air, as artistes and music enthusiasts start to assemble in their traditional finery. Outside, with the heavy deployment of Kolkata police, the traffic tends to behave, as invitees line up to park their cars along the road.
Eleven-year-old Koustav Roy is particularly excited. Dressed in a beige kurta-pyjama, the youngest shishya (student)—and one of the select 37 who are currently undergoing intense training at ITC Sangeet Research Academy (SRA), housed in the Aldeen building—has been chosen to felicitate the dignitaries at the show.
The arrangements are a culmination of the 40th edition of the ITC Sangeet Sammelan, a three-day annual event in Kolkata that witnesses some of the greatest exponents of Hindustani classical music and, of late, Carnatic music as well. Like everyone else, Roy, too, is eagerly awaiting the performances of some of the stellar artistes, including Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty (vocal), Ustad Shahid Parvez (sitar), Ustad Rashid Khan (vocal), Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar (vocal), Pandit Venkatesh Kumar (vocal), Vidushi Kaushiki Chakraborty (vocal), Vidushi Kala Ramnath (violin), Sucheta Ganguly (vocal), Ayan Sengupta (sitar) and Paramananda Roy (flute), among several others.
Despite the growing popularity of social media and online entertainment platforms, Roy, who started learning to play the sarod at the young age of four years, remains committed to the cause. “I don’t like to listen to any other form of music, be it Bollywood or whatever. I don’t watch too much of television either. Whenever I get time, I practise on the sarod,” he says.
Roy must complete a mandatory 120 hours of training in a year. That means, he must commit at least 10 hours to music in a month. Not a mean task, you’d say. However, the fact that he travels over 35 km from his residence at Barrackpore to the academy at Tollygunge, at least 10 days a month, is a commendable job, to say the least. This after he has attended his regular classes at school.
Roy was selected as a general class student at the SRA under Guru Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta’s supervision about two years ago, post which he has been training under musician-tutor Abir Hussain. The young prodigy was promoted to the position of a junior scholar only in July this year.
It takes a great deal of hard work and dedication to be a part of the guru-shishya parampara that is rooted deep in Indian culture and tradition. Apart from being respectful to the guru, single-minded devotion towards music is required to make the relationship work. Sometimes, it takes many years of training for a shishya to master the knowledge that the guru embodies. A guru not only teaches music, he teaches his or her disciple a way of life. “In a gurukul system, it takes years and years to reach a professional level. It’s not a college or a university degree that you can complete in three years’ or two years’ time. Here, scholars dedicate anywhere between 15 and 30 years to achieve the ‘performance’ standards,” explains Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, a doyen of the Patiala-Kasur Gharana and one of the eight gurus currently holding fort at the SRA. The Padma Shri recipient is considered nearly a cult figure among all legendary Indian classical musicians.
“Time is a great gift to life. After all, you don’t get to see a Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan or Lata Mangeshkar every now and then,” adds the 65-year-old maestro. So is that the reason why the guru-shishya parampara is finding less takers nowadays? “Not really, but the challenge is to find gurus who can carry forward the tradition. So we create gurus from among our shishyas,” explains Chakraborty.
Ravi Srinivasan, executive director of the SRA, agrees: “Our mission is to propagate, promote and preserve Hindustani classical music. We can organise many programmes, where artistes can come and perform, and people can attend. But this is not sustainable in the long run. Where do we get artistes to play tomorrow, day after and so on? So while the preservation part of our effort is to archive the past and the present, we also need to prepare artistes for the future. So we try to not only create musicians, but also (create) musicians who are gurus.”
But it’s not easy to get dedicated students, especially in an age when viral videos and overnight successes are commonplace. So to attract potential scholars, the SRA has created a restructured guru-shishya parampara system. Unlike the traditional one-to-one guru-shishya pattern, a scholar in this model is taught and evaluated by eight or nine gurus, even as he/she has one main teacher, giving him/her regular training and guidance throughout practice. With free tuition (in fact, a stipend is paid), boarding and lodging within the premises, the scholars get further incentives to take on the arduous training session.
“Every Wednesday, we also organise a recital, which is aimed at moulding an artiste as a performer. After the initial training, each scholar performs before a discerning audience consisting of an expert committee, gurus, critics, fellow scholars and music lovers from across the city. Apart from exposing a scholar to the outside world, we also try to evaluate him/her by inviting not just his/her guru, but other gurus as well to this weekly programme,” offers Srinivasan.
In order to reach out to a wider audience, the academy is now taking the help of social media. And although the subscriber base is still low on platforms like YouTube, it’s catching up slowly. The academy is also quite active on Facebook, generating a lot of enthusiasm and support from younger audiences. “We welcome music lovers of all kinds of genres. Ultimately, even if we can get five or six scholars from time to time to come and learn Indian classical music, I think we’ve done our job,” says Srinivasan.
“It’s a struggle period, but we are seeing some exceptional results,” says Pandit Chakraborty.
As the sammelan begins with a glowing tribute to Vidushi Girija Devi (a doyenne of the Benares Gharana) by some young artistes such as Omkar Dadarkar (he came in as a disciple of Guru Pandit Kashalkar before becoming a guru himself), Sucheta Ganguly and Aparajita Lahiri Bramhachary, one can’t help but notice that a substantial percentage of the audience comprises youngsters. That’s a good sign. The future of Indian classical music is in good hands.
Kunal Doley is a freelancer