Amidst the unforeseen disruption of the Coronavirus pandemic, everything has shifted to virtual platforms. With no clue of the pandemic ending anytime soon, music industry is experimenting with virtual concerts. Historically, musicians have been challenging the traditional concert model. While a lot of virtual concerts have been trending nowadays, an annual concert titled ‘Khazana’ has kickstarted its 3rd edition of Khazana Artist Aloud Talent Hunt for Ghazal singers. The concert has been featuring live performances from renowned singers like Pankaj Udhas, Sudeep Banerji, Anup Jalota, Pratibha Singh Baghel, Prithvi Gandharv and many more.

Recently, in a conversation with The Statesman, Ghazal Maestro Pankaj Udhas opened up on his association with the virtual space and how musical patterns will change post COVID-19.

Excerpts:

Tell us something about your ‘Khazana Artist Aloud’.

Khazana Artist Aloud Talent Hunt is something we started three years back. When we launched Khazana 19 years back, it started with two specific reasons or areas we wanted to look into. First, the treatment of cancer patients and children who suffer from thalassemia. I wanted to raise funds for the organisations working on the same. The second reason was that we wanted to create a platform for the younger generation, for them to come and showcase their ghazal singing talent.

So, from the first year, we started inviting amateur and young ghazal singers who were motivated to become ghazal singers or wanted to pursue ghazal singing careers. We only went by word of mouth and listening to YouTube video and Facebook etc. and from there we used to select three or four young singers whom we would present in Khazana and in turn the singer would get an opportunity to perform with some of the top names in ghazal singing and get a first-hand experience of being in the limelight and get confidence. So that’s how we had started 3 years back. In this, Hungama Digital helped us in doing live streaming of Khazana concerts for nearly 8-9 years now.

This year, we have a tremendous amount of response. So, we have extended the cut-off dates to send in entries to 25th July and after that, we will begin with our jury process and select final 20 and ultimately the final two.

Don’t you think, overtime, ghazals have taken a backseat?

I personally feel that ghazals have been around for nearly 400 years and listeners have always patronized ghazal singing. I can say it with a lot of confidence, even today when a music lover gets tired of listening to Bollywood music, which has been the most dominant music in our country for a long time, the first thing one looks for is a ghazal CD and he would say that okay, I would put in the CD, dim the lights and just get into the zone where it is relaxing and peaceful. So ghazals will never go away, they may have taken a backseat in comparison to Bollywood, but I would say that ghazal still remains a very popular genre worldwide. I say this out of my own experience of doing live concerts across the world; there is still a very huge audience for ghazal.

What changes do you see coming into the musical pattern post COVID-19?

Well, we all know that any industry today during this COVID-19 period is going through the worst phase ever seen. I don’t see a revival of the music industry for a long time to come, long time in a sense months and maybe even a couple of years, for a simple reason that we must realize that in India, music as a business is not thriving in terms of revenues.

There are no revenues for online sales, there are no revenues from physical sales (sale of CDs, cassettes) and there are no other sources of revenue that musician can make money out of. As you are already aware that in India royalties are never paid on time, honestly, we all know that royalties are manipulate, so the artist never gets his due which he deserves.

So, the only source of income for a singer or a musician is live concerts. Currently, live concerts are looking too far away, I don’t think live concerts can happen soon because of one simple reason, the assembly and gathering of people. So, I don’t think for 6 months or a year, musicians will get the opportunity to do live concerts which is their main source of income.

We are seeing a tremendous a lot of distress among singers who are doing concerts regularly. So obviously this has had a major impact on the music industry and I would say that music industry is going to take a long time before it can come back to its natural, its normal status and I hope it happens fast but it is going to be pretty distressful and upsetting in the months to come.

How do you see the trend of virtual concerts becoming the new normal?

Virtual concerts’ becoming a trend is certainly a pertinent question in the current scenario. These concerts are happening, and I don’t deny that they are on the rise. We have not really mastered the technical expertise to really put all the music in sync and resolve various technical issues. So that needs to be looked, to ensure the audio quality is at its optimum. Even on the visual front, we need to get good visuals for people.

Over the years, what are the challenges that you have faced while judging this talent hunt?

To be honest, it’s never a challenge, but a pleasure to hear these young talent motivated by this form of singing. A couple of factors that we have noticed over the years that we keep in mind while picking the contestants, one is as you know ghazal basically is Urdu and obviously not everyone is up-to-date or good with their pronunciations and certain other aspects of singing. So I guess, that’s where we come in and that’s how we have to nurture their talent, so we groom and guide them to improve their wordings, their diction and their certain nuances of ghazal singing, which I’m sure every artist learns and we also went through the same phase.

The changing trends across the music industry have shifted the focus from classical to Bollywood music. What are your views on it?

The changing trends across the music industry has shifted the focus from classical to Bollywood music, well, let me tell you, any kind of music in India, can never compete with Bollywood. Having said that, I think it’s very sad that in a country like India, people have only followed Bollywood. I can go to the extent of saying that there are only two things in India, which sell I.e Bollywood and Cricket. So obviously any other form of music, any other genre has to struggle to, to keep its place intact. And, the sad part is that it has all happened because of one simple reason.

I have a very long explanation and analysis for this but to tell you in a concise manner, I would say that Bollywood music is driven by the face of a film star. So obviously it generates a tremendous amount of curiosity and a tremendous amount of fan following and craze amongst the younger generation. So, Bollywood music has always been very, very popular. The sad part is that the non-film as we call it, which is either Indian classical or Ghazal or Indian Pop, or any other Indian folk music or any other form of music has never got any patronage, from various mediums, which can actually promote this kind of music.

Today, there are 370 plus private FM radio channels and 450 All India Radio channels, but there are hardly any channel who play ghazals or classical for atleast two hours. So obviously when there is no exposure, how do you expect people to start listening to new music, which an artist has to offer in the field of classical or ghazals.

To sum it all, there is no medium left in this country for non-film music to be promoted, to reach out to people. The only way you can listen to this music is, on the internet, but even there, one struggles to find. So obviously, you are at the mercy of small media interactions that can promote, or that can take your music across to people whereas Bollywood music goes across through cinema halls on television, radio plays, cinema music, 24 hours. So, I don’t blame Bollywood, but I blame the media for not supporting the non-film music.

You are so much involved in concerts across the world. So what are the changes that you observe in reference to target audience and the way they perceive ghazals?

Well, I perform all over the world. And one thing which I’ve noticed in the last two years is that the number of people at concerts, attendance, has increased by 10 folds for one simple reason that people are tired of listening to typical, Bollywood music, which is literally pushed down their throat. So, live concerts are the only source of listening to the music of their choice. And therefore, when I do shows in India, I’ve seen audience ranging from 1000 to 80,000 and 90,000 people. I have seen, crazy responses all across the United States, UK, Europe, and Africa.

So certainly, the concept scenario has changed in terms of attendance. It has changed in terms of patronage, and I think that this is the only silver lining on the dark cloud that at least if media is not supporting non-film music, audiences are certainly supporting all over the world.

What can your fans expect in the coming months?

Post lockdown, I have some major plans to work on. I have a new album and a single to start with. Also, I am going to work very actively on my YouTube channel. As of now, I have around 200K subscribers on my YouTube channel. With regards to all new work, I don’t believe in doing covers, I don’t believe in replicating the old work which has been done by maestros, I don’t touch them, but I like to do new work. So, I will be doing a lot of new ghazals, new compositions, and new concepts on my YouTube. So, my plate is full, I am just waiting the right opportunity and time to start my YouTube channel very actively.