State of Today’s Indian Classical Music Concerts

State of Today’s Indian Classical Music Concerts

A musician needs two types of people in the audience – those who really understand the depth of the music and those who may not understand its full depth, but offer financial support for the musician.


Commercial music concerts of Indian classical music have changed over the last two to three decades. On the good side, it is becoming more financially possible to be a classical musician, on the bad side, audiences with a deep understanding of music are decreasing.

There was a time, when the first five rows of commercial concerts were filled with people who understood music, the people in suits and rich kurtas were behind these rows. Only then did the artist get into the mood to play real music because there were people who understood it.

I remember one concert that happened in Ahmedabad 20-30 years ago. It was a concert of a well-known musician who was travelling abroad. A short time into the concert, the audience had stopped the concert. Five people were on stage. They asked the musician not to play paltas. If he was to play, he had to play real music or there was no need for the concert. This was the strength of the audience. There was no room for gimmicks. The audience understood Indian classical music and did not accept anything less than true playing.

Today, things have changed. Today, in many commercial concerts, the financial supporters, who often do not have a very deep understanding, are the ones who occupy the front rows, while those who understand music, the students and connoisseurs end up sitting in some corner. The demand for high-quality has decreased and the artist consequentially does not play that music as it is not required.

You can clearly see the changes in commercial concerts. Commercial concerts of a single artist used to begin at 8pm and end at least 3-4 hours later. Now they finish in a span of 45 – 90 minutes. The alaap alone used to last 1 – 2 hours. Now, we hear perhaps a 5 minute alaap and 2-3 raags in that time period. It’s not necessarily that the artist is not able to give these long concerts. In the younger generation there might not be many (as the concert demand has changed), but we still do have artists who can perform these real concerts. The audience though is not ready or trained to listen to and enjoy these concerts.

The training of an audience will not happen overnight. It requires regular exposure to high-quality musicians. Those who have an understanding should not be afraid to demand high-quality music, while those who are developing an understanding should not simply accept whatever the market is giving them to be the best.

The development of an audience takes time and commitment, but if it is not done, there will be a very small chance of hearing a real Indian classical music concert in the future.

Vijay – one of my first US workshop attendees

Vijay – one of my first US workshop attendees

In my initial years of working in America, my student Sejal and I used to conduct small workshops. At this point, I was a new name to American audiences, so it was usually a small audience (10 – 15). Even though there was small attendance, EVERY workshop I found someone who went onto become a devoted student who did many things for me over and spent great amounts of time with me. It was a sign of how my luck worked so well in America.


Today, I want to recall the story of my third workshop, held in NYC during my first trip to the US. There was a bald, mid-aged guy with a very sweet smile sitting in the front. He took great interest in the workshop and was giving a great response.

After the workshop, he was the first person to greet me. He name was Vijay. He was an engineer living in New Jersey. Originally from India, Vijay had been living in the US for 25 years. As a child, he used to play tabla and continued to play every so often at the local temple, accompanying bhajans or kirtan. We had made ONE advertisement over the radio. Vijay had heard those two lines on the radio and came to the workshop.

“I feel like I have found my guru,” he said to me. “When can I see you again?”

I told him about the workshop that was to be held the next day in New Jersey, where I was staying.

The next day, Vijay arrived with 2 kg of sweets, a huge bouquet of flowers, an Indian outfit and cash to gift to me. The Americans I was surrounded by looked on with surprise and asked if it was my birthday. It was their first introduction to the Indian practice of coming with gifts to offer to one’s guru.

My relationship with Vijay only grew from that point forward. Whenever I went to the US, he was with me every night and he would NEVER come empty-handed. Sweets, fruits, food, gifts, he would always come with something to give. Whenever anything was needed for Taalim, he would be one of the first people to come and help. Vijay has since moved to Atlanta, but we still keep in touch. In fact, a few days ago I received a call. It was Vijay. He was in Ahmedabad. For the first time, after so many years, he got to see my home and all the work we are doing in India first-hand.

The amazing thing is that Vijay is only one of the people that I met during those initial workshops, many more came from those small audiences, but those stories are for another time.

