Words such as ‘young’ or ‘child’ seem to stand in stark contrast with millennia-old Indian classical music derived from the ancient Vedas. Surely, such traditional ritualistic knowledge, devotional music and complexity of raags must require a certain level of maturity to manifest, and years—if not decades—of rigorous, unrelenting training to master.
Yet, there are child prodigies in the world of Indian classical music. And unlike the unfortunate phenomenon so widely observed in the west: that child geniuses often don't grow up to become adult geniuses, many of the names venerated as young talent in the Indian classical music space continue to captivate our hearts as adults. In fact, it’s often seen that some stalwarts and eminent maestros and maestras have demonstrated talent at a very young age.
Why is this career trajectory different in the Indian classical music domain? What is the psychology behind our complex relationship with young achievement? And what is it like, really, to be carrying centuries of tradition on such tender shoulders while trying to master an improvisation-based artform at such a young age?
On National Youth Day, celebrated in India on January 12 to commemorate the birth of spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda and his ideals resonating closely with the ‘eternal energy of youth and the restless quest for truth’, Darbar dives deep to find out.
Why child geniuses thrill and inspire us
In his recent work, ‘Dispelling the Die-Hard Talent Myth’, Robert Woody wrote, “Taking in a child prodigy’s performance can be awe-inspiring. It’s exciting to think that the unexplainable feat somehow interfaces with the supernatural.” And for many years, nothing beyond the supernatural or constructs of anointed blessedness were put forth as viable explanations behind such immense talent at a young age.
Scientifically, however, psychologists agree that our fascination with child geniuses stems from multiple factors. The effortless achiever identity is coveted and often sensationalised—made out to be a more attractive achievement than the unglamourous understanding that hard work begets good results.
Our constant infatuation with the nature versus nurture debate, too, fuels the obsession surrounding child prodigies, and we often forget that child brilliance, too, does not come effortlessly. In fact, it is the perceived disruption of life’s ‘expected’ trajectory in child prodigies that thrills us and stirs a sense of wonder and awe.
The perceived disruption of life’s ‘expected’ trajectory in child prodigies thrills us and stirs a sense of wonder and awe.
And in the Indian classical music realm, where music itself is related to spirituality, the achievement becomes even more spiritual.
And perhaps, also, more inexplicable.
Does lineage matter?
But there may be more context to it, especially if the household is musical and the family shares a passion for music. Lauded tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain once remarked in an interview that his father, the renowned Ustad Allarakha Qureshi, whispered rhythms into his ears for hours at a stretch daily. “By the time I was 3, it was all this ‘mumbo jumbo’ in my head,” says Hussain, “...I didn’t know what to do with it until he put this drum in front of me and I thought...oh, okay! Now I get what’s happening there!”
But there are often decades of work behind such 'instant' achievement.
Hence, behind such ‘instant’ achievement, there may be years of an immersive environment. “While you’re growing up in a house which has nothing but music going on, as a baby, things get imprinted on to your mind and your brain cells….So you arrive there, sort of already in place, ready to inject those ideas in your music,” explains Hussain.
Many other Indian classical musicians attest to the same. As a tradition that is essentially passed down multiple generations, with hours of early morning ‘riyaz’ (hours of prolonged musical practice to hone their craft) resonating through their households, it makes sense that the children of the family imbibe music. And when paired with their innate aptitude, enthralling things happen.
And U. Srinivas, often likened to the Yehudi Menuhin of the Indian classical music world, is said to have been playing since he was six. Similarly, Yashwant Vaishnav is said to have taken the tabla world by storm at the young age of 10; even hearing the spoken language of tabla in the middle of his deftly presented tabla performance seems eerily out of place with the small, childlike voice. And flutist Shashank Subramanyam has been cited as saying: “I was introduced to music [from] age one by my father and Guru. I began learning vocal music at age three and by the age of six, started playing the flute in concerts, and by age 11, I was in the professional circuit.”
How young is too young? And what is it really like?
“I never had ice cream,” stated Kaushiki Chakraborty in an exclusive livestream with Darbar. When your vocal cords are your instrument, taking utmost care is necessary. And though Chakraborty wouldn’t trade her beautiful and reverential relationship with her father and guru for the world, and while her stunning vocals continue to leave the Indian classical music world in awe, to the uninitiated, a childhood devoid of such simple pleasures seems like a jarring sacrifice.
In the world of child prodigies, Chakraborty’s student-teacher relationship with her father is the norm, not the exception. Many of the most eminent musicians have been taught by their parents, and the dual relationship almost ‘doubly sanctifies’ the bond. But the intense respect protocols expected in the guru-shishya parampara, coupled with the value-based traditional parenting ecosystem in India, leads to dual pressure and a relationship fraught with an almost inconceivable level of respect and, perhaps, reticence or restraint. Reconciling the larger than life guru or maestro with just ‘Baba’ or just Dad is a hard complexity for an adult to navigate, let alone a child.
