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The intense public scrutiny and a high-level probe into actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death on 14 June has been accompanied by an explosion of accusations of nepotism against Bollywood — its big producers, studio houses and star networks. The bitter and very vocal ‘insider-outsider’ debate it’s generated has widely censured them, for the suffering inflicted on talented newcomers to the industry. 

But a very similar charge could be laid against India’s haloed classical gharana traditions too, where a few big houses emerged as feudal sites with the power to make or break young artistes’ independent careers. There is however no outrage here.

For the performing artiste, identification with a gharana was much sought after. Its cultural resonance with the sacred idea of the ashram enclave on the one hand, and the Hindu joint family on the other, granted pedigree. At the same time, the creative tension and rivalry among the gharanas was seen as inevitable and wholesome for the classical Indian art, but is being deemed destructive for the film studio-based industry.

Independent, secular India glorified the gharana as a male-headed space persisting over three generations at least, which sealed the covenant between guru and shishya, mentor and mentee, teacher and student — and enabled the propagation of pure art as intimate and face-to-face. It remained a powerful cultural myth precisely because of its demographic rarity under modern conditions. Today, only a handful of gharanas are recognised in the world of performing arts, all named either after their founders or the place of their origin. 


Also read: It’s a dirty picture — that’s what Sushant Singh Rajput’s death reminds us about Bollywood


The male dominance

Most Indians would angrily reject my bringing the revered institution of the gharana into the same frame of reference as the film world, which, as ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta correctly typifies, lacks “respect”, whether it’s from the State, the discerning public or even itself. The current Bollywood expose serves, however, in helping make the gharanas’ own latent iniquity and patriarchy explicit.

In India, historically, the emergence of gharanas enabled only male artistes gain respectability and independent visibility as gurus and art leaders. Modern claims to reviving the ‘purity’ of Indian classical music heritage were driven more by social prejudice against lower caste and lower class, minority, and female musician lifestyles than any fundamental stylistic distinctiveness. There was a sociological inevitability to the favouring of patriarchy.

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Given the basic branding principle underlying the gharana, it was largely the men who were able to achieve a space for artistic production. They founded, with wife and children,  a home or basic support structure for everyday living and a studio or school for outside students free of the anonymity of the collective mirasi caste identity. Women artistes, on the other hand, were far more dependent on the community support structures and spaces like the kotha, the mehfil, the kacheri, which enabled high art milieus in the absence of ‘family values’. 

Having artistic merit in the blood progeny remained crucial to a gharana’s survival and prestige. The presence of both men and women protégées helped spread the culture. Hindustani classical singer Alladiya Khan had no offspring but his Jaipur-Atrauli gharana stayed alive through vocalist Mogubai Kurdikar and her daughter Kishori Amonkar. The gharanas were thus always made up of family and non-family members who were students, or like Ravi Shankar, future sons-in-law. By marrying his guru Baba Allauddin Khan’s daughter, Shankar became an insider to the secrets of the Maihar Senia tradition, which he later began to rival, leading to a break with his wife Annapurna Devi. While she went on to mentor big names, keeping her father’s musical Maihar gharana alive, Ravi Shankar remained a lone shooting star in a larger non-gharana firmament. 


Also read: Bollywood’s nepotism didn’t start with Karan Johar. But it must end with Sushant Singh Rajput


Culture of ‘in-breeding’

Established Western scholars such as Bonnie Wade have separately argued in Khyal: Creativity Within North India’s Classical Music Tradition that the star system within the classical art destroyed the gharana – presumably because of its competitive, individualistic market inspiration. I mention these histories only to highlight that behind the public male focus of the gharana, pedigree could always be disseminated through both men and women artistes, whether living in the father’s household or with a guru from a distinct household and ancestry.  

With time, the exclusion of professional women’s practice became an integral component of the sanskritisation that Indian scholars such as V.N. Bhatkhande (1860-1936) and V.D. Pulaskar (1872-1931) unleashed on the gharanas. In their zeal to remove the ‘nepotism’ of the traditional Muslim gharanas and modernise the Indian classical art, they completely marginalised many successful and wealthy women performers who far outnumbered men in the first quarter of the 20th century. As an unintended consequence, they also introduced a gender divide, where ‘family’ women performed as an accomplishment not livelihood, while men were the professionals. Non-family-based selection criteria to All India Radio (AIR) recordings and rankings that began post-Independence, also dismantled the men-women partnerships of the gharana system, only to introduce male monopolies and fissive power hierarchies instead.

