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Can we turn Varanasi into a music city?

Varanasi has a music heritage far older than that of many cities around the world with a musical heritage, yet needs support to turn into a music destination like Nashville, USA or Vienna, Austria

Varanasi has a thriving music festival scene, including the Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh, Dhrupad Mela and Mahindra Kabira festival
Varanasi has a thriving music festival scene, including the Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh, Dhrupad Mela and Mahindra Kabira festival (Unsplash)

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“What do visitors do in Nashville?” my husband asked our hosts. I had just finished my Carnatic concert at the Ganesha temple in Nashville, Tennessee. “You can’t miss the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum,” was the response.

The next day, when we visited the museum, I was blown away by the immersive experience. The museum made no assumptions about a visitor’s knowledge; nearly every exhibit was interactive, from the displays of musical instruments to the commentaries on gender and race struggles, and the history of the ecosystem in audio and video. The live performances of country music that we heard in an intimate theatre setting topped off the day.

At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Nashville, a tier 2 US city, as nothing significant. Yet Nashville is behind only Los Angeles and New York when it comes to music, with nearly 22,000 people working directly in the music industry. In 2019, a Nashville Chamber of Commerce study reported that the music business contributed almost $9 billion ( 73,800 crore) to the local economy.

The Nashville metropolitan area has a population of under two million, comparable to Varanasi in India, but gets approximately 16 million visitors annually, driven by its positioning as Music City USA. In 2019, Varanasi, according to government data, had a record number of nearly nine million visitors—most were pilgrims.

Yet music rose to prominence in Varanasi as early as the 14th century, during the Vaishnava Bhakti movement. The poetry and music of mystics such as Kabir, Ravidas and Surdas from the 15th-16th centuries have remained relevant. So why is it that Varanasi hasn’t been able to make the kind of impact Nashville has in a much shorter time?

One way to understand this is to look at the experience of other cities that have tried to leverage their musical legacy. Like Varanasi, the Austrian capital Vienna has a strong musical tradition dating back to the mid-15th century. The coexistence of religious music with various forms of secular music—orchestra, theatre and opera—flourished under royal patronage. Organisations such as the Vienna Boys’ Choir (founded in 1498) and Philharmonic Orchestra are still active. Today the Austrian government owns and supports the two major opera houses, the Vienna State Opera and People’s Opera, so much so that opera is now identified with the city.

In the late 19th century, the US city of New Orleans gave birth to jazz, which has gone global. In the early 1920s, racism and prejudice drove many African-American musicians from New Orleans to Kansas City and Chicago, giving rise to distinctive sounds. During World War I, African-American soldiers took jazz to Paris. Interaction with musicians from Central and South America gave rise to Latin jazz. The fact that the Montreal Jazz festival in Canada holds the Guinness world record for attendance is indicative not only of how jazz has spread, but also of the many distinctive forms and audiences it has across geographies and musical genres.

Building a music economy 

The evolution and migration of country, classical or jazz music and their identification with specific cities, whether Nashville, Vienna or New Orleans, bear important lessons for cities everywhere. Cities across the world, from Austin in the US to Sydney in Australia, have responded in a variety of ways, adapting, encouraging and building upon their musical heritage.

The Mastering Of A Music City, a 2012 study by the non-profits International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (Ifpic) and Music Canada, examined how a city can build a “vibrant music economy” (see box). Nashville, on top of a robust 100-year-old music scene and performing spaces, has built an excellent ecosystem, including recording studios, producers, publishers, promoters and songwriters.

Additionally, local and state government support has delivered both public and private infrastructure. “The integration of culture and arts in urban public spaces plays an important part in shaping the city’s image and identity, forming a symbiotic relationship,” says Naresh V. Narasimhan, architect, urban designer and managing partner of Venkataramanan Associates in Bengaluru.

This is evident in older cities such as Vienna, where the city’s architecture is shaped by music, through the building of opera houses and performing centres. Newer cities, notably Sydney, have built iconic landmarks around music.

The festival route

In theory, every city should be able to emulate what Nashville did. One way cities across the world have tried to build a music economy is through festivals that bring music and people together in public and private spaces. Varanasi has a thriving music festival scene, including the Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh, Dhrupad Mela and Mahindra Kabira festival, all held in public spaces. Chennai’s famed music festival in December is geared towards a niche crowd of Carnatic music lovers but access remains limited to those who can go to the music halls or sabhas.

Cities such as Bengaluru and Varanasi have been trying to innovate, going beyond festivals through the creative use of public spaces. “Bangalore represents the coming together of the old and the new. The old Mysore traditions combine with the life of India’s Silicon Valley to create a city that is at once rooted in history yet modern in outlook,” says Manasi Prasad, classical vocalist and founding director, Indian Music Experience (IME), an interactive music museum in Bengaluru that opened in 2019. The museum allows visitors to touch, feel and use the instruments and exhibits to learn about sound and music. “Bangalore is not a traditional tourist centre but in many ways is the gateway to south India. The IME serves as a springboard for travellers to understand the diversity of Indian music, and, in turn, Indian culture.”

In Varanasi, Aryama Sanyal, director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport, is taking music to visitors at the airport. “The airport is a gate to the city,” says Sanyal. “When people fly into Varanasi, they can hear thumris, kajri, chaitri and all that is part of the music of the city.” It is an effort that could give visitors a sense of the rich musical heritage and maybe prompt them to explore it. “We have displays of musical instruments accompanying pictures of musicians such as Girija Devi, Ravi Shankar and Bismillah Khan in the international arrivals terminal,” she says.

What else can Indian cities do? Most have three of the five key elements that Nashville does, for instance—a thriving music scene, a receptive audience, and public and private performance spaces. However, only those willing to build a strong and financially self-sustaining ecosystem are likely to prosper as music cities.

Governments too need to support efforts to turn cities into music destinations. If your city has a tradition of music, you can begin by building a coalition of business and community leaders to create a shared vision. This will create a movement to raise multi-year private and government funding. With a little bit of luck and perseverance, your city can become India’s Nashville.

Chitra Srikrishna is a Carnatic vocalist and adjunct professor of music at Ahmedabad University.


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