Counterparts to Indian classical music child prodigies in the western classical music sphere have often suffered from breakdown and dangerous consequences for their mental health. A searingly poignant piece in The New York Times pulls at the thread that so often unravels in such situations, with the former elite violinist Saul Chandler saying being a child prodigy meant he felt robbed of time: “Childhood was lost. Time was lost. Then one day I finally saw myself and I thought: ‘That’s it. There has to be more.’ But I lost everything realising that.”
And if the time commitment required to attain mastery over written classical compositions is intense, the sheer self-effacing fidelity needed to master an artform that requires, by its very definition, dexterity and improvisation, must be surreal.
Mastery comes with an opportunity cost.
In 2017, enthusiastic Quora users tried to decode the way Ustad Zakir Hussain attains his flamboyant speed on the tabla, and as one user aptly put: “Ustad Zakir Hussain is 66 yrs [sic] old …… started training at the age of 3 and was performing on stage at the age of 11. Hence[,] he has been playing tabla for the last 63 years. In 63 years there are about 551880 hrs [sic] and taking a conservative estimate if we assume that Ustad Zakir Hussain plays and practices for about 10 hrs [sic] daily it comes out to 229950 hrs [sic] which actually is about 41.67% of 551880.”
While these figures are unverified, the thought process behind such calculation is plausible, feeding into the same principles as Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours principle, popularised in his book, Outliers (though that theory, too, is not without its limitations). Overall, the time required to do attain such deft skill does come with an opportunity cost, and ultimately, something has to give.
Costs beyond opportunity costs
And by placing child precocity on a pedestal, we, as the consumers (in music or even in other domains), may be perpetuating a fierce cycle—essentially expecting children to be cramming more learning, more skill and more bravado into progressively younger age brackets.
The grimy underbelly to such young stardom, sadly, is often commercialism. Said commercialism spawns entire industries, with supplemental coaching, private tutoring and portfolio development for realms such as spelling bees or beauty pageants. Some parents may even be lured into pigeonholing their growing child into younger categories.
Our complex relationship with child precocity in music manifests itself in concerts that are sold out, record deals that are struck, and a general public interest—a mania, almost—with finding the youngest, brightest stars…even if we sometimes dim the stars’ own innocence in the process.
As the pressure to keep up mounts, caregivers, teachers or even parents may push children to the point of burnout. The lines between whether it’s the music or the child producing the music that captivate throngs grow increasingly blurred, and when some child prodigies grow from childhood greatness to being simply 'okay', the fall is crushing, simply because of the unreal expectations that are established at the outset.
At times, the field may be so lucrative and alluring that there have been accounts of parents themselves trying to keep their children in younger categories or encouraging them to project a persona of infantile youthfulness—dressing them up a certain way, trying to preserve the same childlike tone of voice, or acting as barricades, knowingly or unknowingly, to the child-turned-young-adult embracing his or her emerging puberty and, by extension femininity or masculinity. The child, then, is lost. Like a small, tired trophy, stuck in time.
And for better or worse, research proves that a child prodigy’s world view is irrevocably unique, meaning that once the lens and paradigm shifts, going back to the same childhood or youth—that same strength in mind, body and spirit that Swami Vivekananda spoke of—can potentially be compromised.
Why are Indian musicians unique?
Yet, despite so much evidence pointing to the mental health consequences of child precocity, in the Indian classical music space, such accounts are few and far between. As mentioned at the outset, many child prodigies have grown up to flourish and succeed. Why is that?
Sandeep Virdee, OBE, Artistic Director of Darbar, has seen many child prodigies’ illustrious rise to fame, and witnessed the passion be fanned as they grow older, rather than extinguished, partially due to the support of tight-knit families with generations of mastery in a genre or tradition.
According to him, the phenomenon may be because of the artform itself. Like Mozart, who is remembered for his ability to grow and compose music, the inherently holistic and improvisation based nature of the artform means that the child genius is never truly ‘done’, itself suggesting that getting ‘bored’ with the multi-layered musical journey is rarely a possibility. In fact, most Indian classical musicians have but one request in life—to come back again and continue their riyaz, simply by virtue of the complexity and sheer vastness of the artform.
“The nature of the artform is such that it keeps growing with you,” Virdee says, “Maybe you just keep on discovering, and it becomes a vaster ocean. The more senior you become, the more of it you start seeing and discovering, and you feel that no matter how deep you dive...ultimately, you’re just scratching at the surface.”
So on this quest for more knowledge and discovery, especially in the world of child prodigies in Indian classical music, how much does age really matter?
According to Hussain, not a lot. “I don’t think that [titles like] child prodigies really matter,” he said, as he believes that it exacerbates pressure on the young. If a young vocalist is celebrated and he hits puberty and his voice changes—what then, he asks.
And as Hussain rightly hints, the repercussions of what happens to child geniuses when they’re no longer children is an important question.
Despite being celebrated as a child genius himself, Hussain says, “I don’t believe in child prodigy-ness.” Instead, he recommends marvelling at the innate talent and the spirit of the musician inside.
Whether that spirit is housed in a young, very young or adult body is irrelevant.
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