The systemic changes in the gharana system under growing urbanisation and market influences can be typified as institutionalised patriarchy, marked by 1) the emergence of only a few monopolistic male guru traditions; 2) the preference for male over female ‘brand’ heirs, especially in music (many more women learnt music but the profession of concert art was dominated by men because middle class girls found it difficult to travel and stay at the guru’s place); and finally 3) the preference for blood sons over ‘outside’ students, whether male or female, for primary investment of time and money.

In spite of all this, people crying themselves hoarse today about cozy, campy clubs in Bollywood, continue to utter the word gharanas in reverence. The reason being that they hold classical performing art as sacred while looking down upon cinema as low art, if art at all. But the culture of ‘in breeding’ of talent is ubiquitous.

Amrit Srinivasan is a sociologist of knowledge, culture and the performing arts. She is currently Visiting Faculty at The Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi (IIIT-D). Views are personal.

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12 Comments Share Your Views

12 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Srinivasan suffers from a malaise that plagues most academics wedded to their theses and ideologies desperately looking for the next available sacred cow to immolate, but with neither the knowledge or experience of the target profession. Anirudh has pointed out many flaws in the article related to the Jaipur gharana. Let me add my two bits – Mogubai Kurdikar did not belong to Alladiya Khansahib’s family, and yet was nurtured by him and his brother. Her daughter (and my revered Guru) Kishori Amonkar also cultivated many shishyas outside of her family, many of whom came from unprivileged backgrounds (some were low caste) and minorities. Never did it occur once to Kishori Tai to even consider caste, religion or social status when she accepted a student. This is true of most gurus today – so it puts paid to this socialist excrement about iniquity in gharanas.

    Reverence for one’s gharana is not born out of some retarded notion of nepotism; it is respect for the priceless art and technique which are handed down and refined from generation to generation of artists. That the gharana system was confined to families in the early years of Khayal music may have had its reasons and even its weaknesses, but over time, the art form broke those filial barriers.

    Women constitute a very large number of performers today. To ascribe the demise of wealthy women performers (the bais that performed at mehfils and kothas) to the machinations of Bhatkhande and Paluskar is giving them too much credit. The tawaaif tradition died due to three reasons – the invention of the microphone, the gramophone and the radio. The microphone made it possible to organise music conferences where thousands could attend – so patronage (both royal and aristocratic) shifted there. The gramophone brought music into drawing rooms, and over time, made it respectable for women to record in studios. The radio disseminated Indian art music far and wide. In effect, these three inventions democratised art music and levelled the playing field. What iniquity are we speaking of, really?

    It is quite a sport and enterprise these days to resurrect dead cows and flog them to death again, under the guise of raising awareness about some phantom injustice. One prominent Carnatic artist has made turned this into a fine art, presumably to make up for said artist’s insipid performance. Such sociological tripe deserves to be roundly condemned.

  2. A ridiculous article with wrong interpretation or twisting of facts to suit the argument. Susant Singh was a hero of hindi cinema where heroes with least talent in acting can be popular with right kind of backing and a talented actor/actress does not get a chance. This is not the case of classical music. Can a classical singer survive without talent? Nobody is talking about talented actor and favouritism.
    Nobody is saying favouritism in case of Raj Kapoor but same can not be said about Rishi Kapoor and his son Randhir Kapoor.

  3. As a classical music practitioner, time to time I keep thinking about a lot of these things mentioned in this piece, some or the other time. It would be unjust of you to look at our classical music from a modern capitalistic point of view.

    Being a classical musician is very similar to being a scientist. Not every scientist can have access to a lab for their research, so those who have will try to give access to their family, and then deserved few. It is societies job to build more labs for all the aspirants and not the scientist, their work is to create and hand over their intellectual property to someone trustworthy, and not a society who will see no value in it.

    We as a society should accept our failure to build scientific temper and consumption of great art till today for whatever reasons.

    It is societies responsibility to honour and consume good music and musicians, and not the fellow artists.

    And how can you expect a counter culture of gender equality at the time when the society was male dominated?

    We should be grateful to the legends to keep the seed to learn our raag sangeet alive, and not criticize them for their behaviour, and put a question mark on one of our most precious combination of science and music.

    (I don’t know why you deleted my earlier comment with the same content. Didn’t expect this from Print.)

