ON A day the city was brought to a standstill by an auto strike, the cluster of people gathered at the Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, for the Sound, Art & Technology (SAT) Festival (20-23 February), were witness to a curious sight. Curious, at least, to those still not inured to the omnipresence of smartphones. Indian classical vocalist Vidya Shah (also the director of the festival), singing with the Swiss jazz ensemble Orbital Garden, had glowing by her side an iPad that was droning out the shrutis, much like an electronic tanpura.
At first, it seemed preposterous that a veteran classical singer would resort to such a thing. But then, the history of Indian music is replete with instances where women have experimented with technology, unafraid to tamper with tradition, to dismay the conventional. Much before Pandit Ravi Shankar met The Beatles in 1966, women singers and musicians in India were hip to the modern. Back in 1902, the flamboyant Gauhar Jan was recorded on a gramophone, the first Indian singer on record, a marker for a new era of commercial music. A full century later, says Shah, festivals like the SAT are attempting to recover, document and digitise India’s musical history. “It was gramophone technology that enabled a woman to appear on a public stage anywhere in the world. It’s a huge thing if you consider that Gauhar Jan paved the way for the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Lata Mangeshkar or Lady Gaga,” argues Shah. Occasionally, even in conversation, she breaks into a khayal or raga to emphasise her point.
Artistes like Shah, for all her adaptability, are still on the other side of a generational divide. They see that technology does democratise art but they are not born to technology in the way of young musicians. And for the rest of us, who think it inconceivable to survive without electronic access to our country’s culture, the present age is a windfall. Any doubts we might have had about technology being the gamechanger were allayed by two music videos from Subroto Chattopadhyaya, chairman of Peninsula Studios. The videos were created from sessions with some 700 folk musicians recorded in Rajasthan, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. It was telling, the effect technology had on people, that an audience suppressing yawns at a live performance by Bundeli folk artistes earlier was jolted to life by the electrifying musicians in the videos, slickly shot and edited.
Such efforts are especially encouraging because it is the plight of the non-classical, folk traditions and artistes from the subcontinent that is most troubling. “The Indian classical establishment has always stayed in the limelight, thanks to the international recognition of its most revered masters,” says Chattopadhyaya. Folk musicians, on the other hand, are a dying breed because of waning interest in younger generations towards traditional occupations.
Another speaker at the festival, Sumudi Suraweera, an ethnomusicologist from Sri Lanka and a jazz drummer, spoke about how the very difficult Bali drumming rituals of his country were on the brink of extinction. “The only way to preserve them is by co-option into a modern technique that can be disseminated widely and easily, with the hope that future generations will return to their traditions some day,” he says. In offering solutions for exigencies of this nature, technology is more a life-saver for music than a supplement.
The SAT is not a standalone festival. It’s the logical next step after a multimedia project called Women on Record by the Centre for Media and Alternative Communication (CMAC), of which Shah’s husband, Parthiv, is the founder-director. While Women on Record addressed the beginnings of technology in music, the SAT Festival was an attempt to continue the conversation through performances, productions, presentations and workshops.
When asked how the festival was being received by young people, Shah described the response they got at a university in Gwalior for the second leg of the festival on 23 February. “There were around 1,000 students present, and they surprised us with how involved they got, how they interacted with the music,” she says. “It was as if we were playing to a crowd of connoisseurs. Indian music is tenacious; once it’s inside you, it never leaves.”