First Meeting with Abbaji (Ustad Allarakha Khan)

First Meeting with Abbaji (Ustad Allarakha Khan)

It was 1975 or 1976. I came to know that Ustad Allarakha was to be in Ahmedabad to accompany Pandit Ravi Shankar. It was a program arranged by Sur Singar, an organization that I was a young youth volunteer for.
I received news of Ustadji’s arrival and that he had checked into a hotel across from Town Hall (I can’t recall the name). I reached to the hotel at 8:30am with a small bouquet of flowers. I knocked on his door. I distinctly remember how he looked when he opened the door. He looked royal and you see his immensive personality. I gave him the bouquet, took his blessings and introduced myself.

He asked me who I was learning from. I gave my Guru’s name – Pandit Sudhirkumar Saxena.

“Yes, I know him. He looks like me,” replied Abbaji.

This all happened at the door of his room. I began to doubt whether or not he would invite me into the room. But with a broad smile, he asked me to come in. He asked me to join him for breakfast. I was very hungry, but was too excited and shy to accept the food he offered. When I said no, he placed the piece of sandwich in my hand and encouraged me to eat. That was the moment when I fell in love with this great maestro.

After breakfast, he asked me to recite some compositions. He listened very seriously as I recited a composition of Ajrada Gharana. After I spoke the composition, he said, “See, in Punjab, we do it like this,” and he started speaking some amazing compositions, which sounded like magic to me, but were beyond my comprehension as I was a junior at that stage.

“I would love to learn this, if you feel that I am competent someday,” I told Abbaji.

“Yes, I will teach you, but the thing is that I don’t spend much time in Mumbai. I spend more of my time abroad.” Then again he started to speak some more compositions.

After an hour and half, I don’t know how, but I asked him, “Can you come to my home for lunch today?”

He started laughing. I was only a young youth. He asked where I lived. I lived only 20 minutes away.

“I would be highly obliged if you come.”

“OK. I don’t disappoint anybody. Let me call Raviji. If he does not have a commitment for me, I’ll come to your house.”

He called up Raviji and said to him,”There is a kid in front of me. He is very sweet and asking me to come to his house. Do you have something for me?”

Raviji wanted to rest, so Abbaji was free to come to my home.

I called my parents, who were very excited to hear the news and insisted that Abbaji have lunch at our home. When I told Abbaji about lunch, he told me that he would see.

Now as I was only a young teenager, I did not drive a scooter, let alone a car. I asked Abbaji if he would be willing to travel by rickshaw, which he kindly agreed to.

A portion of the drive was along a lonely road next to railway tracks. Our luck was such that the rickshaw stopped working right along this lonely road! There was no one around and the rickshaw driver’s many attempts were futile. I was very embarrassed at this point, but to my surprise, Abbaji turned to me and suggested we find another rickshaw.

We walked about 1 km in the hot sun of Ahmedabad before we found another rickshaw and arrived at my home.

After meeting my parents and formalities, Abbaji asked me to get tablas and play for him. After hearing some of my playing, he taught me a Punjab composition, it was my first Punjab composition. I greatly enjoyed our time and it continued as we had our lunch.

After lunch, I had called a neighbour who has a car, so that we could drop Abbaji at the hotel in an appropriate mode of transportation.

The time we spent together that day is something I will always remember. After that day, whenever Abbaji came to Ahmedabad (once or twice annually), I would always be present as his sevak and he regularly visited my home.

About 15 years later, after the demise of my second guru, Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan, I followed through on my desire to learn Punjab and became a gandaband student of Abbaji. I’ll save stories about my ganda-band ceremony and other experiences with him for another time.

Girishbhai – A tribute to his unwavering support and love …

Girishbhai – A tribute to his unwavering support and love...

To become a great musician requires a lot from the person who wants to become the musician. Patience, dedication, focus are requirements. Success follows if one undertakes intense sadhna. The path becomes easier if you have people who support you, encourage you and challenge you to work even harder or go that extra mile.
They are many such people in my life. People that I am indebted to for their friendship, unwavering support. They truly helped me to reach where I am today. One of these people is (the late) Girishbhai.


Girishbhai understood very little about Indian classical music, but he believed in me and my dream and had one mission: to make me one of the best tabla players around. There was a period of several years in my life where he would continually call me up and say, “Pandit you should practice tonight. Your home or my home. Let’s do this, I’ll pick you up in the evening.” (He called me “Pandit”).

