Skip to main content

Key to a subcontinent

Indian music should be encouraged to flourish in Britain argues Robert Maycock.

Here he reports on plans to provide more openings for would-be students. Outside the subcontinent itself, the key to the subtle skills of Indian music is surely to be found in Britain. We have thriving, settled communities of British Asians who maintain strong family, cultural, and business links with India.

The big names in Indian classical music perform to large, enthusiastic audiences in the main concert halls of London. They often tour to other centres, and their CDs are available when they themselves are not. Others have made their home here. Places in Britain's conservatories are highly prized and internationally sought, while the national curriculum is meant to ensure that schools give their students practical experience and exposure to a range of musical cultures. The pathway to performance must be as easy to find as a course of piano lessons - mustn't it?

Well, that's the dream. The first Leeds International Indian Music Conference, which the city's College of Music hosted earlier this month, took education as its theme and drew in a gathering of lively, committed teachers and musicians who are active in many parts of the country. They, clearly, were the tip of the iceberg. Gauging the exact depth, however, is another matter. Suppose you want to start learning. Where do you go if you lack the initial contact? If you are lucky, your nearest schools music centre might offer advice or local facilities. Try to draw a national picture, though, and you need information that is just not there.

The British Music Yearbook, a standard starting point in Western classical music, is no help. Most of the conservatories and universities turn out to ignore the subject, except as a branch of ethnomusicology. There is no published list of centres and institutions that do cover it; no guide to where the best teaching takes place, not even a directory of teachers. Statistics don't exist - people at the conference had no idea how many teachers are working in Britain altogether. Nobody has commissioned a "Gulbenkian Report" to research the size of the field, assess standards, and judge funding needs. A recently formed organisation of Indian musicians, Kalavati, issues a newsletter for members and took an active part in the conference. Otherwise networking has been haphazard, and the conference sessions provided many with a first opportunity for sustained exchanges of views. As for the current, generally available literature of overviews, studies, and feature articles, you are reading it now.

Leeds was a natural choice to house the conference, because that is where the country's only full-time staff lecturer in Indian music is based. It is also the City of Leeds College that has set up a pioneering full-time performance course. The mover and shaker behind these initiatives is Dharambir Singh, a Nairobi-born Indian-raised player of the sitar - he is a disciple of the great Ustad Vilayat Khan, and one of the most distinguished exponents resident in Britain.

Western audiences are likely to have come across him as a member of Priti Paintal's group Shiva Nova, which consists of classical Indian, African and Western musicians, and this openness to crossing musical boundaries, still quite rare among traditional Indian musicians, is a clue to his quietly persistent methods. Five years ago he was the guiding spirit of Indian music teaching at the Leicestershire School of Music, which he developed to its current high standing, and Leeds snapped him up to build on his considerable experience.

He has attracted some of the best young players in the country to study, though their options are limited. Birmingham Conservatoire is just starting to extend its "world music" provision, but Dartington College closed its department some years ago and while the Guildhall in London has a sitar tutor on its books, the instrument is not available as a first study. Dharambir's outstanding innovation is an ingenious way for pre-college students to qualify for higher and further education. The problem lies in the unstructured nature of lower-level teaching. Provision through schools varies wildly around the country, according to the balance of population and the availability of instruments or anybody who can actually teach.

In Leicester, the amount of time that students can be taught depends on how much their school subsidises them. Tutors in Manchester, another of the better-provided centres, can still be sent "the ones the maths teachers don't want" as a delegate put it. Initially lumbered with cheap sitars which quickly fell apart, students now use the zither-like santoor - less destructible, but also turning out to make the essence of the music more easily accessible. Private tuition has a similarly unequal scatter. Temples and community centres are important sources of instruction, especially in singing. But there is no formal training for teachers, no syllabus, and a shortage of up-to-date texts and resources.

As he explains it, Dharambir has had "a long slog" to devise a system that takes advantage of the way things are. It works on accredited Open College Network principles: flexibility is of the essence, with an agreed range of practical and theoretical topics covered by modules of instruction. There is no rigidity about how often or where the teaching takes place, and prior learning can count. Students choose a suitable mix of modules to build up the requisite number of credits, validated by the OCN. In this way, traditional types of learning can be accredited as well as those adapted to Western education systems. Leeds College now has a two-year, full-time course at 16 plus, and with the precedent set, Dharambir is urging teachers to contact the OCN in their area to investigate the possibilities.

