Song of Surrender

Thursday, 18 May 2017

A partial success

By V Ramnarayan

Prof. S. Swaminathan
Subramaniam Swaminathan retired in 2000 as professor of mechanical engineering from IIT Delhi, where he served for more than three decades. An expert on several aspects of Indian culture and heritage, Swaminathan coordinated SPIC MACAY concerts within IIT Delhi for several years. He is the author of the illustrated book, Mahabalipuram, Unfinished Poetry in Stone and a founder of the Tamil Heritage Group in Chennai.

Kiran Seth was four years my junior in the faculty at IIT Delhi. The son of a mathematician, Kiran is a brilliant mathematician, too, specialising in Industrial Engineering. We all know that he was inspired by a dhrupad concert by the Dagar Brothers while he was a Ph.D. scholar in the US. He plunged into the mission of taking Indian classical music to young people while he was on the faculty of IIT Delhi.

Kiran was very good at creating a buzz about classical music, making it fashionable to go to concerts at a time when young people were generally embarrassed to be even seen at such events.

He did very good academic work at IIT, but was not very ambitious in his professional career. He is a charismatic person who has remained a confirmed bachelor and has devoted considerable time to his interest in promoting classical music and SPIC MACAY (Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth), a smart name he coined.

As a professor with some clout at IIT Delhi, I was able to help Kiran by coordinating the concerts he organised for over two decades – in fact till my retirement in 2000. I also attended all the concerts inside IIT as well as Carnatic music kutcheri-s in the city. Kiran brought the topmost names in Hindustani and Carnatic music to SPIC MACAY concerts but made no serious attempt to demystify it for young listeners. In contrast, I enjoyed doing that not only in the field of music, but in Indian culture and heritage as a whole. In fact, I had been doing that for a few years.

“Modern ethnic” is how I would describe the aura SPIC MACAY created. Young women, who were comfortable in jeans were now sporting ghagra-choli, sitting on the floor of hostel rooms after lighting lamps with appropriate reverence. There was much hype about SPIC MACAY concerts and its volunteers gained quick glamour in the eyes of their peers. Though the whole experience was an elaborate ritual, many genuine music lovers joined. Many of the teacher-coordinators did not know what to coordinate.

SPIC MACAY events were generally haphazardly organised, with different students deputed to receive musicians at the airport and look after their stay, but the schedules of the programmes were pretty much vague.

I generally did not approve of the easy informality of student volunteers who addressed Kiran by first name. I also felt that not enough care was taken to make camps – like the Meerut Mela one year - safe and comfortable for boys and girls travelling and living together.

Kiran Seth and SPIC MACAY have definitely introduced classical music to a large number of young people. To sustain the effort for 35 years has been very praiseworthy. Has the movement, however, succeeded in creating a large audience base for classical music? I am not so sure.

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