What music and dance gave us in 2020

While a digital revolution in Hindustani and Carnatic classical music was a revelation in 2020, the pandemic pulled indie artistes out of oblivion and placed them in our living rooms.

Digital Revolution in Classical Music

For Minnesota-based veena player Nirmala Rajasekar, who grew up in Mylapore, Chennai, the Margazhi Music Season has been a significant part of her life. For the last 20 years, she has made the trip every season and stayed for about three months to attend the festival. In any given season, she performs about 15 concerts but looks forward to being in the audience. “There is such joy in being at the kutcheris and lectures. A particular sangat that takes away your breath, bumping into an old friend, dressing up in colourful Kanjivarams, the food in the canteens, the scent of the fresh flowers everywhere, it’s quite an experience,” she says.

The famed December Music Season – Chennai’s marquee event held during the Tamil month of Marghazi, where more than 500 organisations present over 2,000 music performances in the city across three months – changed gears this year by going completely digital due to the pandemic. The Music Academy is doing an eight-day digital festival in collaboration with HCL concerts and giving the audience the near experience of entering a hall and sitting down for a concert. “The Festival has been uninterrupted since 1929. We didn’t want to wait for the government rules to change and took a decision to conduct it digitally. We will record the concerts in our auditorium, which will be telecast online. The atmosphere is something to be savoured, but we decided to find a way to make the music reach people,” says N Murali, President of Music Academy. The Federation of City Sabhas, the oldest consortium of 13 leading sabhas in Chennai, worked in collaboration with Kalakendra.com to present Yours Truly Margazhi, an online version of the season. As for the lip-smacking food, it was available as takeaway from the canteens to be relished while watching a kutcheri from your home.

This year, the concept of a concert changed, both for performing artistes and the audience. One thing was clear – the audience is not returning to the auditoriums and concert halls in full strength anytime soon. Many artistes took to performing online, which was a huge learning experience for most of them. The most traditional artistes such as N Rajam, Ulhas Kashalkar, Ut Shujaat Khan among others, learned to perform for a screen.

New Indie Stars

When it comes to popular music, on any given day in India, the numbers, always favour Bollywood. The pandemic was a great equaliser as hardly any big films released. With no major Bollywood productions coming to the fore in 2020, indie music got a new lease of life. Singer-songwriters, who were only popular on YouTube and Instagram, were suddenly making it to the top of the charts on streaming platforms like Spotify and Saavn.

Mumbai-based singer-songwriter Raghav Meattle may have released his debut album in 2019, but 2020 had him reach many more homes. His simple poetry and resonant guitar along a velvety voice, made him a significant artiste in 2020. Another vocalist who caught everyone’s attention was Anoushka Maskey. The self-taught singer never thought that her first musical project, which released in August, would be made entirely in her bedroom and “based on small stories and elements from the lockdown”. From Flesh and Bones, in which she described the loneliness that many experienced during the pandemic, to Trampoline in which she talks about struggling with the idea of change and how life can slip by, unnoticed, the 10 songs on her debut EP, Things I Saw in a Dream, showcased Maskey as a songwriting talent to watch out for.

Then there was Delhi-based singer-songwriter Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, who came across as the most emotionally-grounded voice. Mumbai-based Aditi Ramesh’s impressive scat singing of the Muthuswami Dikshitar compositions where she melds Carnatic classical music with jazz and soul have made her the most promising artiste of 2020.

The indie music seniors also gave out some massive hits. Shillong-based Soulmate and Bengaluru’s rock geniuses Thermal and A Quarter (TAAQ) gave Give Love and a World Gone Mad respectively. While Soulmate’s blues had us bowing to the vocal prowess of Tips aka Tipriti Kharbangar, the elaborate sonic and lyrical ideas of TAAQ described the chaos that was 2020.

Shadow Over Guru-Shishya Parampara

While a slew of classical gurus in the Carnatic classical world were accused of sexual harassment in 2018, in 2020, two of the three Gundecha Brothers were accused of sexual misconduct at the prestigious Dhrupad Sansthan — a residential gurukul in Bhopal. The allegations were first made in a Facebook post, with a couple of students speaking anonymously to The Indian Express later. A few months later, in December, a 23-year-old woman lodged an FIR against pakhawaj player and her teacher, Ravi Shankar Upadhyay. She claimed to have been sexually harassed by him. Upadhyay was arrested and is currently lodged in Tihar Jail.

The allegations put the idea of a guru being on a pedestal under a question mark. According to Carnatic classical vocalist TM Krishna, there are some beautiful aspects of the guru-shishya parampara, although he cautions against “eulogising” it. “The way the guru-shishya system is designed, it has an unequal power structure. Placing the guru on a pedestal culturally, I think, needs to be demolished. This guru is not such a special human being. He is skilled in one thing — music. We need not romanticise the parampara. Because if there is abuse — sexual or verbal — in this system, it can go unabated,” Krishna had said.

Since Upadhyay was teaching at Kathak Kendra, many dancers from the institute came forward and said that sexual harassment at the institute has gone on for a while. Kathak exponent Nisha Mahajan, who learned at the Kendra from 1980 to 1985 and taught hereafter till 2000, told The Indian Express that there was “something tremendously wrong” with the system. “There was this notion that in order to be able to present bhaav or abhinaya, if you don’t go through certain experiences, it does not work. This was considered a part of the mentorship, of course informally… Either the students gave in, some others who really wanted to dance were willing to make the compromise. Then there were others who just left,” said Mahajan.

Saviour of the Day

Arts – music and dance – brought normalcy to our lives. We turned to the arts earnestly, for remedial measures. And they delivered, giving us solace in times of absolute need. Be it the Italians and Spaniards singing and performing from their balconies, or the citizens of Wuhan chanting from their windows or numerous musicians singing, dancing and playing instruments in their homes and reaching our living rooms through the internet, there was the hope that it would help alleviate the load that was constantly piling up — the fears around work, life, survival and even death.

Music and dance gave us a sense of community and self-awareness with the whole world and that feeling was precious in the pandemic.

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