Today (16th Dec) is the last day of the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav, Pune’s biggest Hindustani classical music festival. I have enjoyed many excellent performances at this festival and even now attend occasionally. But this lament I had written some years back seems to be still valid, as was clear when I attended one day at this year’s fest.
Come the second week of December, and Pune gets ready to play host to an august congregation of classical music artistes. The stars, the famous, and the not so well known but highly accomplished, all come to perform at the Sawai Gandharva Memorial Festival, or simply Sawai, as it is popularly known. Organised in the memory of Sawai Gandharva, nurtured over the years by the painstaking personal efforts of stalwarts like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, this festival of classical music has become a part of the glorious traditions of Pune.
Over thirty artistes perform at this feast for music lovers, spread over four days, drawing an estimated ten thousand listeners. Most are from Pune and around, but many come from abroad, and many, like me, from distant parts of India. For people like us, living in small places without any opportunity to attend performances, Sawai offers a golden chance to hear some of the best that the country has to offer.
Every year, the festival opens with the mellifluous notes of the shehnai; but even before the shehnai starts, the first words spoken by the compere are "Rasikaho..." (Connoisseurs...). It is only appropriate, for the one thing that has made the festival one of the most well-known and popular events of its nature, with every artiste seeking an opportunity to perform here, is the highly knowledgeable audience at the festival. Those who perform at Sawai never fail to mention how privileged they are to perform in front this audience, for it is an audience which is passionate about classical music and which understands and appreciates its nuances.
Sadly, this rasik - the pride of Sawai - is increasingly being endangered now. Slowly but surely, the aficionado-cum-expert is being replaced by those who view the festival as a picnic opportunity, as an outing, where some nice music plays in the background as a bonus. So it is not uncommon to see people bringing in tea, vada paos, pulao and even more complex dishes into the pandal, partaking the delicacies while listening to Pandit someone or Ustad someone else.
As this person brings in cups of hot tea precariously balanced along with several plates of other goodies - for no one brings in the stuff for oneself alone, the eats are brought in for the whole party - and makes his way through the densely packed crowd, people around can only hold their breath in trepidation, hoping that nothing spills, scalding skin or soiling clothes. It is easy to understand if during this whole event, one is not able to pay attention to the aalap which is being presented from the stage.
Some are a little more considerate. They bring their food and drinks from home in their hampers, sparing one the anxiety of anything spilling. I have seen families spread out a sheet, open a hamper complete with a picnic plates-and-spoon-and-cup set, dish out the goodies and have a nice meal, accompanied by 'please pass the salt' and 'khichadi kaay mast zhali aahe (why don't you try this khichadi-it is delicious)'. All of this in the middle of a live performance! Of course, while they spare one from dangers of spills, they also unveil the extra loud and extra irritating sounds that only some special type of plastic bags can make - as they repeatedly open and crumple and fold the bags to bring out the food.
With Shining India now leading the world in mobile phone penetration, with several crore cell phones in Indians' pockets, it is hardly a surprise that a few thousand of these will make their way into the festival pandal. Unfortunately, the phones don't come alone - they bring with them their human owners, many of whom do not have the basic courtesy to even put them on silent mode. Most people also think it is their birth-right to talk on their cellphones in the middle of concerts and performances. So now at Sawai, even as you pay only for listening to the artistes, you can get assorted cellphone conversations absolutely free of charge.
Some people do not even require this modern technology. They simply chat! Last year, a friend of mine attending the festival requested two people sitting next to him not to talk during the performance. They replied to him," What does it matter, it is still only the aalap going on".
This then is the new avatar of the rasik. At this time, it is still a small minority, but enough to be a nuisance. However, if things are not dealt with in time, the small minority will soon become a big minority, and the nuisance will become a menace.
What can be done? The most important thing is for people to realise how uncivil their behaviour is, and change. But that is easier said than done. So the first steps will have to be taken by the organisers. They need to ban food and drinks in the main pandal - these need to be strictly restricted to the grounds where the stalls are put up. People should be requested to put their phones on silent mode, and go out of the pandal if they want to use them. The audience should be requested not to chat and disturb others during performances. All these should be put up as signs at various places of the venue. (This will enrich another tradition of Pune - the putting up of signs and instructions everywhere!). Organisers should repeat these suggestions from time to time while making announcements. Volunteers should politely but firmly remind people of these ground rules. Hopefully, this will persuade at least some people to change. Equally important, it will bring weight to the words of those who request for silence and undisturbed listening.
These are just some ideas more in the nature of a plea for action. If this matter is not tackled in time, genuine music lovers will have no choice but to desert the festival. With the rasik gone, the festival will lose its life, and the artistes will soon follow. The event may continue, but its spirit would be dead. That will be the end of a celebrated tradition.