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Shastriya Sangeet Students on Bandish Bandits

Written by Jayasri Sridhar

Sept 25, 2020 

Bandish Bandits, the ten-episode web series on Amazon Prime Video has been marketed as a “love story of pop and classical”. It follows Radhe (Ritwik Bhowmik), a scion of the Rathod  gharana (clan, or stylistic family) who learns classical singing from his grandfather, and a pop diva, Tamanna (Shreya Chaudhry), who is struggling to find inspiration for her next album. The fusion of the two genres happens as their differences become complementary turning them into a musical duo when they decide to role-play as a couple to “crack the song”. With Radhe’s Guru gradually becoming deaf, financial crunches, the impending loss of the mortgaged Haveli, his engagement with the local raja’s niece, a past flame of Radhe’s mother becoming a contender for the gharana, Tamanna’s fraught relationship with her mother and a build-up to a classical music contest, the Anand Tiwari-directed show has quite a lot packed into five hours.

Bandish Bandits has pioneered bringing Hindustani classical music to a mainstream audience. It has introduced a genre often considered niche and exotic to a generation brought up in a globalized era with a wide palette of world music. How accurate, then, was the show’s portrayal of this world? 

“There were actually some deviations from what the classical music culture is at present,” observes Swayam, a young Sitar player who belongs to the Imdadkhani gharana. “There are evolving trends within it too. Retaining the essence of the music form, the culture, the relationship between the guru and shishya is not the same as it is portrayed. What is portrayed, in fact, seems from a bygone era.”

Naseeruddin Shah as Pandit Radhemohan Rathod

The present generation of classical musicians and students appreciate today’s context as well as the web series medium, while simultaneously being a part of a centuries-old legacy which is often perceived as strict and unchanging. Bandish Bandits does fall back on this popular notion with the archetypal egotistic, strictly purist Guruji (Naseeruddin Shah) with his numerous disciplinarian tactics, including a shuddhikaran (purification) ritual and taking an oath of silence when he learns of Radha’s transgressions. But how far is this non-malleability true?

“Classical musicians might be orthodox, but they’re not aliens,” says Anant Shah, who is a tabla player from the Benaras Gharana. “We also have normal discussions and conversations; not everything revolves around music all the time. This was a bit of an exaggeration in the show.” The pitfall of overusing convenient tropes in profiling classical musicians made for “cringey” watching to many music students. 

Medha Bhagwat, a student of Bharatanatyam and the piano points out, “The whole ‘paavam’ vibe was a stereotype. I feel it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that. You can totally be a person who goes to clubs and dances, enjoys pop music, and also be serious about classical music.”

While Radhe was a dedicated student, his priorities did totter as the show progressed.  I groaned audibly every time he put off his riyaaz to spend time with Tamanna, the same woman who said shastriya sangeet sounds like ‘gargling with your balls in your mouth’ and screamed ‘Legit!’ at Panditji’s performance. Being a vocal student of the Gwalior Gharana for eight years myself,  the treatment of classical music in the show often made it seem as though it was an impediment to leading a normal life, not something people do because they are passionate about it. I am a riyaazi by choice, not because I fear my teacher.

Bandish Bandits, for the brevity of time, simplifies the classical music itself into neatly polished chhota khyaals and thumri performances with short alaaps and showy taans, which, in reality, take quite some time to render effectively by unfolding a raag painstakingly slowly. “Some of the music was very well curated, although most of it felt a bit superficial. Considering it being a series that centres around Indian classical music, the inspiration behind the compositions wasn’t strong enough,” notes Swayam. Radhe’s father, who hasn’t played the Pakhawaj in twelve years, abruptly revives his skill in time for the final performance; Radhe’s mother teaches him that rhythm exists even in household chores, while he has been training since childhood. One would think the grueling nature of the parampara (traditional training) would have imbued his ears with this sensibility by now. Some things were far too convenient to be believable, like him being able to sing for twenty-one hours straight to prove his sincerity, as part of his Shuddhikaran. This sort of practice takes years to hone, not the couple of days Radhe manages to achieve it within. And having done this penance, would he be frivolous enough for the infatuation that follows? The Sangeet Samrat contest, which the show climaxes with, is laughable from a traditional standpoint. The writing makes classical music seem both impossibly difficult to master, and as easy as chopping vegetables or picking up an instrument after losing more than a decade’s worth of muscle memory and belting out perfect taals.

The show evokes the larger debate of purism versus innovation which has surrounded most classical art forms. How far can one push classical music before it stops being that? What do we gain and what do we lose in the process of trying to keep pace with changing times? 

“I see no harm in fusing it with other forms, although the essence of the Classical-ness should be retained I feel,” says Swayam. “Shankar Mahadevan didn’t do justice to the album of Bandish Bandits at all, if we consider the fusion bit and remix pieces. A great example where it was done very well is Katyar Kaljat Ghusali. Again it’s work by him, but the treatment there was way better. But the pure raag renditions here, especially by Pt. Ajay Chakraborty were on point!” To the classical musicians, the pop understandably felt slightly overpowering. “Overall,” Swayam adds, “The music could have been a little more centred around Hindustani. But again, considering the audience that it was aimed for, it didn’t do that bad after all.” 

On whether classical music should be kept pure or be allowed to mix with other styles, Medha says, “I feel that both kinds of music should be available to the people who want to listen to them. I personally like both. And this series, I think, helped refuel the interest in classical music, so that’s great; nothing against it!” Swaraj Doshi, a tabla player who has trained under the Farooqabad and Benares gharanas, feels that staying true to the roots offers more scope for creativity. “When I play a traditional mukhda (basic phrase), I have much more room later for personal spontaneity; whereas when one plays a palta (improvisation) as the main mukhda, there’s really not much else you can bring forth.” He offers this analogy to explain that when the prakriti (nature) of a composition which has been passed down generations is retained, even innovation wouldn’t sound like dilution, which seems to be a favourite argument of traditionalists.

Nitya K. Devayya, who had little previous exposure to Indian classical music, found the genre appealing precisely because the show balanced it with pop. “Music has never been static, and in order to get people to notice these classical forms, if the show does lean towards pop, I think it’s an interesting take. I found the music enjoyable.” She mentions that she found the purist attitude of classical musicians “toxic” and wonders out loud if this is the general case in the real world. The show clearly does little to dispel myths surrounding classical music, especially since it uses a ‘typical’ portrayal as its claim to legitimacy.

The story sags with the weight of multiple tangents and subplots, and also makes one wonder if role-playing as a couple is really all that essential for creative inspiration. Some moments are endearing, like the scene where Tamanna and Radhe travel to Jaipur for a wedding and sing together in the car; but these are few and far between. Classical musicians have their own experience to juxtapose the show with, but a lay audience might have to take it with a grain of salt. Bandish Bandits seems to have its heart in the right place, for it has made Hindustani a bit more accessible. What remains to be seen is how the depiction of this musical form affects its perception in the minds of those without a background in it, and how far it drives them to explore its rich world further.

Experience Further: Shankar Mahadevan displays his classical vocal training with the experimental fusion music arrangements he is so revered for as a composer in this track beautifully. The song has a melodically calming, simple tone to it, quite distinct from the vibrance and pace of the other songs in the album making it a unique one to look out for!

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.


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