Someone Pay the Piper


The world may have changed but young Hindustani classical musicians are still expected to live on love and sunshine. Arunabha Deb follows the money trail

Illustration: Naorem Ashish

BY THE time he was in the third year of his engineering course at the West Bengal University of Technology, Debanjan Bhattacharya had won the regional music competition organised by the Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata, had topped the national competition organised by All India Radio and had become an empanelled artiste with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. There was no doubt that he was one of the brightest young sarod players in the country. When he was in the third year, he was offered a job by Infosys; he decided against taking it, fearing that the demands of the job would not allow him to continue with his music. Yet, at the end of his course, he did not find the confidence to take up music as his sole vocation; the practical prospects were too daunting. He enrolled for a Master’s in Engineering, to keep his options open for a career in teaching.

In his final year of master’s now, Debanjan has decided to take the plunge to be a full-time musician. “I know there are risks, but I don’t think I can bring myself to do anything else other than play the sarod,” he said. Not all young musicians, though, find such clarity in their thought. Rather, it is Debanjan’s initial quandary that is widespread amongst young musicians in the country, especially those who have the option of alternate careers. The reason behind this is simple: it is incredibly arduous to make a living as a classical musician.

As it has been historically, the greatest sources of income for classical musicians continue to be live performances. Given this, consider the following: one of the most reputed festival organisers in Kolkata is known to regularly ask young aspirants to collect advertisements worth at least Rs. 70,000 in exchange for a spot in the line-up; the same organisation holds smaller recitals exclusively for upcoming artistes and the only remuneration it offers is the taxi fare; a demand of Rs. 5,000 for a recital by even the brightest of young musicians is often considered audacious (where a regular DJ earns three times that amount). Most organisers capitalise on the fact that these young artistes are hungry for any opportunity.

THE ORGANISERS claim they are helpless as sponsorship is not easy to come by. A Mumbai-based organiser offered a reasonable defence: “Most of the times, we don’t have the money. We try to give the young artistes a platform to perform so that they can reach a stage where their names will attract sponsors. Corporate houses are now mostly interested in sponsoring fusion concerts that draw larger crowds. And even when they agree to sponsor classical concerts, it is only when one of the four or five really big names is performing.” (In spite of the rather antiseptic nature of this quote, the organiser did not wish to be named.) However, he has touched upon the very crucial aspect of collaborative music, the reprieve that many young musicians are now seeking to make a better living.

Purbayan Chatterjee, arguably the best known young sitar player in the country today, started out as a purely classical musician, but over the last few years, he has made a concerted effort (and with immense success) to involve himself in collaborative ventures. “Sponsorship from corporate houses keeps the concerts going. If collaborative ventures attract more corporate attention, then where is the problem?” he says. He believes collaborations and the consequent recognition amongst corporate houses have, in turn, helped him in his career as a classical musician. “There have been times when I have performed in private concerts exclusively for the top management. Some of them have later agreed to sponsor classical festivals in which I was participating because they had heard my music.”

Most significantly, this method of brand building has enabled Purbayan to reach a position where he can demand and get a fee he feels he deserves. Of course, crucial to his success is the fact that he has managed to maintain distinct identities as a classical sitar player and a sitar player in an ensemble.

The growing demand for collaborative or “experimental” projects is confirmed by Suresh Thangiah, MD, EMI Records. “There is definitely a greater demand for classical music presented in a more contemporary context and a number of reputed artistes (Bombay Jayashri, Ustad Rashid Khan) have come on board for these new ventures.” EMI has also signed up a number of young artistes (Rahul Deshpande, Sikkil Gurucharan) but none of these projects can qualify as purely classical, where an artiste presents a full-length rendition of a raga. The commissioning patterns suggest that expanding the repertoire has become a necessity for young musicians. However, the core concern of earning money is not quite eliminated by embracing different musical forms and bagging recording contracts. As Thangiah says, “Royalties don’t account for much of what classical musicians earn; they mainly earn from live performances. But we pay a substantial amount to artistes at the time of commissioning.”

EMI is probably an exception in this regard. There are enough incidents where young artistes are required to pay recording companies to get their CDs released. While most companies will not own up to this fact, Kolkata-based Bihaan Music has a transparent system in place. “We charge a package fee of Rs. 25,000 from young artistes. They hand us the master CD and we sign a contract that enumerates our warranties in terms of producing, marketing and distributing the CD,” says Nabanita Banerjee, the owner of Bihaan. This does seem like an absurd reversal of benefits on the face of it (given that Bihaan also acquires the copyright of the recording), but Banerjee has her argument to support her practice. First of all, she says she does not bring out a CD unless she feels confident about the artiste’s talent. “It is not that anyone with Rs. 25,000 to spare can cut a disc with us,” she says, adding, “We make no compromises in our efforts to market the CDs. Also, if the artistes wish, we do not print a price on the CD jacket. This allows them to buy their CDs from us at a discounted price (often as low as Rs. 75); when they go on tours abroad, they can sell them for whatever price (often $10- $12).” The initial amount might be difficult for a young artiste to cough up; yet, it is imperative for artistes to keep trying to bring out more CDs even though the promise of sales remains shaky.

A festival organiser in Kolkata is known to ask young artistes to collect ads worth Rs. 70,000 for a spot in the line-up

After a number of eliminations, the only channel of income that a number of young artistes can somewhat take for granted is that of the foreign tour. The success of this route rests entirely on conversion rates; a $200 concert is deeply coveted as Rs. 8,000 is more than what most young artistes get for concerts in India. An upcoming artiste can earn about Rs. 1,20,000 from a month-long tour. This might not seem like a big sum of money but earnings from two such tours would probably comprise the substantial part of the artiste’s annual income. The concerts are not necessarily held in auditoria. A large number of them are organised over weekends in living rooms; all the invited guests contribute and the artiste gets a percentage of what is pooled in. It must be said, though, established artistes also intersperse their concert tours with these baithaks.

However, murky as the foreign-tour situation may sound, there is no denying that a number of musicians have been able to remain faithful to music only because of their assured income from this set-up. In India, an organised system of paying musicians does not seem to be anywhere on the horizon. Vocalist Ruchira Kale, a brilliant disciple of Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, stresses on this lack of organisation. “In any industry, there is a certain hierarchy and people get paid according to their level of competence. Why can’t this be replicated in music?” She feels that even if a few organisers proactively decide to pay a respectable fee (a paltry 2-3 percent of what the absolute top artistes charge) to upcoming artistes, many more youngsters will be encouraged to take the plunge into fulltime music. After all, for every Purbayan, Debanjan and Ruchira, there are several others who give up simply because they can’t pay their bills.

Illustration: Naorem Ashish


  1. The solution is not to encourage corporate funding but to create or join an existing platform and struggle for a security scheme for upcoming and established artists and the kind that should come from the state.


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