Music has always been an essential part of Indian life, accompanying everything from weddings to military parades to religious services to farm work. Paradoxically, this meant there was a time when India did not feel as strong a need for what Westerners call the concert, i.e. an event showcasing a particular artist, held in a public hall with admission charges. Karnatik music was played primarily in temples, much as Bach’s music was written for cathedrals. Hindustani music was played mainly in private homes. The poor and middle class performed informally for friends and family, and the best musicians were invited to the palaces of the powerful. This patronage system provided job security that any modern musician might understandably envy, but it should not be uncritically idealized. Like Old King Cole in the Mother Goose nursery rhyme, a patron could “call for his fiddlers three” (or sitar and tabla) at any time of the day or night, and the musicians had to be ready to play. Furthermore, one’s employer was often the law of the land, and displeasing him could be dangerous. But in many cases, there was a strong personal relationship motivated by a deep respect for artistry.
Satyajit Ray’s wonderful film Jalsaghar portrays a recently displaced zamindarwho is slowly squandering the last of his fortune on concerts at his home. He is arrogant, selfish, shortsighted, and self-destructive, but his deep appreciation of music gives him a doomed integrity which makes him surprisingly heroic. This particular zamindar is a man for whom listening to music is his entire life, and for which he is willing to sacrifice everything. Is it possible for a modern concert-goer to approximate this kind of all-consuming loyalty to music when he or she is only one of many paying a few dollars or rupees at the door? Yes, but today this loyalty expresses itself in a variety of more democratic forms.
“Mumbai is divided up into different neighborhoods, each of which has its own local character,” says Bay Area tabla player Javad Butah. “It’s rather like San Francisco that way, which has neighborhoods like Cow Hollow and Noe Valley. In Mumbai, each neighborhood has a different music circle named after it, which collects dues from its members and puts on an Indian classical concert every month. They’re usually done in a neighborhood focal point, such as a school or community center. These music circles provide a circuit for musicians who are accomplished but not yet famous. They’re really what keeps classical music alive in India today.”
During the 1980s, organizations developed in the United States that were quite similar to the Mumbai neighborhood music circles. Basant Bahar performed this function in the Bay Area, where there was one of the largest of the new Indian communities flourishing throughout America. In the previous decade, the Indian population in the United States had increased thirty-fold. This new Indian population was in many ways like the princely patrons who had once housed the greatest musicians in their homes: wealthy, powerful, and well educated. The South Bay in particular had developed its own “Silicon Raj,” who, after being rewarded for years of serving Ganesha, decided it was time to pay homage to Sarasvati. These modern musical patrons sometimes discovered classical music late in life. “There was another Indian in my college dorm in upstate New York, and he had one cassette of Hindustani music he played all the time,” says active Basant Bahar member Nagesh Avadhany. “This got me listening to other Hindustani music, and eventually I became obsessed with it.”
At first, the only way that Bay Area Indian classical music fans could get what they wanted was to produce small concerts in their homes. “I remember when we had a house concert with Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia, with only fifteen of us attending,” says current Basant Bahar president Surinder Chowdhury. “It was great for us to have such intimate contact with the artists, but we felt they deserved better.” So, in 1982, Narayan Sardesai, G.S. Satya, and Arun Londhe formed Basant Bahar as a 501 c (3) non-profit corporation, naming it after an especially difficult and profound Hindustani raga. The raga is actually a combination of two very different ragas, which have almost no notes in common, and between them require the playing of all 12 notes in the scale. It is a good symbol for an organization that is devoted to every aspect of classical Indian music, no matter how challenging or unknown.
Over the years, Basant Bahar has stuck to its mission of providing opportunities for audiences to enjoy Hindustani classical music of the highest caliber. “We typically have concerts that attract 200-400 audience members,” Avadhany explains. “We are not interested in holding concerts where 800-1000 people fill the hall. The atmosphere in a big auditorium is vastly different than what is created with fewer people in attendance. In our concerts, audience members encourage the artists on stage with impassioned cries of ‘Wah, Wah’ when they hear a particularly beautiful musical phrase. That is the ambience that we would like to create. We also are committed to giving a platform for second-tier musicians from India to perform here. They are equally skilled in their art when compared to the ‘top’ artists but they do not get as many opportunities to perform abroad.”
Basant Bahar’s first production featured Lakshmi Shankar in a house concert at the residence of G.S. Satya. For the next twenty-five years, their concerts featured every kind of Hindustani music: Khayal, Drupad, Thumri, even kathak dancing. Like the Mumbai music circles, Basant Bahar has memberships for regular patrons but also sells tickets for individual concerts. Unlike the princely patrons of the past, however, the members of Basant Bahar are dedicated to serving the musicians: constantly scrambling to meet their needs and asking nothing but the satisfaction of an important job well done. Members work with organizations that bring musicians to the US from India, and share dates with other local music circles to construct national tours. Because the concerts occur only on weekends, Basant Bahar members have to lodge musicians in their home, sometimes for a week or longer. Even though many of these homes rival the opulence of their princely predecessors, this kind of hospitality requires careful and sensitive planning. When Birju Maharaj performed for Basant Bahar in 1991, a troupe of fifteen dancers had to be picked up at the airport and housed for over a week. “It is hard work, which is why we’re always training new people to take over for us,” says Chowdhury. “But on the night of the concert itself, when everything comes together, there are perfect moments that make it all worth it.”
Basant Bahar has hosted over 220 concerts by artists in the Bay area; that’s 8-10 concerts a year, without any breaks, in the organization’s 25-year history. Chowdhury makes special note of this fact: “To organize one or two concerts is something that anyone can do. We have had the endurance to continue this for 25 years, and that is what I am most proud of.”
This September, Basant Bahar is producing an all-day grand festival to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The festival will feature the best local artists (Alam Khan, Swapan Chaudhuri, and Deepak Ram), musicians who have made the Bay Area almost a second home (Ramesh Misra, Anuradha Pal), and musicians who represent every aspect of Hindustani Music (the Mishra Brothers, Drupad vocalists). It is a fitting way to celebrate Basant Bahar’s history, and to look forward to the future.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is on the editorial board of India Currents and lives in Fremont.
Saturday, September 8, 10 a.m.-11 p.m., India Community Center, 525 Los Coches Street, Milpitas. (510) 870-2244. www.basantbahar.org/festival