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July 9, 1997


Birju Maharaj
Birju Maharaj
Dalai Lama
Dalai Lama
Bhimsen Joshi
Bhimsen Joshi
Ravi Shankar
Ravi Shankar
Shyam Benegal
Shyam Benegal
Bismillah Khan
Bismillah Khan

Calling all Indophiles
Salil Murthy

Meet the Teenager, kindly reader. Note the G 'n' R T-shirt, the Levis, the MTV bandanna, the oversized Reeboks.

And the looks of disgust.

"Aaj kal ke bachhe (Today's children)!" is the increasingly common crib echoing in average Indian households. "No respect for culture, tradition, no feeling for our heritage, for what it is to be Indian. They just don't care any more."

Yet, someone obviously does. Care, that is.

SPIC MACAY, with an fortuitous inkling of things to come, was founded in 1977 as a non-profit, voluntary, apolitical and participatory student movement. Its aim being to promote an awareness among the youth of the classical arts, rituals, mythology and philosophy that make up the multi-hued cultural tapestry of India.

The Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth is synonymous with quality performances by established stars, who dole out handfuls of hard-core culture to the most unlikely of audiences and revel in the experience.

The story behind the founding of SPIC MACAY is one of those interesting anecdotes which highlight the level of apathy the average Indian seems to harbour about his cultural heritage. It so happened that Professor Kiran Seth, currently teaching mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute Technology, New Delhi, was studying in the US, when an American friend offered to take him to a Hindustani music concert.

This friend was holding forth on the vocal form of the dhrupad, when Seth confessed he knew nothing about the subject. His friend was amazed, even shocked, and from this arose a deep sense of shame in Seth. He returned to India, determined to bridge the gap. The result was SPIC MACAY.

The very first concert organised by Seth -- a shehnai (Indian pipe) performance by the renowned Ustad Bismillah Khan -- was attended, apart from Seth and his assistants, by exactly three people. Very Lincolnesque beginnings, yes. But, today, SPIC MACAY is spread over 150 chapters all over India. While its international branch has 16 chapters in the US, 10 in Australia, with still more scattered in France, Japan and the UK.

Then there is The Eye, a quarterly magazine that promotes the SPIC MACAY ethos and tinges its insights into culture, arts, literature, development and philosophy with an off-the-beaten-track flavour. It lays stress on inspiration rather than information, and never ascends the pulpit to moralise to the reader.

SPIC MACAY's events span the year. It starts with disha (direction), a series of performances in municipal schools for seventh, eighth and ninth standard students, normally by seniormost disciples of great masters. "The idea is to give the children a taste of the performing arts culture in India," says a coordinator of the Bombay chapter, who does not want to be named. The reason he gives is humbling, "There are so many of us doing this work; it wouldn't be fair for me to get publicity when I'm saying what any one of the others would have said in my place."

The volunteers are involved all the way, right from publicising the performance to organising the stage decorations to welcoming the artiste. This hands-on attitude seems to work; the response has been tremendous right through.

In the first half of the academic year, SPIC MACAY organises informal Lec-dems (lecture demonstrations) in classical music and dance. These interactive, almost casual gatherings are aimed at creating a rapport between the artistes and their audience. The demonstrations are conducted by Indian performing and fine arts doyens like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Zakir Hussain, M S Subbulakshmi and Anjolie Ela Menon. The venue is the school/college's auditorium or largest hall; it is often filled to capacity.

The concert series, in the latter half of the year, feature more formal presentations of classical music and dance. It is also a forum for young, upcoming artistes to display their talent alongside established stars. Other regular programmes on the SPIC MACAY roster are the baithaks (informal, chamber-music style performances). The objective is to transmit the creative impulse, or rasa, from the artiste to the audience.

The gurukul programme, inspired by the legendary guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student relationship) provides an opportunity for select students to spend a month with enlightened individuals and glimpse, first hand, what goes into the making of a mahatma. "The students are in constant touch with an inspired personality, and they emerge more disciplined and aware from having being exposed to a new art form," says a volunteer. The gurus include luminaries like Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Shyam Benegal and Sivaram Karanth. Applications are invited from interested students, who are shortlisted for an interview. The successful ones are then given the opportunity of a lifetime -- they invariably grab it with both hands.

When asked what keeps the movement going, the response is almost chorused, "The artistes!" Explains one cherubic volunteer, "Without the artistes, there wouldn't be any SPIC MACAY. Right from the start, they have shown amazing enthusiasm for all our projects and very rarely do they back out of commitments."

The artistes travel all over the country to school and colleges and rarely do they get ruffled by unruly student crowds they sometimes encounter. No starry tantrums, no high-brow lectures -- the performers reach down to the level of their audience in their attempts to communicate their art.

Pandit Vishwamohan Bhatt, noted exponent of the mohan veena and a longtime associate of SPIC MACAY, says, "The youth of today are strongly attracted to western culture because the music and accompanying videos excite them. Indian music can excite you too, albeit in a different way. It is the fastest type of music in the world, as also the most complex and intricate. SPIC MACAY has done a very creditable job in promoting awareness about our ancient forms of music and I appreciate it deeply."

He goes on to say that all music is good, the different types vary only in their aims. The aim of Indian classical music is not entertainment, but aradhana (worship) which, in turn, leads to peace, harmony and relaxation in the listener.

Professor D K Ghosh, dean (student affairs), IIT, Bombay, says, "The Western influence, particularly from the US, is very strong. Most of our students prefer rock, reggae or pop and the few who are genuinely interested in Indian classical music suffer from lack the exposure. SPIC MACAY provides them with an opportunity to see and hear the great masters at work."

SPIC MACAY has, as a conscious policy, maintained a very low profile and is not given to publicising its activities. Doesn't this approach clash with their aim to reach out to all sections of youth? "Not really," says our friendly coordinator. "This is a deliberate strategy because we do not want to shout about the work we do. Besides SPIC MACAY has already made a name for itself, people know about it and, if they want to join, all they have to is attend one of our meetings."

I did. I was a bit worried, though, because large areas of my cultural heritage were grey to me. Yet, I was assured that I fit the typical profile of the SPIC MACAY volunteer. And that I would learn -- fast!

A quick listening session (to Hindustani classical vocalists) and the proverbial scales fell away from my eyes. It was all there -- the rhythm of Oasis, the melody of the Spice Girls, the swing of Santana... and it had that extra something, that peculiar feeling of Indianness, of being swathed in saffron and white and green. I knew my teenage years would never be the same again.

Page design: Sumit Patel

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