In conversation with Purbayan Chatterjee
Every vocation comes with a set of protocols, especially dependent on the region in which it is being practised. Every section of society, similarly follows a code of conduct which also depends on the part of the world we are looking at.
The classical music of India is a traditional art form, which has been passed down aurally over thousands of years. Needless to say that it has certain time honoured value system some of which remain relevant even today. The interesting thing however, is that in the last 100 years, or so, we have undergone a sea change, societally speaking. The culture, cuisine, dressing of the people of our country, has gone from being completely traditional to becoming uber-modern.
The speed of this change has been so overwhelming that the codes of conduct followed by a traditional art form like Indian classical music has been left in a slightly bewildered, crossroads-like situation in the present day. This often leads to a somewhat anachronistic set of behaviour patterns amongst practitioners of this art form.
For instance, in keeping with Indian traditional protocol, it is customary to touch the feet of an elderly person, or bow down and say namaskar to them. However, between this, and just saying hi or hugging or even saying “Yo, how are you man?” we are often caught in awkward moments of uncertainty, trying to decide which one is better or more appropriate.
Often there is a great expectation of this kind of bowing down from people of earlier generations and therefore the indoctrination starts from a very early age so that the student of music follows this protocol to the T. I have often seen young students of music touch the feet of the elderly five or six times in the course of an hour-long meeting – I think we will all agree that this is a bit over the top.
Once at a gathering of legends, the late Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma said he preferred the folded hands namaskaar to someone touching his feet. He explained that the concept of pranaam is one where someone seeks the permission of an elder or a guru to take some of their energy and blessing. He said that the person touching one’s your feet must ask for permission before doing so, as the elder must consent to this kind of energy transference.
Having said that I think the custom of being respectful to somebody who is older than you is actually a great one but then there comes the question of the respect being a result of ceremony or genuinely coming from within. What are the things that have vastly changed is the closeness between generations of people. We are much closer to our parents or our gurus than we traditionally used to be.
However, if one delves a little deeper into this dynamic, one will realise that traditionally gurus and their shishyas did enjoy a great deal of bonhomie. A great guru like Shri Ram Krishna Paramhansa told his equally great disciple, Swami Vivekananda that he had every right to accept his guru only after asking the necessary questions.
I find the diversity of cultural backgrounds that exists in India to be very charming. I find it very endearing, for instance, that, in Maharashtra most people address one another by “tum” (as in Marathi the aap or aapani is extremely formal and somewhat distant) while in the north (places like Allahabad) people address even their kids as aap. Cultural homogeneity is reassuring but I think in a country like India, the cultural diversity is something which must be celebrated.
To sum it all up, if I may be allowed, my humble opinion, I think balance is the key. There is certainly no need to be apologetic about being who you are, or about where you come from. There is no need to change value systems which are innate to you.
There is a great deal that traditional wisdom offers, that is of immense value and which continues to remain relevant, and then there are some things which lose their relevance with the passage of time. It is important that as individuals we differentiate one from the other as we move on. How you dress does not change who you are, and most importantly, what you project does not change who you are.
The irony of it all is that it is often as difficult, as it is easy to be completely yourself under your skin. Easy, because that is who you are and difficult, because we are always watching ourselves through the eyes of the millions around us.