A British band had come to town, and my eleven-year-old daughter wanted to go hear them sing. I was resistant to the idea. That should have been the end of the matter—it would have when I was growing up—but nowadays the rhetoric of rights has permeated even the process of child-rearing. So we argued, back and forth. ‘What is this band?’, I demanded, adding: ‘In any case, I cannot allow you to go out at night’. ‘I am going with my friend and her parents’, came the reply. ‘Then what about your homework’, I persisted. ‘Please, Appa’, pleaded the child, ‘I really love their music—they are to me what that Panditji is to you’. ‘Which Panditji’, I asked suspiciously. ‘You know who I am talking of’, she came back: ‘That Panditji whom you forced Amma to go and listen to—the one who is Norah Jones’s father’.
I guess I might myself have never heard of Pandit Ravi Shankar had it not been for a programme on Vividh Bharati called Svar Sudha. It is now many years since I have listened to the radio, and I do not know whether the programme still exists. But in its day it did service for thousands of confused seekers such as myself. It ran only for fifteen minutes—between 6. 30 and 6. 45 in the evening—and followed a strict format. Each segment would be devoted to a particular raga. First, the announcer would play a popular film song based on that raga; then a snatch of instrumental music; then a vocal piece, a bandish from a khayal, perhaps, or a thumri.
The programme’s structure was unvarying, but the design itself was brilliantly conceived. (It must have been the work of one of the learned musicologists then on the staff of All India Radio, perhaps V. K. Narayana Menon or Vijay Raghav Rao.) There were no British or American bands then touring in India; nor was there television and its music channels either. The import of LP’s was severely restricted; of a dozen Beatles records, maybe one or two would get into India legally. Thus popular music then meant, for subaltern and elite alike, the songs of Hindi films. And never were these songs better; better written—by the likes of Shailendra and Majrooh Sultanpuri; better sung—by Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar, among others; or set to better music—by such composers as S. D. Burman and Naushad.
We all knew some film songs; some of us knew all of them. What Svar Sudha did was to instruct us on which raga a particular song was based on; and then provide further, so to say more refined illustrations by way of well trained instruments and voices. For me, and doubtless for many others, this programme on All India Radio provided the first elements of a musical education. Even now I can recall pieces heard there thirty years ago; a thumri in Khamaj by Prabha Atre, a khayal in Chayanat by A. Kanan, a gat in Durga by Ali Akbar Khan—pieces which first introduced me to what have become three of my favourite ragas.
While at university in Delhi I moved on from Svar Sudha to attending live concerts. I recall two quite wonderful jugalbandhis by Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar, held under a huge tent in the grounds of Modern School. But I remember even better a concert by the Dharwad vocalist Mallikarjun Mansur, held before a half-empty hall near Mandi House. Sitting next to me was a college friend who (unlike me) grew up in a musical family, and played the flute with some skill himself. As we came out during the interval, we were overwhelmed with the smell of a thousand scents, these emanating from bejewelled ladies in chiffon saris, coming in to hear the musician scheduled after the break—who was the talented young sarodiya Amjad Ali Khan. ‘These illiterate denizens of the land of the five rivers’, exploded my friend: ‘They care not for the greatest living master of the Alladiya gharana—that is, for the highest form of musical expression—but come to be seen and heard [and smelt!] when a handsome fellow plays’.
At just about this time, a young man in Delhi was setting about spreading musical literacy among his fellow Punjabis—while not necessarily excluding the rest of creation. His name was Kiran Seth, and he had lately returned from the United States to teach at the Indian Institute of Technology. In 1977 he started an organization with a wordy name embodying a weighty ambition. It was called the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture among Youth, SPICMACAY, for short. I remember him from then, as a slight, bearded figure wearing jeans and a distracted look, walking the campus of the Delhi University seeking students to host concerts in their respective colleges.
By the time I left Delhi, in 1979, SPICMACAY was moderately well-established in the city. Now it ventured beyond the capital to the country beyond. In 1981-2, while doing a doctorate in Calcutta, I attended a superb shehnai recital by Bismillah Khan, then a surbahar performance by Imrat Khan; both maestros playing, I would suspect, for much less than their standard fees. For the credo of SPICMACAY resonated with musicians equally concerned about the loss of the young to frivolous fashions from abroad.
The organization’s subsequent growth had been remarkable indeed. It now has some two hundred chapters, and holds in excess of a thousand events annually, mostly in places of learning, but occasionally also in more ‘public’ venues such as a Town Hall. SPICMACAY’s website states that the organization has ‘no racial, regional, political or religious affiliation’. Nowhere does it mention the name of Kiran Seth; this a self-effacement most unusual in India, where the individual tends to overshadow the institution. This must be because Seth would not have it otherwise, and because over the years it has become a truly collective, decentralized operation. Thus the state of Rajasthan has as many as functioning fifteen chapters, in towns as modest as Churu and Hanumangarh, Jalore and Nathdwara.
What Svar-Sudha was to my generation, SPICMACAY has been to the generation after mine: that is, a vehicle for transmitting, in palatable form, the traditions of Indian classical music. Its methods have arguably been more effective still. To have the great artistes sing in your college for you and your friends, is to bring their music far nearer than were it to come over the radio. The concerts are open to all, and free; so sometimes adult interlopers can benefit from them as well.
The last SPICMACAY concert I myself attended was held at my daughter’s school. It featured that very fine vocalist Padma Talwalkar. She had come at a mere three days notice, to replace a singer who had suddenly fallen ill. However, the organization’s call was also the musician’s calling, for as Padmaji put it, ‘When SPICMACAY asked me I could not say no’.
I heard all of Padma Talwalkar’s concert; my daughter heard about half of it. After finishing with basketball practice, she came and sat in the corridor outside the room where the artiste was singing, thus to hear her last two compositions, one of which was a quite magnificent tarana in Hameer. Afterwards I asked her what she thought of it. She did not answer, but her look suggested that she did not now reject her father’s music altogether. With luck, and some help from SPICMACAY, my Panditji might one day become hers, too.