If you observe closely, you will realise that Chaitanya Tamhane's latest film The Disciple, juxtaposes the building of classical music icons across two different periods in independent India. The invisible legend of Maai, a.k.a. Sindhubai Jadhav, and the visible phenomenon of Shashwathi Bose are the ones under consideration here. For the sake of convenience, let's just call the two phases the Pre-Liberalisation and Post-Liberalisation periods in India.
The first phase covers the years from 1947 to 1991. The Indian economy, back then, was driven by the ideology of socialist self-reliance. High-priced technological implements, be they indigenous or foreign, did not have extensive usage and penetration. The terms "recording" and "photography" were understood by few. These factors elevated the rarity of the tapes of maestro Sindhubai Jadhav's lectures.
The accessibility issues and restricted availability acted as gatekeepers, preserving the tapes' alleged aesthetic value, making them a holy grail. Her devout followers could effortlessly change the narrative by turning Maai's fear of concerts into her core strength. The invisible maestro's hagiographies spread not only across succeeding generations of her own musical tradition, but also amongst other classical music enthusiasts through word of mouth.
But from 1991 onwards, the country took a turn towards capitalism. Access to breakthroughs in technology happened quickly and primarily via the mobile revolution. Unlike the rare tapes, anyone could record videos or take photos on their smartphones. It is impossible to create an everlasting aura around an artist based on yesteryear factors like rarity and scarcity today. Social media platforms will expose such attempts.
A tsunami of reality shows, with their origin in the global north, hit the Indian television channels during liberalisation. Mass media enabled the creation of new legends through interactive communication and technological convergence. But the inmates of Maai's world seem oblivious to these changes.
Sharad Nerulkar (the protagonist of the film, played by Aditya Modak) swears by the ancient guru-shishya parampara. He attends to his master's needs with eternal devotion, unlike his young students. In fact, Guruji's house, Sharad Nerulkar's childhood home, his father's "gharana show", the concert halls where he performs, etc., all look austere, exuding Maai's philosophy. When juxtaposed with the musical talent hunt show The Fame India, they look anachronistic, i.e., from the pre-liberal times.
The television in Guruji's house is tiny, idle and trivial, decorating the corner of a nondescript room silently. Ignoring the sweeping changes happening outside, it's always switched off. The dark screen reflects the image of the Guruji, sitting on a wooden cot, instead of colourful visuals. But in the outside world, television is a cultural phenomenon that shapes public opinion. Musical reality shows, on television, capture participants' emotions and the judging panel's reactions, and enable viewers' engagement through voting.
Unlike the invisible maestro Sindhubai Jadhav, whose legend is shrouded in mystery, the legend of Shashwathi Bose from Jhargram is built on a larger-than-life participatory pulpit in broad daylight. In the movie, Nerulkar witnesses her, on television screens, sitting in a hotel and at the dining table. We neither see Shashwathi's guru nor her gharana, which Maai's followers strive to keep alive through the fiction of rarity and purity.
Music for Shashwathi is uncomplicated and liberating; it's her asylum in times of happiness as well as sadness. But Sindhubai Jadhav complicates her music by wrapping it up with countless layers of divinity, tradition, asceticism, eternal quests and xenophobia. Maai, in the course of her lectures, clearly draws a thick line around real Indian classical music as high culture, disregarding concerts, listeners and the widely popular film songs. In reality, classical music, which is accessible only to a casteist and elite clique, has been kept alive by its usage in popular film songs.
This thick line, drawn far back before liberalisation by Maai and her ilk, is blurred by Shashwathi Bose. She sings both classical compositions and film songs with equal aplomb. Brought up on a steady diet of folklore surrounding the Alwar gharana and its immortal maestros, Sharad Nerulkar is in disbelief. He helplessly watches the rise of Shashwathi Bose, a modern day star, upon the debris of Maai's sacred precepts, which he lived by.
Despite great efforts, Nerulkar remains obscure. Meanwhile Shashwathi, a natural, is instantly recognised across the country. Caught in between two contrasting currents, created by differing socio-cultural and techno-economic factors, Nerulkar encounters an intense inner conflict. When the moment of truth arrives, Sharad Nerulkar finally decides with his father to keep his company running.