Vidya Shah, urging people not to shy away from appreciating it just because they may not immediately understand it
The nuances and technicalities of Indian classical music are sometimes hyped and do not take away the emotional impact it has on a listener, says noted vocalist-composer Vidya Shah, urging people not to shy away from appreciating it just because they may not immediately understand it.
To put things in perspective, she explained that as a practitioner, it is important for her to “stick to her grammar”, but suggested that everyone doesn’t necessarily have to identify “this is this ‘raag’ from this ‘thaat’, playing to this ‘taal’”.
“When Pandit Ravishankar was playing at the Woodstock Festival, all those present were not able to understand what exactly he was playing. But the sheer ecstasy and affect he was able to generate was phenomenal,” Shah told in an interview, referring to the maestro’s 1969 performance.
A household name today, Shah started learning music at just 12 and has since performed at various national and international fora, including the Tansen Samaroh in Gwalior, Kennedy Centre in Washington, Asia Society in New York and Bode Museum in Berlin.
“It’s sheer ecstasy, bliss, and a different level of emotion that listening to classical music generates,” emphasised the musician.
She said that classical music serves different purposes. While there is “a whole set of purists and connoisseurs who consume music (to) enjoy each raag and taal”, there are also people who may not be able to dissect and understand its technical aspects.
But, the musician said, they should also be introduced to music appreciation before learning its basics.
“Music is part of some school curricula, but more than getting them to learn music, it’s important they learn how to appreciate it. In India, we need to make that shift, and that too at a younger age.
“If we are able to do that consistently, it might lead to a structural shift, but it’ll take time,” Shah observed.
She recalled the “sheer range of responses” she gets from her orientation programmes for appreciating classical music. “If one is happy, then another is sad listening to the same ‘raag’... (it) shows how much it has to offer,” said Shah, who is also a visiting professor at the Goa University where she teaches the social history of music.
Shah’s engagement with folk music dates back to her “idealistic phase after college” when she learnt about the “organic quality” and elasticity of music during her time spent in the tribal regions of Madhya Pradesh.
“I think music also has to adapt, to allow for itself to be interpreted with the times. You have to move with the times, you can’t say that just because I’m practising something a hundred years old, I won’t change anything.
“Music has that organic quality, just like any performative art for that matter,” she quipped.
Shah referred to the 10th edition of India Habitat Centre’s Lok Sangeet Sammelan, pointing out that folk music was presented with a contemporary twist and was allowed “malleability” at the festival curated by her.
But has Indian music really adapted?
Asking “who has the time to listen to a four-hour concert”, she noted the time constraints in a formal, urban set-up, where one is done in “an-hour-and-a-half”.
“However, if I do a ‘baithak’ -- which was a traditional way of presenting even a ‘thumri’, ‘dadra’, ‘ghazal’, or ‘khayal’ -- then people want to listen to it at a relaxed pace,” Shah said.
The music that excites her has the ability “to improvise, to abstract, to decide your own colours within a certain grammar”.
She performed for a new batch at Ashoka University last week and hopes to create more meaningful spaces to engage youth in the music discourse.
“Many young people are interested in music’s history and politics. It’s good reaching out to young people who are otherwise branded as frivolous,” said the musician, who is quick to take such interaction opportunities.
She is currently gearing up for her performance on poet Sahir Ludhianvi, and her participation in Spain’s World Music Expo.
Known for her unconventional music, Shah’s special performances include “The Last Mughal” with writer-historian William Dalrymple, “Akhtari: Life of Begum Akhtar”, and “Bas Tu Hii” -- a rendition of Sufiana Kalam.
Vidya Shah is also a recipient of the Charles Wallace award; has authored “Jalsa: Indian Women’s Journey from the Salon to the Studio”; and has received a senior fellowship from the Ministry of Culture for her project “Women on Record” that archives contributions of women singers in the gramophone era.
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