As night approached, he would be at my door. I was not allowed to drive myself anywhere if Girishbhai was in town, he called himself my “sarathi”(charioteer), Guruji travelling on his own was not permitted. He would pick me up and take me to his home, where I would set myself up on my asana. Girishbhai’s seat was right across from me. I would play non-stop for 4 to 5 hours. Generally concluding around 2 or 3 in the morning.

Girishbhai would not move during my practice. He would sit there listening the whole time. When I finished, he would give encouraging comments and proceed to give me a massage, citing that my practice must have made me very tired.

After massaging my shoulders and arms, the next part of the late night was fixed. “Now you must be hungry. Tell me Pandit, what will you eat?” At this time in Ahmedabad, late-night restaurants were virtually non-existent. Only one restaurant was open and that too was a considerable distance away in the old city.

He would ask me what I wanted to eat and set off to the old city. I was not permitted to join, as he would not allow me to do anything after these long practices. He would return with hot food, which we would eat, before Girishbhai dropped me home.

These night practices happened regularly for 4-5 years. For 4-5 years, Girishbhai would pick me up, take me to his home, sit in front of me without moving for the 4 to 5 hours that I practiced, give me a massage, get me dinner and then drop me home. His motivation was one thing: to make Guruji one of the best tabla players around.

He did not understand Indian classical music, but he understood my dream and did everything he could to make it a reality. Whomever he would meet, he would speak to them of his Pandit, Pandit Divyang Vakil and the wonderful tabla he heard. That was his love. If I had any program in Ahmedabad, even if the program was close to his home, he would come to my home, pick me and take me to the venue and drop me home afterwards.

Those years have passed. Girishbhai has passed on. But I will always be indebted to him for his support and am thankful for the love that he had for me. Thank you, Girishbhai. I hope that your example will be an inspiration to others.

Great Nakkara Player – Ustad Dilawar Khan

Great Nakkara Player – Ustad Dilawar Khan

Some of my friends from Jaipur had called me up. A nakkara player, Ustad Dilawar Khan was coming to Ahmedabad.(At the time, I did not know it, but he is one of the greatest nakkara players I have heard, I highly recommend that you listen to him.)

The tabla has many influences and origins. The nakkara (picture below) has a very strong influence on tabla. It is two drums that are played with sticks. They are not a widely played instrument. It is typically just played with the shehnai. It is a rare to find nakkara soloists of this caliber. Before hearing him, I had never heard the nakkara played with such virtuousity.

The program was held in an old haveli (villa). Almost all the good musicians of the city has congregated to hear the Ustad play. Before going to program, I did not know what to expect, but my Jaipur friend has been adamant that is was not to be missed. I went to the program with a student of mine, Nitin Triparti. As I watched him tune his instrument, I could anticipate the caliber of his playing.

His solo blew me away. He played all the complex compositions of the tabla using sticks on the nakkara. His solo was set in teentaal. Similar to a tabla solo, he began with a peshkar. He produced amazing meend using thin sticks. You could see his sadhana in his playing. The speed of his kaidas and clarity of his relas. It was a tabla solo, but with sticks. It’s difficult, but try to imagine Tirakit compositions played with sticks. He played La killa (naga naga naga) with tremendous speed and power on one drum.

Everyone in the audience was amazed. Dilawarsaheb took fermaishes from the audience. Pandit Kishen Maharaj was present and requested to hear a laggi. The way he played Dha Te Na Da laggi, with amazing speed and fluidity! The concert was truly a treat for musicians, especially for tabla players.

I had always heard that tabla came from the nakkara. That evening, I could clearly see and hear the relationship between the two.

After that solo, I never heard or saw Dilawar Khabsaheb again. I searched for other nakkara players, but never came across anyone who could play his level of playing and mastery. That evening was one of those rare concerts in my life and even though there was no recording, I can hear it as clearly as I did nearly 30 years ago.

Playing with Pandit Rasiklal Andharia

Playing with Pandit Rasiklal Andharia

It was 1979 or 1980. I was working as the youngest tabla teacher of the city at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Mandal, one of the oldest music institutes in Ahmedabad. Our principal, Mr. Ravjibhai Patel, called me and said, “We are doing a national conference of Mahavidyalaya Mandal at Valsad for three days. I am very happy with your playing now and want you to play one solo and one accompaniment during the conference. We will all go to Valsad the day before the performance in the morning train, so be prepared for this event.”

