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INTIMATE ENCOUNTERS WITH MUSIC: THE NORTH INDIAN BAITHAK

Interaction between musicians and their audiences is an essential constituent of any successful Indian classical music performance. Musicians often mention how important audiences responses are to them during the the process of performing, where this rapport helps direct their elaboration of a specific raga or musical mode. Audiences express their responses to the music they hear through gestures as well as audible exclamations such as “vah vah!”, “kya baat hay!”, and “subhan allah”, which are equivalent to the expressions”well done!”, or “beautiful!”. These exclamations are made within the performance itself, directly following any particularly pleasing, innovative or proficient passage of music. Not only these responses make the musician feel that their music is being appreciated, they also allow the musician to gauge the audience’s musical sophistication as well as identify particularly knowledgeable listeners.

The specific type of performance setting that allows this intimate interaction between musicians and their audiences in North India is called a baithak. The word baithak implies a small gathering where everyone is seated in an Indian fashion, on the floor. A baithak can be a gathering assembled to hear a religious or philosophical discourse or, in our case, a sort of musical discourse, an elaboration of music through a performance. The word baithak can also refer to the specific architectural spaces where these gatherings take place, be it a specific room laid out with carpets and cushions, or a kiosk where outdoor performances are held.

Paintings depicting musical performances are some of the most important sources for reconstructing the history of baithaks. The practice of intensely listening to a performance for its musical rather than its religious value probably began in the courts of Sultan rulers during the very period after the twelfth century. During that period, poet musicians such as Amir Khusro were developing the instruments and musical forms that constitute what we now call Hindustani classical music. It was not until the sixteenth century rule of the Mughal emperor Akbar that miniature paintings include depiction of musical gatherings at court. Akbar’s capital of Fatehpur Sikri includes a red sandstone platform set in the middle of a pool where we might imagine his leading court musician Tansen performing at an outdoor baithak. Numerous paintings from the Rajput courts in Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills supply additional details of baithaks. One painting from the Hill court of Raja Balwant Singh even depicts the activity of viewing paintings while listening to music. This leads us to the possibility of paintings depicting musical modes called Ragamalas aiding the musical appreciation of court listeners assembled at baithaks.

As court, or darbari traditions became the cultural paradigm throughout North India, the practice of listening to classical music within the intimate setting of a baithak became a refined pursuit cultivated not only in urban centers, but also by upper-class and landowner families in remote areas. The widespread tradition of baithaks continued into the mid-twentieth century, as so eloquently portrayed in Satyajit Ray’s film Jal Sagar, or The Music Room. With shifts in music patronage, particularly after Independence, the western tradition of performing on a concert stage for audiences that numbered in the hundreds became the norm. The style of playing also changed to accommodate to fixed performance schedules and expectations of audiences that generally were not as musically sophisticated.

With this shift onto a concert stage both musicians and knowledgeable listeners realized that some very essential aspects of musical performance were being sacrificed. Not only was the rapport with an audience so essential for guiding improvised parts of the performance lost, so too was the flexibility of the baithak format, where a musician could continue playing one piece for an extended period, with an improvisatory alaap lasting up to an hour. Also, members of the audience could request the musician to play particular pieces or ragas and the musician could in a way educate his audience through directing his performance to the level of their understanding, even adding explanatory remarks if necessary.

The realization of this loss of musical quality has in the last two decades resulted in a revival of the baithak, both in India and now in the United States. One of the most remarkable resurgence of interest in Indian classical music has been the direct result of baithaks organized at college campuses throughout India by a student organization called SPICMACAY (Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music Amongst Youth). These baithaks are so rewarding for musicians that most of them perform gratis. The baithaks also have significantly raised the sophistication of audiences, even in previously esoteric music traditions such as dhrupad. In the United States the tradition of organizing baithaks has also begun with the intention of creating the ideal setting for both performing and listening to Indian classical music. During the early 1980′s, philanthropist and amateur musician Peter Stern sponsored a series of baithaks at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. There, the very best Indian musicians performed one night in a gallery hung with miniature paintings for a select audience seated on dhurries, while on the following evening the artists played at a more public baithak in an enclosed courtyard where again the audience was seated on rugs.

Author – Woodman Taylor

Woodman Lyon Taylor, AKA “Murlidhar,” is an assistant professor of Art History at the University of Illinois. His close association with Indian art and culture earned him a Smithsonian Fellowship while researching Pichavais, painted temple hangings at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. He is an ardent supporter of APCA and has attended few of the baithaks sponsored by APCA.