By Chitra Srikrishna
It was billed as an informal panel discussion. When rasikas get together, conversations can easily go down one of several well-trod paths - depending on the people present. Many deteriorate to barely disguised gossip sessions, some griping about what ails Carnatic music and a few into constructive exploration of what positive change can be wrought. To be fair, I have been particularly fortunate in having attended many a lec-dem and the occasional panel discussion, which has been truly edifying. So it was with many questions and some excitement, at the chance to finally meet V. Ramnarayan, the editor-in-chief of Sruti magazine in person that I set out. The event was hosted by Dhvani, India Performing Arts Society of Central Ohio.
“Our magazine faces additional challenges above and beyond those faced by all print magazines” says V.Ramnarayan. Given the intimate house-setting, the evening begins with Ramnarayan walking us through the history of the magazine and his own journey. For those not familiar with the story, the magazine was the brainchild of Dr N. Pattabhi Raman, a retired UNDP official. Pattabhi Raman, incidentally Ramnarayan’s uncle and an ardent rasika, started Sruti in October 1983 not long after he first returned to Chennai. His vision for the magazine was ‘adherence to high standards of authenticity, objectivity, sophisticated writing based on thorough research, and a healthy respect for individuals and institutions, balanced by an equally healthy irreverence towards holy cows’.
Ramnarayan, himself an author of several books including “Cricket for the Love of It” and “Third Man” is a natural raconteur. His tale of the Sruti journey, in many ways gave rise to many questions that sabhas, performers and rasikas face on a daily basis. Three prominent issues were discussed both in the questions that attendees posed as well as within the Sruti story.
Supporting the arts
Financial viability or business models that allow the arts - be they sabhas or magazines such as Sruti to not only survive but to thrive and evolve was a major theme that arose. There was a mild foray into willingness or lack thereof of rasikas to pay appropriately for concerts. Questions such as “Why are so many Carnatic concerts free?” “Why are people prepared to pay in the thousands to hear a Pandit Jasraj sing but not so for an OS Tyagarajan concert?” were raised. The consensus - not just from the Sruti story but the experiences of sabha secretaries--was that sponsorships were the viable and reliable means of economic support upon which a viable arts organization can be run. While some discussion of whether such sponsorship itself can act as a source of influence or “pressure” was briefly touched upon, the present climate fortunately presents benevolent sponsors who have largely remained hands off.
Expanding the audience even while preserving the tradition
‘What can be done to improve subscriptions to the magazine?’ we wondered aloud. Much like cultural organizations or sabhas which depend largely on sponsorship Sruti thrives largely from advertising revenue and less from subscriptions from readers. But the question of raising the readership numbers still comes up. Sruti, as a magazine focused on primarily Indian classical art forms, is already a niche publication. Despite Indian magazine and newspaper readership growing relative to the rest of the world where print is under siege on every front, Sruti too is not immune to the forces of digital media. Ramnarayan mentioned how Sruti has attempted to adapt with apps on both Android and iOS - as a publication on the Magzter platform. The concern that expanding the audience, somehow implies diluting the core premise of uncompromising quality was at times palpable. Does writing for a larger audience outside of the classical arts aficionados come at the cost of diluting the standards? I for one felt that this is a false dichotomy. What lessons if any could be drawn from other magazines such as the New Yorker or Harper’s Magazine, which were the original inspiration for Pattabhiraman, was a question that came up.
Adapting to the digital and social realities
Given the panel was happening in Columbus, the conversation turned to how many young non-resident artists are beginning to pursue classical music seriously. Young artists both resident and of the NRI variety, as with most millennials are digital natives - active on social media promoting both their own work and that of others. How has the magazine tried to hold the interest of the millennials? This is the demographic that is constantly texting, posting pictures by the second on social media and tweeting live as events unfold in front of them.
Ramnarayan did discuss several specific things that he’s attempted including getting the top artists themselves to be both writers and readers of the magazine - to attract an audience and building community. He’s also hired a slew of young people, in many ways more representative of the young listeners (“Are there too few of them” was a question that popped up in the discussion) and continues to experiment with article formats to have a mix of both longform (the original intent and continued focus) and more “newsy” reportage.
The discussion eventually veered towards the quality of performances and the dearth of critics in the field. The lack of space in media for classical music has always been a concern for musicians and rasikas. The consensus was that with the exception of The Hindu, classical music concerts and dance performances do not get enough media coverage and that the situation is unlikely to get better. This in many ways would make Sruti and its digital descendants even more critical.
Following the discussion there was a scrumptious meal served to the guests. The ardour with which the discussion continued over the meal, gave me the sense that the panel discussion had been a great start to Dhvani’s fall season.
Chitra Srikrishna is a musician who blogs at chitrasrikrishna.com