"As a kid, I learned how to speak words and sing classical compositions simultaneously," said Anjali Gaikwad, an 8th grader, and classical musician. While this may make Gaikwad seem more evolved than the rest of us poor souls -- who had to struggle a lot to get our first word out coherently -- most classical musicians confess to starting their music training as early as two or three years old.
16-year-old Suleiman is no different. At the age of three, he started playing the flute. Today, he is a student of maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia, but he still remembers the time his father initiated him into the world of classical music.
"when I was very young, my father observed that my skills of handling a flute were good, so he began teaching me. He was the one who taught me how to hold a flute properly for the first time," said Suleiman. It's often parents' whose enthusiasm for classical music that these kids inherit and then carry forward as a tradition or a lifelong passion.
However, of late, youngsters' interest in classical music has waned. There are very few millennials at classical music concerts, and those dragged to 'these things' by their parents, would rather be anywhere else but there. I had spent an entire night trying to listen to Niladri Kumar, as a six-year-old, who did not belong to me, slept on my hand and drooled all over my shawl. Sadly, that's definitely not the worst experience I have had with 'uninterested' youngsters at such concerts.
The Cool Factor:
For teenagers, a big reason behind their reluctance to explore classical music is the fact that it isn't perceived as 'cool' or 'on fleek' kind of music. With access to so many different genres and styles from across the world, thanks to the internet, and more importantly, with the liberty to choose between everything from Korean Pop to hard rock to, of course, Bollywood music, they are spoilt for choice. While classical music has also become easily accessible (via YouTube), without an initiator, or an introduction to the genre, it may indeed be harder to grasp for many of them. Perhaps, that is one of the biggest reason for teenage lack of interest in this genre.
In a recent program, Udaan, organised at NCPA, Suleiman played his flute for an audience that had many young adults. The musician explained, "Classical music is obviously tougher. It requires restraint, while Bollywood music is lighter and therefore, more free-flowing, and easy to perform as well as to understand."
Another deterrent is that classical music isn't popular. India's heartbeat moves in the rhythm of AR Rahman's compositions and Arijit Singh's vocals, and any other kind of music beyond Bollywood's scope barely stand a chance to win a popularity contest in most of this country.
Gaikwad, who also took the stage during Udaan, sang Bollywood numbers like 'Itni Si Hashee,' 'Dil Hain Chotta Sa' and 'Moh Moh Ke Dhage', despite being a classical singer. "There is a demand for Bollywood songs," she said. "So we also have to perform filmi songs. But, in most programs, I sing classical numbers," she added, before confessing that Bollywood music is also one of her favourite genres.
Lack of exposure
Prime-time television has somehow become the bedrock of reality shows, and while there are many different types of reality shows -- from Splitsvilla to Big Boss -- one of the biggest traffic pullers are the music reality shows. Only last year, Gaikwad won Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Li’l Champs 2017. Suleiman was also the winner of the seventh season of India's Got Talent.
These were 'excellent learning experiences' and gave them 'good exposure', but the artistes barely have any other option apart from the mainstream because there are very few platforms in this country dedicated solely to promoting classical music among youngsters.
"Kids who learn Karnatak music have many platforms as programs are organised for them frequently. These kids receive a lot of encouragement and support. But for young musicians who play Hindustani Classical music, there are few such platforms which encourage youngsters." said Suleiman. "Maybe they are new ones I don't know about," he added after a pause.
It's not just for young musicians, even as listeners most youngsters don't come across classical music at all, as the television is monopolised by filmi music, and music apps and YouTube channels only show you new things based on your past search preferences, so chances are, a youngster will never stumble upon classical music on his or her own. Mile Sur Mera Tumhara isn't playing on the tv either, so they barely even know any classical musician's face.
Plan B for Bollywood
Both Suleiman and Gaikwad want to be classical musicians. But, they are also non-committal, and do not want to give up on their Bollywood dream just yet. "I like Ashaji and Lataji's songs. I want to do both, I want to sing classical music, as well as do recordings when I grow up." said Gaikwad.
She said she often imitates popular classical musicians like Kaushiki Chakraborty and tries to sing like her, but her favourite female artists also include Shreya Ghoshal and Richa Sharma.
Suleiman too doesn't want to limit his options, and although his loyalty is towards classical music he knows Bollywood is an easy ticket to not just popularity but also to a greater audience. Over the years, with the continuous growth of Bollywood music, the film industry has absorbed many independent artistes -- classical as well as Indie and Pop -- and while many of them had initially planned to continue with both genres of music, in the end Bollywood had taken over.
Lack of Tutelage
A music master has been a ubiquitous part of most of our growing up years. Middle-class Indian parents rarely get any peace of mind if their children do not learn any art form 'on the side' of a full school study load. But, to find a guru to mentor you in classical music is becoming harder than ever. Three years ago, Suleiman was spotted by Chaurasia, and the maestro asked the young boy to join him at his Gurukul.
Talking about Chaurasia, Suleiman said, "He teaches a bunch of us and is never strict. He treats us all with a lot of love and care, he teaches the simple notes and guides us through hard variations. In future, I see myself as a classical musician, like Panditji(Chaurasia) is."
Not everyone is as fortunate as Suleiman to have such a guru. And, surprisingly, most upscale Indian schools will rather teach their children jazz instead of Hindustani or Karnatak music, robbing them of the opportunity to learn about their own culture and history, through music. What makes it even worse is that all the classical music concerts are exuberantly priced, and rarely have student discounts, making it impossible for a youngster to watch Ustaad Amjad Ali Khan's fingers dance on a sarod, or headbang to Zakir Hussain's tabla, because he will never have that kind of money to afford it.
Therefore, for a youngster who doesn't have a parent who wants to familiarize him with the ustads and ragas, or a good music teacher to introduce him to the genre, or an acquaintance who would recommend a piece of classical composition to him, it is practically impossible for him to find his way to Indian classical music.