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Kiran Seth: Finely tuned

LiveMint logoLiveMint 09-05-2014 Somak Ghoshal

A crammed office at The Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT-D) serves as the base for perhaps the most successful voluntary movement in India.

In 1977, Kiran Seth, a professor of mechanical engineering at IIT-D, founded the Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth (Spic Macay) to generate awareness of Indian heritage among young people. Nearly 40 years later, a spirit of nishkaam seva (volunteerism) continues to guide its members.

In June, Spic Macay will be hosting its second international convention in Chennai, a week-long affair that will feature about 1,500 delegates from across the country, including luminaries of Indian classical music such as Begum Parween Sultana, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and M. Balamuralikrishna.

In an interview, Seth spoke about the plans and challenges facing Spic Macay. Edited excerpts:

What are Spic Macay’s immediate goals?

Our aim is to reach out to every child in the country by 2020—which means we want to cover about 20 lakh (two million) institutions—with different aspects of our heritage, not just classical music. We intend to cover folk forms, craft workshops, yoga, cinema classics, photography, even holistic food and walks to monuments with historians and philosophers. Music, to us, is just a means, not an end.

How would you compare the ‘guru-shishya parampara’ (the traditional mentor-disciple practice of imparting knowledge through long apprenticeship) with institutional modes of teaching music?

Institutions are not a bad idea for those who simply want to become good rasiks (connoisseurs). But for a person who wants to become a performer, the guru-shishya tradition is the best. Here, at the IIT, we are teaching within a Western, institutional framework, reaching out to a large number of students. But how many are we able to affect in a fundamental way?

I think we are giving away a lot of information, maybe a little bit of knowledge, but not true wisdom. In the guru-shishya tradition, one not only gets the knowledge but also the wisdom, just by being in the sangat (company) of the guru.

How do you feel about the commercialization of music?

I don’t approve of it. The best of things I have got from life have been free. When the person gives to you khule dil se (with an open heart), you feel like giving back, and much more, to the system. This beautiful concept of nishkaam seva that we have in our country has slowly become a form of transaction, based on the here and now.

But people do have to make a living as well.

If you are doing anything sincerely, things work out. You have to have a streak of madness in you. Do you think people like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal thought about what they will get out of music in terms of money? Money is required but, as Bismillah Khan Sahib used to say, “Hamein paise zaroor chahiye, par sirf paise nahin(Of course, we do need money, but not just money).” Money comes if you do something diligently. Maybe you won’t become a multi-millionaire, but you will have enough to sustain yourself.

Do you agree with the popular perception that the next generation is defined by its dwindling attention span?

To some extent, it is true. This is the age of Twitter and 2-minute Maggi noodles.

In our tradition there are two boundary conditions: You have to have a certain amount of patience and faith. Ustad Aminuddin Dagar, from whom I used to learn, used to put me in a corner and make me sing the note sa for hours, without giving me any explanation. The result of this regime was not obvious or easy to see. To get to the real depth you have to have a lot of grit and patience. There still is hope because there are some young people who are trying to see beyond what they can see. But there are times when I feel we are fighting a losing battle.

The key lies in creating more people who are true rasiks—those who understand the difference between diamond and glass. Previously, it used to be society and family, particularly mothers, who would make sure that a child would learn a bit of music or dance. When you are young, you are like a sponge and are able to take in a lot, which would then mature over the years.

Now the idiot box is the mother and father for our children. We turn to the channel that is the most entertaining, not the one that is most elevating. So, in keeping with the times, we have started Naad Bhed, a reality show on classical music, telecast on Doordarshan, to encourage young talents at the regional and national levels.

Do you believe that one has to be a genius to really succeed as a musician?

Well, 99% of genius is hard work—the remaining 1% is the spark that can give you the edge over others. You can become extremely good by hard work. Yes, you can be excellent at picking up ragas but still not be a great performer. It’s easy to learn the grammar but to present it, and to understand the depth of it, are very different matters.

Why is it that in spite of advanced technology, the archiving of knowledge systems in Indian classical music remains largely incomplete?

The challenges involved in such a project are not just practical but also philosophical. As Ustad Aminuddin Dagar used to say: “Kiran can you catch ati komal re (a microtone of the semi-tone komal re)?” He would sing a phrase using it and one using komal re but I would fail to distinguish the two. He would say: “Your intelligence is not sharp enough to catch it yet. This exercise is not for me to show off but to make your mind so alert that you can catch the subtle truth.”

The beauty of the West is that you may do an experiment there and I can replicate it in the laboratory right here. You don’t need a guru to guide you. Our way of experimentation happens in the inner domain. While it is also scientific, the methodology is much more difficult to document. Previously, there were rasiks who could catch you out if you made the slightest slip. Now you can put in a new set of notes in a raga and call it what you will, without being found out.

At Spic Macay we are trying to make education of classical music compulsory in the education system. If a person is able to catch the difference between komal re and ati komal re, they will be very good in math, I can tell you. Their attention span will increase.

The captains of industry are busy claiming the numerous development projects they have funded, but nobody is interested in supporting the intangible domain. It pains me that even after more than 30 years of hard work, Spic Macay is still struggling.

Click here for details of the forthcoming convention.

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