At that time in my life, I did not understand the value of being able to travel with some of the greatest musicians of Ahmedabad and Gujarat. I picked up Jhalasaheb and Ravjibhai in my student’s car and we arrived at the station at 6am to catch the 7am Gujarat Express. At the station, we met up with Pranlalbhai Shah (one of the best violin teachers of that time), Laljibhai Patel (best harmonium player), Neena Shah (Ravjibhai’s student) and many young musicians.

Once we boarded the train, I was amazed to learn that all these senior musicians took great interest in eating snacks at each station. At the first stop, someone got off to get fafda and jalebi; at Nadiad, it was gota; at Baroda, yet another snack and the list goes on. Every stop was a new treat.

The accommodations for all the musicians was in a school and that was quite the nourishing experience. In one corner, someone would be singing, while a couple of beds down, another musician would be playing the violin. It was a great energy to be apart of. I was the youngest tabla player. Everyone gave me love and respect, which just increased my confidence.

The next day, the second performance was my solo. I played pretty well and got a lot of applause from the audience. After my solo, I went backstage. There, I found internationally-known singer Pandit Rasiklal Andharia. He was so impressed with my playing that he made me his accompanying artist for his program the following day. I was not too enthused about the idea, as generally for vocal accompaniment, the tabla player only plays theka.

I thanked him for the opportunity and told him that I was not in the practice of accompanying vocal. I believe he understood why I said no because he immediately said that he wanted powerful tabla in his vocal performance and that I had the freedom to play whatever I wished.

Excited at the prospect, we decided to practice in the morning to prepare and the the performance that ensued is what I consider to be one of the best performances I have given.

My First Meeting with Pandit Saxenaji

My First Meeting with Pandit Saxenaji

On first death anniversary of my first Tabla Guru, Pandit Sudhirkumar Saxena, I wanted to take the time to reflect on the person who had great knowledge of tabla and great love for me and I too for him.


It was a evening in the month of February in 1971. My father told me that a big music festival, called Baiju Festival, was going on in the city, arranged by the Government of Gujarat. In addition, he informed me that tabla maestro Pandit Sudhirkumar Saxena is coming to perform and encouraged me to attend. I was very young at that time, but I was learning and playing tabla for more than seven years. My teacher, Mr. Narmada Shankar Bhatt, was a senior disciple of Pandit Saxenaji. I requested my father to take me to festival as it would be great fun.

He took me to the newly opened Jai Shankar Sundari Hall. With great curiousity, I sat in the third row, waiting anxiously for Saxenaji’s turn. He was slated to play two items: the first, with Gujarat’s great vocalist Mr. Rasiklal Andhariya and the second with a sitarist.

When he entered on the stage, I was amazed by his presence and personality. He had a very small frame, nor more than 5 feet in height. He wore a very nice kurta and black koti. I would later learn that the koti was his signature style. Before him, I had already met many many tabla players. Amongst of them all, he struck me as the most sober, most learned and calm person. His playing style mirrored his personality: neat, steady and balanced.

In his first item with the vocalist, he played nothing in vilambhit besides theka. I found this disappointing as I was expecting rolls and powerful drumming. But when madhya laya began with Raag Megh, he played a small composition followed by a gat, which was enough to prove him to be the best student of Ustad Habibuddin Khan. In sitar accompaniment, he played some compositions, which I just could not understand at that time.

After the concert, I rushed backstage and touched his feet. I introduced myself. He told me he was coming back to Ahmedabad after ten days as a judge for the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya competition. I told him proudly that I was participating the same competition.

My father then arrived, did namaskar to Saxenaji and asked him about me. Very humbly, Saxenaji replied, “I will coming to Ahmedabad next week. Then I will get a chance to listen to him and give my remarks.”

With all mood and determination to make him happy in the competition, I returned home with my father and lasting memories of my first meeting with Saxenaji.

What happened next, I write at another time.

Postnote by Divyang Vakil’s Student:
Pandit Sudhirkumar Saxena was one of the last Ustads of the Ajrada Gharana. He spent many of his years in the care and service of the great Ustad Habibuddin Khan. He was the first professor of music in a higher-education institution in India, serving initially as a Professor, then Head of the Music Department of MS University in Baroda, Gujarat. He passed away on November 30, 2007. He continues to live in the memories of his students and through his teachings.