An alternative approach to getting qualified is to latch on to an Indian-based examination system. This parallels the well-known "grade" exams of Western music, and delivers a verdict immediately acceptable in India - useful for students whose ambition is to continue at a higher level there. Frances Shepherd, founder of the Dartington College courses, has done the slog here. "What you need," she says, "are several ways in". So she has set up a British "clearing house" for the exams of the Prayag Sangit Samiti in Allahabad, supplying information and syllabuses and providing centres where exams take place - the City of Leeds College has become one such regional centre.

Globally, the heart of teaching in Indian music remains the age-old practice of study over many years with one of the master musicians. Sometimes they are members of musical dynasties whose fame goes back many generations. To learn with them requires not only acceptance (and residence in India), but a willingness to submit to discipline comparable to the humility of a religious initiate. It also usually requires that one's sex is male, though that is another story. These conditions are rarely practicable in the West, and one of the most fascinating challenges of the present day is to draw on the wisdom and experience of these teachers for the benefit of students who must learn in European conditions.

Some of them, for instance, are willing to spend a month or so a year at Western teaching institutions. One such is the sarod player Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, a star of last year's Indian Prom, who this May began his first stint as Honorary Visiting Professor in Indian Music at the University of York. This attachment, initiated by the Indian High Commission, owes much to the presence at York of Neil Sorrell, one of the handful of English university lecturers to have a substantial and respected knowledge of the subject. But the university is not a centre for practical tuition, and the main benefit will be to students whose first study is Western music. To Britain's shame, Europe's only full-time degree course in Indian music does not even take place in this country. It is at Rotterdam Conservatoire in a nation which has no large south Asian population and few sources of good students; just a recent history of cultural openness.

Joep Bor, head of the conservatoire's World Music Department, has been running his four-year B Mus course since 1987. The aim is to produce good performers and teachers, and the means include practical and formal items, and even two years' study of Hindi. Leading Indian players spend two or three months in residence as teachers. This September he is hosting a festival and conference. Soon he wants to start an international summer school to take advantage of the concentration of teachers who work there. By 1998 he intends to have launched a postgraduate course.

As a modest but influential presence at the Leeds conference, Bor had the useful attribute of knowing the hurdles. Effective teaching of Indian music in the West needs the co-operation of traditionally trained artists. It also needs modern teaching resources. This isn't just a matter of replacing antiquated books with more than the one or two modern ones that have caught on (such as Frances Shepherd's introduction to the tabla, jointly authored with the influential player Pandit Sharda Sahai). Audio-visual aids, CD-ROMs, and other interactive tools can all be adapted with imagination, it seemed to many people taking part.

When it came to decision time, the conference raised itself to unlikely heights of common purpose. Factional infighting had been bubbling away not so far below the surface - what would an academic conference be without it? - but the proposed standing committee brought them together in a clear consensus of traditionalists and modernisers, North and South Indian schools (the latter, not heavily represented, had complained of feeling left out), the fans of "imported" teachers and the Kalavati-led crusade on behalf of British-based players. The soft-spoken Dharambir Singh, newly appointed to the Arts Council's music advisory panel, emerged as an authoritative central figure. Hearteningly, the action will be led mostly by articulate and well-connected Indians, heralding an end to the years in which an inadvertently patronising domination by Westerners, like ethonomusicological curators, seemed the only way to get the authorities to listen.

They have a daunting agenda. Knowing that nobody from the London colleges, the Arts Council or the regional arts boards bothered to attend the conference, they will have to lobby ministries and funding bodies. They will have to persuade publishers of the commercial viability of new resource materials, and deliver the goods to them. Without crude standardisation, they need to come up with a lively, appealing complement to the national curriculum. They must attract the attention of the media in which music critics and editors, unlike their dance colleagues, simply ignore anything outside familiar Western ways. Inspiring them will be the vision of a National Centre for Indian Music: a wonderful project for the Millennium Commission, if anybody's listening.

"Don't aim to do it all in ten years", warned Joep Bor. "Remember it took 50 for Western music in Japan". Maybe so. But nobody is going to take that as an excuse for procrastinating any longer.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you