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.
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.
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.
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.