  4. The writer seems to have very less understanding of classical music. As a practicing musician from non-gharana I had similar point of views when I was in my teens and early twenties. First of all Classical music is hardly learnt to get money and fame. Musicians need respect and it’s societies failure to have them in worse condition today, not their contemporaries.

    When the whole society is male dominated it’s foolish to expect something different from Classical musicians. When as a society we are battling with non-scientific temper, and rat race for livelihood we should be grateful to these giants who have kept our music alive.

    To simplify, I consider learning classical music is like researching in the science lab. Unfortunately not many are inclined for this and the facilities and less and laughable. It’s not scientists job to build an ecosystem, but the societies.

    • Sushant case is about killing a outside talent for survival of ur sons and daughters.

      Print should hire writes with good critical reasoning

  5. Nepotism is in every profession. Today we are cribbing but when time comes even we will support our kids. So stop crying about it and put true dedicated hard work in your work, learn to grow your talent, be confident and ready to face hardships and struggle. Perseverance is the key. There are several examples who came in same industry without any backing and now are kings.

  6. Such a horribly written and badly researched piece. Ustad Alladiya Khan Saheb had three sons, two of whom, Ustad Manjhi Khan and Ustad Bhurji Khan were great Musicians and taught a great many number of disciples including Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur. A Google search would have yielded you this information. Inspite of having such accomplished offspring, Alladiya Khan’s favourite disciple was Vid. Kesarbai Kerkar, someone from outside the family and a woman. The Gharana system didn’t guarantee any male-female partnership. In fact it was after the liberation of Hindustani classical music specifically Khayal music by Pt. V.D Paluskar from the courts of Maharajas and the grips of traditional families who practiced music that a great number of people from non musical backgrounds, both men and women might I add were able to learn music. Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Alladiya Khan, Pt. Balakrishna Buwa Ichalkaranjikar all taught people from non musical Backgrounds and essentially went against the spirit of nepotism. A guru favouring his students is not nepotism. A shishya had to spend 10-15 years serving his Guru before even giving a public performance. Women who benefited from the gharana system becoming less rigid were Vid. Gangubai Hangal, Vid. Padmavati Shaligram, Vid. Kesarbai Kerkar to name a few. This piece is pure and unadulterated nonsense. Liberal use of the words feminism, patriarchy and gender discrimination do not serve as substitute for solid facts. If the print has anu credibility, they should take down this article and the author must issue a public statement admitting a lack of knowledge about Indian classical music and culture in general.

    • Reading this comment was much more enlightening than the article. Thank you 🙏🏼

      Agree, the article/opinion has incomplete facts and then they cry saying everyone else spreads fake news.

    • Well articulated and I could not agree more. The article is poorly researched and equally poorly written—a lack of editorial oversight seems apparent.
      However, the author has no reason to apologize. She has a thesis that she has tried to present to the larger public; you are free to disagree with her. Rather than ask her to apologize, why not look deeper into her thesis and refute it by writing a better article yourself? The human race can only progress by asking questions and seeking out uncomfortable conversations. This topic seems ripe for an honest discussion between intellectuals; perhaps we will learn something about ourselves through honest navel gazing.

      • B Sharma True. But I didn’t ask for an apology from the author. My grouse is not with the fact that she has presented an opinion. It is with the fact that there has been a gross misrepresentation of facts. If it stopped at misrepresentation, there could be the expectation of a degree of acceptance from the reader’s end. This article makes untrue claims which the last time I checked can be classified as fake news. Hence my assertion that the author must admit to not knowing a thing about Indian music. And as far as your proposition of me writing an article stating my opinion is concerned. We all know how the media and academia work. They let each other write articles and keep publishing each other’s work. This article is a classic example of the same. In spite of the author’s obvious lack of knowledge, she has been given access to such a wide audience of readers without any vetting or moderation. If you can guarantee that the print will publish an article that I will write (which will be I can assure you based on hard facts), then I will consider it. If not, then it is just rank what-aboutery. I do not have access to the same avenues and opinion portals that the author does due to her academic credentials and connections. How fair is that? But your point about the discussion of nepotism in the classical music world is extremely true. There is huge nepotism even in the classical music world. Just not how it has been portrayed in the above article. And yes a discussion and discourse about the same is extremely important!

  7. These were exactly my thoughts too. However, my own family who are gharana oriented music and dancer lovers deny this logic.

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