Bombay's Deal with its Critics

Bombay's Deal with its Critics

by Arvind Parikh
copyright © 1999 Arvind Parikh

I thought the following might be of interest. Arvind Parikh is a friend of mine since childhood, a very fine sitar player - even though he is a very affluent businessman (the two rarely go together). I read this in the IASJ's Jazz Changes of Autumn 1998 (Graham Collier, editor). When I most recently spoke to Arvind he bemoaned that the main/major newspapers stopped reviewing concerts altogether! ("A bad review is better than no review"?!) So the Music Forum's efforts & guidelines in a way backfired.

Here's the entire article Arvind wrote, which was published in UNESCO Music Council's magazine Resonance of July 1997.

- Niranjan Jhaveri

We begin this issue's reviews section with a remarkable story from India: how one city took on its critics and won. Could Bombay teach London or Berlin a thing or two?

Arnvid Parikh is a master sitarist of the highest rank, the head of a major international freight forwarding company and founder of Music Forum, a gathering of representatives of the main sectors of Bombay's music community. As its convenor, Parikh negotiated an agreement with Bombay's music critics on a code of practice.

The need for a scheme

Performing artists including musicians have, by and large, reservations regarding music reviews covering their performances - especially when such reviews are critical. In India, many musicians often feel aggrieved. It is evident that such reactions arise for the following reasons. Musicians have acquired expertise to be able to reach the concert stage after a long and arduous process of learning at the feet of the 'guru'. The music critics are usually connoisseurs of music and have not undergone such vigorous training in music education.

When the musician's performance is criticized, the common questions asked are: 'Who is he to judge my musical expertise? What does this man know about the intricacies of my performance, when he has not undergone the training require to gain keener and deeper insights into the musical piece that I perform?'

In India, the remuneration paid to music critics is meagre and, therefore, knowledgeable, enlightened and capable musicians/journalists are not available to review concerts. Usually, music critics undertake such work out of sheer love for the music and the importance that they get in an implied manner in the music world. It is commonly accepted that musicians like to be on the right side of the critic and the music critic usually behaves like someone of significant importance in all musical get-togethers. But then this results in less capable people writing about musicians of high quality.

Usually, the same 'measuring rod' is used to assess the performances of different levels of musical capabilities. As a result, the performances of middle-level musicians fall short of a high level of expectations and a number of musicians get inappropriately harsh reviews. Apart from the above reasons, in any larger metropolis in India, the readership interested in cultural or musical reviews/articles desires enlightened criticism (which is a rarity). It is not uncommon to hear protests about 'irresponsible journalism'!

So this is why the scheme was needed.

The scheme described

It was felt that various sectors of the music world in Bombay did not have a forum to meet and exchange views on subjects of common interest. The gap in communications created misunderstandings, misgivings and, in some cases, bitterness. It was with a view to improving the musical climate that an informal group called Music Forum was established five years ago as a pilot project in Bombay. The group covers artists, music organizers, music critics, enlightened connoisseurs, radio, television, government cultural institutions, recording companies, teaching universities and so on.

The music critics are an important part of Music Forum. After a period of two years or so, such get-togethers resulted in mutual understanding and appreciation of misgivings and problem areas, and from this arose the scheme to develop healthy trends in music criticism. All the known, reputed music critics in Bombay are members of the Music Forum. After taking into account the views of the artists, connoisseurs, music critics, several norms were developed as guidelines for music critics to follow. They are as follows:

  1. The reviewer must write only about those items in a concert which he has personally heard.
  2. He must work at his writing style and his language in order to make his reviews readable.
  3. He must not write in a set format which entails listing of items performed and a few comments made on each. Each concert should suggest its own form of review.
  4. He must not get entangled in very fine technical points unless they are important to the overall impact of the concert.
  5. He must be open to innovations that the performer might be making. There is no need to pass a final judgement on such innovations.
  6. It is the critic's job to take audience response into consideration.
  7. Given the lack of standardization in our ragas, the critic must discuss with the artists any departure he/she may have made in his/her renderings of a particular raga. Evidence of this discussion should appear in the review for the edification of the lay reader.
  8. A critic must unambiguously establish his own criteria for assessment so that a regular reader becomes acquainted with his aesthetic ideology and reads his reviews in their context. This means that some, at least, of the reviews that a critic writes must move beyond specific concerts into a discussion of the principles of music performance involved in them. And it also means that no reviewer is thought to have said the last word on any performance. His assessment of it is valid within the framework of his critical criteria only.
  9. The reviewer must at all times be aware of the immense power that is vested in the printed word. While remaining unafraid of stating exactly what he feels, he must curb the temptation to be sarcastic or overly smart at the artist's expense.

Music Forum does not give formal publicity to the above scheme; artists are informed more by word of mouth, so that in the event that they are aggrieved by reviews of their performances, they have a possibility of writing to Music Forum, which would in turn take up the matter with the concerned critic(s). If Music Forum, which has a membership of 45 people in Bombay, feels that the artist was justified in being aggrieved, the music critic would be requested to make amends. This would imply that the critic is aware that he is 'accountable' to a large body of the cross-section of the music world of Bombay. In reality, for the last two years or so, music criticism in Bombay has become more responsible and objective. In turn, the music critic also has a right to refer problems with the artist to Music Forum which would contact the artist and set matters right.

When a music critic is writing a review, he is aware that in the event some views are expressed which are questionable then he would be doubly careful. Music Forum has also endeavoured to arrange meetings between music critics and a performer after a concert in case of doubts and this has led to increased clarity and removal of misunderstandings.

Implementation of the scheme

I have explained in the description of the scheme how we have succeeded in achieving results. While some critics had initial apprehensions, the Music Forum continued to get full support from seasoned and experienced music critics. Their approach was both sporting and objective and they were as keen as the artists were to ensure that an atmosphere of healthy relationship between erformers and music critics was evolved on a long term basis.

The results

As noted earlier, the music reviews in Bombay have become fairly responsible and objective. The unfortunate part however is that, due to commercial reasons, several important newspapers have decided to do away with music reviews, as they felt that the space utilised for such reviews did not bring in any income. Music Forum is using both corporate and direct channels to reverse this trend, at least to some extent. I must confess, however, that it could be a losing battle. On the other hand, regional language papers and newspapers elsewhere still have enough space for arts coverage.

Music Forums have now been established in Madras, Delhi and Calcutta. The pilot scheme of Bombay therefore is sought to be introduced at these centres as well. Music Forum is in a sense a cultural movement and music criticism is an important ingredient of the music arena. We shall slowly but surely succeed in spreading the message of positive results obtained in Bombay on an all-India basis.

Niranjan Jhaveri
Honorary Secretary General
Jazz-India/JazzYatra/Jazz-India Vocal Institute
Very old:

Reprinted by Jazz Changes (of IASJ) with permission from Resonance, the magazine of the International Music Council. Details of how to join the IMC or obtain the magazine can be obtained from the International Music Council, UNESCO, 1 rue Miollis, 75732 Paris Cedex 15, France. Fax +33 1 43 06 87 98.


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