Pop culture has a tendency to annexe territories originally considered alien to it. A lot here has to do with celebrity, with fame — the one qualification required to make an entry into the contemporary pantheon of pop. It scarcely matters how you garner that fame. You can get it by refusing to ever clip your fingernails or take a shower, something that might still plausibly win you a place in the Guinness Book of Records (and thus limitless popularity if you do it right). Or else you can get it by so thoroughly mastering some obscure branch of the classical arts that the general public begins to look at you as some kind of freak of nature.
Whenever I hear the phrase “celebrated artist” I think of how apposite the coinage is to our cultural sensibility — a sensibility that’s averse to celebrating art, even somewhat hostile to it, but devoted nevertheless to its various cults of personality. That poet of antiquity, Kalidasa was undoubtedly a celebrity figure in his time. He was an inspiration to countless young poets, many of whom, like the 5th-century Sanskrit poet Bhartrihari, took up poetry simply in order to become as respected and famous as the great Kalidasa.
But in those days, fame must have had a different ring to it. The focus, for instance, must have been on the work and not on the person. It had to be. Because the age of the outsize personality, the age of mass media, still lay many centuries ahead. Classical artists living and performing in this day and age therefore have to contend with something much more sinister and soul-crushing in this respect. On the one hand there’s this general air of neglect they spend most of their lives in; and on the other they tend to fall into the stupor of a kind of pseudo-celebrity that visits them once every season.
This is the season for Hindustani classical music in the capital. And this week, on Wednesday to precise, I happened to witness a strange scene at the venue of the Delhi Classical Music Festival 2015 here. The gates of Kamani Auditorium were locked from the inside, owing to too large a crowd that was already within the venue. But now the crowd outside was also growing. People wanted to get in for the final performance of the night — they were desperate to get in. “Open the gate,” an old man kept repeating this request to one of the security guards, who, in his Buckingham-Palace resolve, refused to budge. Some people leaned against the shut gate, gripping the iron bars with their hands, hoping against hope for timely entry into the
Sometime later, there was an interruption. A large Volkswagen SUV drove up towards the crowd outside, seemingly bound for the venue. Phones and iPads were soon out and camera flashes started going off all around us. A commotion along with a loud cheer hinted that there was definitely a celebrity in our midst. On the front passenger seat of the SUV was the man of the moment, the maestro himself: Pandit Jasraj, who turned 85 this year. “Pandit ji, please. Please,” a woman said to the musician through the slight opening in his car’s window. “We’ve never missed any of your concerts. Please get us inside,” she said, as the car began to pull back. “Can we get in the back of your car? Pandit ji? Okay, just take my mother. She is old. She will be heartbroken. Pandit ji, please.”
By now, some representatives of Kamani’s management team had arrived from within the auditorium at the other side of the gate. An argument ensued: the people outside talked about how far they’ve come from — Noida, Gurgaon — and how much they’d love to see Pandit Jasraj perform tonight; while those within, the figures of authority, pleaded their case that there was no room for more people inside. The fact that such a scuffle about a strictly cultural matter was taking place not in 1930s Calcutta or in 1960s Bombay, but in Delhi of the 21st century seemed astonishing at first. Were these people really here to listen to Jasraj? Had they really spent an hour-and-a-half waiting outside the venue for the sake of the music? This form of music that is considered déclassé even in musical circles these days?
Our cultural sensibility is one that’s averse to celebrating art, even somewhat hostile to it, but devoted nevertheless to its various cults of personality.
When the frustrated crowd finally began chants of “Kamani, hai hai”, I thought that this — the crowd, the chants, the celebrity in the SUV — was Hindustani classical music experienced as a pop phenomenon. That there was actually no music present in this experience was all the more significant: anyhow we needed an artist, not the art, to worship. But the artist, too, had left. Pandit Jasraj had hoodwinked his admirers, including the pleading woman, and entered the venue from some unknown passage. Those left behind, all of us, were incensed. We felt betrayed. We wanted blood.
The festival organisers later offered to set up a projector outside for us impassioned music lovers. That announcement, however, didn’t go well with many. “That way I can watch him on YouTube, no?” asked one, making clear her intent to abandon this cause and go home. We were promised a live act — although this wasn’t a ticketed event and we had no invites — and a live act was what
I felt a tinge of disappointment when the gates were finally thrown open by the organisers. The crowd and the management had struck a compromise — a projector screen showing the live stream of the concert was put up in the foyer of the building with mattresses on the floor like we were at a real mehfil. Our entry to the performance hall was still restricted, and we hated having to sit in the foyer and watch the celebrity perform on a large screen and not in person. Besides, the audio, for those who were listening, was bad. There were people with their phone cameras pointed at the screen. And even they realised that this wasn’t the real deal at all.
Now, there was news that dozens had left the auditorium and presently, our mehfil began to swiftly dissolve. We left the foyer and scrambled desperately towards the performance hall. And there he was, Pandit Jasraj in the flesh: wearing a cream-coloured kurta of fine silk and a necklace of sorts, definitely pearls, around his neck. He sang so powerful, so soulful a melody that he made you forget most things in the world. His music made everything else extraneous — including our struggles of the past two hours and even his own personality, this seasonal aura of celebrity that he gets to bathe in during
Partaking of that aura — and getting inside the auditorium — was our main objective. That achieved, the music now seemed like a bonus, also the only thing of any relevance. And while some had left the venue halfway through the concert, there were those of us who stayed on until the end, until when Jasraj playfully asked the audiences for permission to leave — “Ab ijazat” — and then agreed to do another of his bhajans on popular demand. We stayed on until the final honours, the thankyou’s of the organisers and all the farewell speeches were delivered. We stayed till well after the seats of the auditorium began to empty, the lights began to dim and the maestro — as gradually and rapidly as the shutting down of the lights — ceased to
be a celebrity.