All of a sudden, in the space of some weeks, the nation seems to be running up a deficit on its cultural capital. In rapid succession we have lost theatre personalities like Habib Tanvir and Kalindi Deshpande, writers like Kamala Das, painters and sculptors like A P Santhanaraj, T R P Mookiah and Tyeb Mehta and musicians like Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, D K Pattammal and now, Gangubai Hanagal.
It is a different discourse if these artists and their contributions receive sufficient notice in the national media after their passing away. There is a general feeling of a blanking out by the media. Even more distressing is the feeling that the media is no longer even sufficiently qualified to be writing/commenting on arts and artists. For well over a decade and a half, the national media has seriously exited from the arts, preferring instead to privilege 'entertainment'. This has had devastating consequences not just for the media itself but, in fact, to the quality of national cultural memory.
However, this is something that cannot be addressed by the media itself, since its profit-conscious proprietors prefer the softer connection with 'glamour' and 'entertainment', which seems a preferred route to attract advertisement revenues. The print media is yet redeemable. The electronic media operates under the assumption that life is as flat as the screens on which they exist and that the most artistic thing one can engage in is 24x7 'news'.
The breathless priorities of the electronic media will simply not permit any breathing space for observation, engagement, reflection, and absorption. Everything is a consequential camera grab or a sound byte, existing in pure, isolated splendour, with no 'before' or 'after', no history or location or context. Cultural news on our TV screens becomes an inevitable orphan, with no parentage or origins. TV has become incapable now of honouring our artists.
On the contrary, it only generates anger by the sheer capriciousness of the broadcast duration it assigns different artists. Canned footage of Michael Jackson, picked up from international hawkers, is endlessly relayed. But a Pattammal or a Gangubai moves from a scroll to a visual and back to the scroll in double quick time. Blink and you can miss it. The medium, rather than informing its vast viewership about the historic significance of these artistic luminaries, in fact, ends up serially disinforming.
It would be narrow and insufficient to understand the passing away of Gangubai Hanagal, on July 21, as merely the end of a 96-years old musician. We would only be hurting ourselves if we failed to see it simultaneously as the shutting down of a musical university which thrived for some seventy-five years. With her 'gurubhai' Pt Bhimsen Joshi too in uneven health recently, we are close to the swan-song of that musical Camelot of our times known as the Kirana gharana.
Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, who inaugurated the gharana with his mastery of the nishad, his shimmering daughters Hirabai Barodekar and Roshanara Begum, his master shaagirds like Pandit Rambhau Kundgolkar (otherwise known as Sawai Gandharva) and Ustad Amir Khan have all left behind an awesome repertoire, which has to be seen as a 'national treasure' in its own right.
Gangubai was among the last keepers of that vast musical archive and who, through a career spanning seven decades, did not budge from the core values of her lineage, staying faithful to the deep classicism of the gharana without straying into lighter fare like bhajans or abhangs or thumris.
Yet one experiences goosebumps to think that right in front of our eyes, over the six decades of our existence as an independent nation, we have done pretty little to ensure that this heritage and archive not only survived, but also actively constructed a subsequent generation of music-makers. It is astounding that the idea of incremental or cumulative increase seems to be absent in our approach to sustain the best of our artistic riches.
Now this is matter not for the media but for the cultural institutions of the nation as such, like the Sangeet Natak Akademi. A quick audit will show that along with the Kirana, other gharanas like Gwalior and Atrauli too are on the verge of being sent to the Jurassic Park. The balance sheet of our musical wealth seems in peril, with there being no coherent idea on how to create any cultural dividend out of it.
One was troubled with similar thoughts when Pattammal too, aged 90, passed away in Chennai last week. That was another university declaring closure. The lack of urgency or agency informing our cultural bureaucracy, which seems to believe that nothing perishes and that they need not have any blueprint for action, is astounding. It is a form of profligacy that is sure to run the nation's cultural coffers dry in no time.