#VinitasPune: Has The Sawai Gandharva Music Festival Lost Its Sheen?

Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasiya performing during 65th Sawai Gandharv Bhimsen Mahotsav
Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasiya performing during the 65th Sawai Gandharv Bhimsen Mahotsav - File Picture

India’s largest cultural platform for Hindustani Classical Music is the annual Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen musical festival in Pune.

Its 67th year’s event concluded last weekend but there is cause for some concern.

The famed five-day Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Music Festival has an aura of classical music excellence, humility and dignity about it. Legendary musicians and vocalists of various gharanas have been performing for 67 years on this stage; considered as sanctum sanctorum for established maestros and breaking ground for new and upcoming musicians and singers. 

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi started this festival on a small note, as a mark of tribute to his guru and stalwart classical singer, Sawai Gandharva’s first death anniversary in 1953.

Over the decades, it has metamorphosed into a mega festival, which hosts 15 to 20 well-acclaimed artistes who give stellar performances, year after year.

Since the last few years though, some things have changed, beginning with the venue. Ramanbaug School ground in Narayan Peth, which was the venue for the last 30 years, refused permission in 2018, citing it sports activities.

Hence, the venue since then has moved to the sprawling ground of Maharashtriya Mandal in Mukundagar. The change in venue itself is a major setback for many, particularly those who live in downtown areas of the city and primarily patronize this music festival. Of course, the organisers have done well to organize PMPML buses and interacted with the Rickshaw Panchayat to request them to make autorickshaws available after the show, which the union did, but some observers says that it is difficult to change some mindsets.

The fall out of the change in venue has resulted in a rather sad trend of seeing an exodus of people while the last artist of the day is performing and it is always a famous artist, on the stage.

Here, the audience is not be blamed but our city fathers, who over the past several decades, have been unable to provide smooth mobility to citizens through a strong public transport system or/and integrated transport. Hence, in the fear that they will miss the bus or the autorickshaw, they start going out. Stated an ardent fan who attended this season, “you would never see people leaving when Pandit Shivkumar Sharma is playing on the Santoor. I am feeling sad that it is happening.’’ The same scenario repeated in the recently concluded programme, during famous flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia’s and vocalist Pandit Jasraj’s recitals. Although parking is available for two and four wheelers in the premises, it is obviously not enough for the 10,000 to 15,000 peope who gather there. This is also another reason for people to rush out before the rush time which is when the evening’s programme concludes. What if their vehicle gets stuck in the jam?

Surely, the stalwart artistes must have felt a pang of humiliation but they too are aware of the changing times.

Pandit Shivkumar Sharma apologized when he came on stage, as he had been delayed by about half an hour due to traffic jam, on his way, straight from the airport.

Another observation is the seating arrangement, which of course has to change with the times. Nevertheless, it is pertinent to mention that until a decade or two ago, there were hardly any row of sofas and chairs. Most of the people used to be seated on the floor. So mesmerized were they with the kaleidoscopic music, that they were glued there till the early hours of the morning (taking breaks to savour piping hot batata wadas and steaming tea and coffee). Since the last few years though, the rows of sofas and chairs are only increasing. This trend manifests not so much in the economic prosperity leading to affordability in buying expensive, seasonal tickets as much as it does the lifestyle changes leading to knee pains and other ailments that makes it difficult to sit down. In a way, it is good as the organisers garner more revenue.

Revenue is another point that needs to be addressed. Despite Pune being termed as the Detroit of India and one of the prominent IT capitals of our country, donors are conspicuous by their absence.

Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Festival is a cultural heritage, not only of Pune but the entire country, and it needs financial support not only to survive but to move forward more gloriously. This is possible only with large scale funding and involvement by corporates.

Although humility is the philosophy of the members of the Arya Sangeet Prasarak Mandal, which organizes this festival, a lot of hype for its publicity and logistics could be added to it. While the members will passionately continue this tradition, individual and corporate donations would add to their relentless efforts to keep up the tradition of classical music, alive.

One more change relates to the working culture in Pune, leading to thin crowd in the afternoons, when the programme for the day begins, hosting new and upcoming artists.

Many people are in office on working days so usually they try and finish off their work quickly and the crowd surges between 6pm and 8pm. I wonder if there is any alternative for this. Earlier, this time slot proved perfect, as the programme would go on until the wee hours of the morning. However, due to Supreme Court directed restrictions on noise by loudspeakers between 10pm and 6 am, which has also put restrictions on the timing of this event, save for one night when it goes on till 12 midnight, many people land up only the last two artistes are performing for the day.

Lastly, due to the restriction in timings, the artistes get a structural space and not flexi space to perform and as you know every artist blossoms the best without the boundaries.

Also, people this year commented on stalwart artistes who perform despite their age, which is a great compliment to them but sometimes they come under comparison of their performances during their peak. days.

We, as a society, need to get sensitized to the fact that Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Festival is the torch bearer of the rich cultural heritage of Indian Classical Music and we all must do our bit to preserve it.

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#All views expressed in this column are the authors and Pune365 does not necessarily subscribe to them.

Vinita Deshmukh

Vinita Deshmukh

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That's Vinita Deshmukh, Senior journalist and RTI activist who believes in journalism that reflects the views and needs of the common man.

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