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.

Finding a Tabla Teacher

Finding a Tabla Teacher

Today, a young man and his father came to my music school. The son wanted to take tabla lessons at our institute and he had been referred to me by a music friend of mine. At Rhythm Riders, we take very few new local students as a quality control measure more than anything else. I told him this, yet the father persisted saying that his son wanted to learn more seriously . His son had been learning from someone else for 4 years, but now finding a tabla teacher who could take him forward was very important. I could see that the boy was talented and very interested in music, so I conceded and gave him a chance to play.

Once our general class has thinned out, I called the boy to me with a pair of tabla. What happened afterwards on one hand, saddened me and on the other hand, invoked no response as I had seen this so many times over the years.

The boy’s basic hand was incorrect, meaning that his hand placement and movement to play basic bols was incorrect. Four years of carelessness or incompetency on the part of his teacher and potentially the boy had led to damage that is essentially irreversible. If I took this boy as a student at our school, we would first ask him to forget everything he has been taught and start from the absolute basics, that too though, would never led to a perfectly set hand (like that of our other students, who began their training with us) as it is near impossible to forget what has become ingrained in the hands over the course of 4 years.

This scene is not new to me, I have experienced it time and time again. It angers me and saddens me – the lack of effort/ research that is put into finding a tabla teacher.

Indian classical music has the potential to spiritually uplift the musician and listener. It is a vidya (art/ knowledge) whose learning is said to carry forth from one birth to the next. It has the ability to heal and empower and do so much more, yet when someone seeks to learn this art, they often spend less time on finding a teacher than they do on buying a shirt.

For example, I have seen people start learning from a particular teacher simply because their neighbour also learns from them. They start without asking any questions and doing any research. When we choose what school to send our child to, we look at the quality of the education, the caliber of its graduates, etc, so why not for training in Indian classical music?

Quality should not be excused for the sake of convenience. I understand that in today’s day and age, time is viewed as an increasingly limited commodity, but does that extra 30 minute drive take precedence over you losing the opportunity to reach a certain level of mastery? (as in the example at the start, the young man has now has no or very limited options to learn from a genuine tabla teacher as his hand is damaged).

The caliber and qualifications of a teacher are crucial considerations. One does not necessarily have to begin learning from a maestro. (In fact, most maestros do not take beginner students, but rather take students of their students once a certain level of competency is displayed). Maestro or no maestro, one has to look at the level of competency the teacher has in their own playing and/or knowledge. The caliber of a teacher can be gauged by the caliber of his students. If a teacher does not have any (or very few) students that play very is well or have a good grasp of the art, how can one assume that your training will be any better?

An often overlooked question – How long have they been learning?

In my years abroad, I have seen countless tabla players come to me who learnt tabla in India (or elsewhere) for a few years (most likely, not seriously but as a hobby) and then migrated abroad. One of the first things they do upon migration is teach tabla. Why? Because with a few hours of work in the evening, they can cover their basic expenses at the least. To me, this is an absolute crime. They are not necessarily even qualified performers, let alone, qualified teachers. But they do it and get away with it because they can find the students – people who did not do their research and decided to learn from the person closest to them.

How long have they been teaching? If they don’t have many years of experience, do they have someone who is monitoring their teaching? Teaching Indian classical music is not an innate capability, but one that has to be developed.

Who did they learn from? If they have learned from 5 unrelated teachers in a period of 3 years, a question should arise in terms of the teacher’s grounding in the art as their own learning has been “all over the place”.

Is there a potential for growth? Once you have reached a certain level, can you access a more knowledgeable teacher – ie the teacher of your teacher? This question is particularly important if you are considering learning Indian classical music seriously. The concept of lineage loyalty, while diluted, still exists to a certain degree.

It is important to note here also that a great performer is not necessarily an equally qualified teacher. Teaching and performing require different qualities to be successful. For example, the smartest student in the class may not be the best tutor. Well-renowned artists also pose a general disadvantage to the student with regards to time.

Time and level of attention or love are also important considerations. How much face to face time will your teacher give you? A frequent performer may not be able to sit with you every week, but when they do sit with you, do they give you their full attention with love and affection? The feelings of love and affection are very important in guru-shishya parampara, which is the way that Indian classical music is supposed to be taught. Also, if the teacher is not able to give you regular attention, does a senior student of his/her sit with you on a regular basis? Regular contact/ supervision is important as that is the way only way to prevent bad habits from developing. I know of many people who took lessons for some time and then practiced on their own for a period of time. That unsupervised practice led to damage in their hand as no one was correcting them.

The level of supervision must also be considered. Even if you sit with a teacher regularly, are you being corrected or simply given more and more material and minimal corrections? By watching videos of maestros, even a beginner, without understanding the complicated patterns, can get a sense of basic practices. You can see how basic notes are played, where hand placement is, etc. For example, in terms of tabla, you can get an idea of how teentaal is played, as it is played with similar movements by all maestros, regardless of gharana. You can make out the difference between tin and tun just by watching videos.

For tabla students, you can find countless videos online of maestros to get an understanding of basic bols and hand positioning, I call this “standard playing”. Some names include: Ustad Allarakha (Abbaji), Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Swapan Chauduri, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, Pandit Sharda Sahai and many more.

There are many other things one can consider, but I have covered the major points here. In short, learning Indian classical music or any vidya is (or can be) a lifelong journey that can open up many beautiful worlds. When embarking on this journey, your guide or teacher is of utmost importance, so do take the task of deciding upon a teacher seriously. Please do your research and find a good teacher. A good teacher can unlock the doors to a wonderful world. A bad teacher can potentially bar the chances of the doors to this world opening. If a standard or good teacher is not available to fit your convenience, I would not suggest learning that instrument/ form at that time from a substandard teacher. At the same time, once you have found a teacher, it is your responsibility as a student to follow their instructions very carefully. Carelessness on the part of the student also leads poor or slow results.

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.