Long Read: Why Jyotiraditya Scindia's Advisory For Playing Indian Music At Airports And Airlines Is A Good Move And Arguments Against It Plain Stupid

Sumati Mehrishi

Dec 31, 2021, 05:40 PM | Updated 05:29 PM IST

Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia. (PIB)
Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia. (PIB)
  • Scindia has taken the right step at the right time for Indian music.
  • He must, further, redefine the role of a patron of music, this time, by taking deep interest in the initiative taken by his ministry with all the help from ICCR.
  • Indian music may find a new and deserving space outside of concert halls amid the global pandemic — airlines and airports.

    The move came after Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia advised airlines in India to play Indian music on flights as well as at airports. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) submitted a memorandum to Scindia requesting for the playing of Indian music at airports. The ICCR had submitted a memorandum on 23 December to Scindia to make it mandatory for every Indian airline to play Indian music in order to help promote it.

    An advisory written by Aviation Ministry Joint Secretary Usha Padhee to Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) chief Arun Kumar and Airport Authority of India (AAI) chairman Sanjeev Kumar on Monday (28 December) said that music played by most airlines across the globe is quintessential of the country to which the airline belongs. The advisory said that jazz in American airlines or (the compositions of) Mozart in Austrian airlines and Arab music in airlines from the Middle East reflect this. However, it added that the "Indian airlines seldom play Indian music in flight, whereas, our music has a rich heritage and culture and it has one of the many things every Indian has a reason for truly proud of it."

    The advisory indicates that the ministry has sincerely taken up the idea and is making sure that it is propelled towards being exercised. It's a good move. Even better is that the advisory has a role of the ICCR in the background. This one move has the potential of becoming the first travel point in renewing India's role in music driven soft power within and outside of India amid the changing world order. In the Covid-19 pandemic hit scenario, it could make way for a fertile ground of interface and opportunity for Indian musicians.

    However, there is a factor that will count when it comes to how really the idea will be implemented. That factor is: how the players involved in this unique promotion of Indian music heritage will define "Indian music" in order to include and exclude what will actually play in the airlines and at airports. And that's one job that's not hard at all. 'Indian music', in this context is music that flows in four streams of music — broadly.

    The first two among these four are the two traditions in classical — Hindustani and Carnatic — themselves. Three: folk and forest traditions that include a vast, vast heritage of sounds. Four: a blend of the first two, or the first three.

    The world comes to India for its elements and its sounds. People from across the globe will fly in to take these and fly back taking these. Then, brilliant short pieces like this one could get a new window and wheels. Did you know that this article became possible only because this author was able to revisit her collection of the Malhars during a pre-monsoon flight from Delhi to Indore?

    Several sections of the media are delving into the negative, as usual. It could be a matter of being uncomfortable in their own cultural skin, or maybe, some fear lurking for Indic music, which they know will find ambassadors, appreciation, and a good global ear in continuity, leading to stronger cultural bonds. What else could explain their construing the brilliant move as "silly"?

    Here is a rough list of their stupid arguments. Followed by an explanation for why the argument is stupid and the move from the Civil Aviation Ministry a good beginning.

    Stupid argument zero: Indian classical music/Indian music will take care of itself.

    No, it will not. It does not. It cannot take care of itself. If it did, the greatest musicians from the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions would have never spent the years in tapasya learning music; they would have never travelled to the West. Pandit Ravi Shankar would have shunned the world for a sound proof corner in Varanasi or Maihar. The living legends of Mylapore would not be seen dedicating lives to gamakas and gurus. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan would not have spent his years in riyaz to be revered as a national treasure; The Dagars would have not passed on the Dhrupad to disciples and family members.

    "Indian classical music/ Indian music will take care of itself". No. If it did, the Beatles would never hear about the ragas and turn to the best music shops in Dehradun and Delhi (not naming the shops) to be in Rishikesh in the first place. They became aware of the ragas because there was a living legend performing on his sitar, before them. The query began after the music reached their ears.

    Indian classical music/ Indian music will take care of itself". No. If it did, there would be no reason for the All India Radio to take Indian music and the grading system seriously; SPICMACAY would have never been born out of Dr Kiran Seth in a foreign land to spread in India. Indian music living in the forests would have never come to the music festivals and studios; folk music would have thrived without coming out of weddings, rituals, traditions and kitchens.

    Indian music needs artistes, patrons, platforms, opportunities — and ears. It cannot 'take care of itself'. Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia himself comes from the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior where the Gwalior gharana gayaki and musicalities flourished. What does that tell you?

    Stupid argument one: Music is a borderless concept. So Indian music cannot be defined.

    Music is borderless when it comes to collaboration. Indian music defines itself. Indigenous music has character, distinctiveness, boundaries, limits and rules. Indian music, as mentioned earlier by this author, "can be defined" even for this initiative that comes from the Civil Aviation Ministry.

    Stupid argument two: Songs sung by Western vocalists and played on Indian musical instruments will pass the cut.

    Ideally, they should not. They would be covers played on musical instruments that are born in Bharat. The sound is of an Indic music instrument but the music is not traditional Indian or Indic. Just as any Indian "song" played on the oboe does not become Austrian or Croatian.

    Stupid argument three: Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You is based on Raag Bhimpalasi. So does it qualify/does not.

