Technology takes over tradition
The entry of electronic tools has transformed the way classical arts have been taught, learnt and performed.
The history of Indian classical music and dance spans a millennia and more. To date, the classical arts are revered by Indians as sources of spiritual experience, cultural expression and pristine entertainment. Till recently the system of teaching and learning as well as performing these arts has been totally different from the western/Occidental path.
For thousands of years, music/dance material travelled along a simple linear path from teacher to disciple, calling for a long-term apprenticeship. Sruti (committed to ear) and Smriti (committed to memory) were the ancient modes of transmitting any learning. Of late, despite the respect for traditional methodology, India has also been swept by the torpedo of electronics in the global village scenario.
Though resistance to change is first reaction, the inevitable TINA (‘There Is No Alternative') factor comes into play. Spurred by the West and our own exposure to rapid technological innovations, the indigenous electronics industry seeped into the arena of music, which has since been christened as an ‘industry'. Indians' respect for tradition has, however, not hindered them from accepting new technologies. New technological tools have been incorporated into the system of teaching and learning and practice too.
This trend has therefore generated electronic drones and rhythms, which are now commonplace, with experimental efforts at creating databases.
As things stand, computer-aided composition and computer-assisted education cannot be far off. Electronic aids to music education have been a major component of the Western pedagogic process for many years. Today applications as diverse as desktop publishing, lectronically-assisted education (audio/video cassettes), radio and TV programmes and a host of electronic gadgets have already entered the educational process.
The most fundamental point in the classical Indian music is that it is a modal system based upon pure tones rather than tempered tones. The drone (sruti) is an essential component of music. It is this which provides the tonal base upon which the modes are developed. This was normally provided by a stringed instrument, the tambura/tanpura or a small hand-pumped reed instrument (Sruti pette in Telugu or Sur peti in Hindi). Today, electronic companies like Radel have replaced the human-hand generated sruti instrument with electronic sruti box which has become a mandatory tool for any student of music. Its popularity in Carnatic music system is not mirrored in equal measure in the Hindustani system as yet; though it is growing among younger learners.
Our Carnatic musicians have gone a step further in opting for the metronome that marks the tempo during practice sessions.
Even in the West, the use of the metronome in classical music has been controversial and has been dubbed by many a maestro as a hindrance to creative musical interpretation.
Also, there is a phenomenal progress in electronic synthesisers in recent times. Its affordability has brought the digital signal processors right to our doorstep. Though the electronic invasion has not killed the conventional instruments market, they have definitely overtaken the former's usage.
The main reason for this replacement is its uniform tonal quality, easy maintenance, convenience of usage and transport thereby giving value for money. Plus they are mass produced, unlike their traditional counterparts. As a result of these changed dynamics, the tambura artist is more or less a rarity in a Carnatic music kutcheri today.
Effect on performances
Technology is taking over in dance too. In a classical dance performance, pre-recorded music has replaced the accompanists on stage. The artist-dancer finds it economical and easier to switch on the hi-fi music player and get on to the stage, especially when the performance is far away from home. It saves the organiser and the artiste the trouble of having to cart an entire team of accompanists for a live orchestra. However, a live orchestra not only enhances the performance by its sheer august presence, but also responds to immediate needs of the dancer and serves to rectify human errors, if any.
Similarly, in the case of the tambura, the original acoustic has much more to offer to the artist. The process of tuning it offer the artist a few moments to withdraw into himself and internalise the sruti. It is close to meditation and allows the musician to retain the contemplative quality of music. Electronic tamburas lack what we call the human stage presence, which goes a long way in making an impressive concert.