    First thing. The song is not based on Bhimpalasi. If it did, it would carry the sets and subsets of swaras that make the swaroop of Bhimpalasi (as many songs from/in Indian films based on ragas do) and hit you in recurrence, in the song. A song or any song is based on a raga when it is actually delivered like it was an offshoot of that raga in the song's studio-playback avatar, and when it speaks to the thhat itself. Explained because it might help clear the fog and fixation on the one fad of relating Western songs with ragas.

    There are scales and there are ragas. The world, and those who understand music, and at the top, those who collaborate with Indian music, know that. Then, Shape of You, or its several "Indianised" rip-offs should not qualify, for the song itself is not born out of Indian tradition. It doesn't "need promotion" for obvious reasons.

    Stupid argument four: Music of the XYZ Orchestra of India should be shunned as they play 'foreign' music.

    Stop the panic, breathe, listen. More than ever, think, think positive, think opportunity, think platform, think business. This music and this bold collaboration, and several like this one, fall under a category. The category can be grandly named 'India in world music'. Now comes the broad thinking and business part.

    Imagine that Zubin Mehta is collaborating with Abhay Sopori in Kashmir once again in a repeat of this 2013 concert; the orchestra has to travel to Srinagar via Delhi; that ICCR is supporting the event. The airline carrying the orchestra has the option to collaborate (business opportunity 1). The airline announces it prior to the flight to passengers on board and informs them about the concert and ticket booking (business opportunity 2). There is a wallet option to hear the 2013 concert over the flight and proceeds go to the Kashmiri musicians in the ensemble via Abhay Sopori (advantage who? Advantage India).

    This music can also be opted for during a flight in the entertainment menu (like those broad categories of movies to watch and music to watch-hear available on display screens on flights). To each (airline) its own (creativity).

    This author wrote this article in 2018 on India's largest public art initiative — which is at an airport. Terminal T2's Jaya He GVK Museum at Mumbai International Airport, where you witness a spectacle of India's cultural evolution in colour, lines, abstraction and form. A revolution can come into music, just as in visual art, through this one advisory from the Civil Aviation Ministry.

    Stupid argument five: Indian music connects people to traditions, alright, but flights and airports are not the place to do it.

    Music is an interface. And good music makes a great interface. Drop your hypocrisy, or drop the art, music and film reviews from newspapers and news magazines. That airports can be used for playing music was evident when a terminal in Delhi would play songs from Bollywood. How does a "Mitwa, kahe dhadkane tujhse kya," comfort a passenger when he/she is stuck in a restroom queue at an airport?

    Does Bollywood music need promotion at an airport? It was played because it was entertainment over filmi gaane, which, whether you like it or not, have long passed the cultural frequency of being soft power carriers or reflectors (for this author, they never were).

    Airplanes are flying ambassadors of cultures and music. They can ignite query into Indian music, and can smartly connect music with passengers with business. Cello maestro Saskia Rao De Haas made Bharat her home; found her guru here, and found life and family here. She once told me that she bought a plane seat for her cello so it can travel safely. Would people from Europe not want to connect with her music on the same flight? Those calling the Aviation Ministry's move "silly" perhaps have no idea that the sound of traditional Indian bow and string instruments travels bigger distances than planes cover. Instill them into people's flying experience and India might see happier artistes in the Covid and post-Covid low or no concert scenario.

    Stupid argument six: Indian music is not the "soothing" music for flights and airlines already play piano and strings.

    Piano and strings are sounds. They are not music genres. Then, there is the bow and string (sarangi, violin, cello etc) which royally is never included in the Indian context when talking about "strings". For the West-wowed, strings happen to be only the guitars. That aside, the point of the advisory, if applied, would be that both pianos and strings too could be used for playing Indian music. Sitar, santoor the veenas, the modifications on the Hawaiian guitar being used for playing Indian classical music, are stringed instruments. Those calling this move silly have royally sidelined the influence of the globetrotting maestros who play these instruments. They also seem to forget that those maestros have disciples playing those very musical instruments around the globe and come from different nationalities.

    Piano is a popular musical instrument used for playing covers, and airports around the world, including one in Delhi, see pianos drawing people. The popularity of the work of ace Indian pianist Brian Silas for decades has told us that songs bearing musical depth and quality, when played on the piano, speak to the Indian masses. Still want to keep the string and piano argument open? Never heard of Anil Srinivasan? The seamless canvas of ragas on these stringed instruments could bring newness, brings associations and quietens anxieties.

    The run of the mill "soothing" types are always not helpful in travel, especially in these fear and anxiety driven pandemic times. They carry monotony and the weight of familiarity in them. The world order is changing. India could be a leader in healing the world with music. The therapeutic qualities of certain ragas are already a subject of practice and research. Folk and forest traditions of Bharat have the power to take a person home, provide comfort and solace besides being the reason and representation of festivities and celebrations. Krishna's home, that's Bharat. Krishna's flute, that's Bharat. Is there something more healing and calming than Vrindavani Sarang playing on the flute?

    Scindia has taken the right step at the right time for Indian music. He must, further, redefine the role of a patron of music, this time, by taking deep interest in the initiative taken by his ministry with all the help from ICCR.

    Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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