Cerebral Fodder

August 2003


Indian Music: A Changing Spectrum

first appeared in different form in Folio (a monthly supplement to The Hindu), January 14, 2001

under the title "Pop Go the Classics"

issue on the theme of Signs

(now updated & appended)


Enter any music shop and what do you hear? Strains as varied as those of dhrupad, khayal, thumri, bhajan, ghazal, folk tunes, film songs, indipop, and of course Western music, classical or popular. But you are more than likely to hear the sounds of the MTV generation. The lines between indigenous forms and supposedly internationalized forms are beginning to blur. It is the music young people listen to, and what most people buy. For better or for worse, we can call it simply, popular music—or the music of most.

The MTVization of Bollywood and then, curiously enough, the unique brand of classicism brought into Bollywood music by A.R. Rahman, mirror not only the variegated tapestry that is India, but also the global musical culture. It is a sign of the times. Popular music is the people's ongoing narrative of the here and now; it is their voice. But what is the people's music? Though Hindi film music has the most currency, with countless tributaries feeding into its main stream, each region has rich traditions of folk music, with their own distinct forms. Pop music sometimes makes use of classical ornaments, while the reverse is rare. MTV hasn't backed into the classical realm (except in a superficial sense) because its forms, visual and aural, are contemporary. Semi-classical forms like dadra have drawn from folk melodies, and spilled back into folk compositions. This give-and-take goes on all the time.

The popular conception goes something like this: an Indian classical music performance lasts for hours, is leisurely but demanding on the ear, largely free of lyrics and virtually free of Western influences. The distinction usually made between classical and pop is really one of form, style, and content. Was this divide always perceived this way?

In essence, a particular kind of music falls along a continuum that stretches from the classical to the popular. Forms migrate in either direction, and get absorbed. To paraphrase the popular American composer, Duke Ellington, whose work ranged from the symphonic to swing: People call it jazz; what I do is just make music. A young jazz musician once remarked that jazz is any music that's improvised! Indian classical singers have included folk melodies and devotional songs to balance their recitals. Shubha Mudgal has chosen to sing both khayal and pop. Indeed, some of the younger classical musicians enjoy Western pop music and take pride in saying so. So it is this changing spectrum that reflects the changing tastes of both the performer and the listener. What was popular, say, fifty years ago is no longer so, except for nostalgia buffs. Naushad's raga-based tunes or the hits of many others have gradually yielded to the likes of Jatin-Lalit and A.R. Rahman. As far as Western music goes there's a lament by the high-falutin that the Beatles, Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix are now considered classics, not Beethoven or Mozart. The question is asked: "Why did classical music fall off the menu of cultural literacy?"

Among several recent groups in India one all-girl group called VIVA belts out Hindi pop numbers that throb with an insistent rock or disco beat and use elements of Black soul in their vocalisms. Their hit song Hum naye geet sunaye is one of the notable songs in this idiom.

There's another genre now that has become rampant—some might say rapacious: the re-mix culture. Old melodies are recycled, this time with a rock or some other beat replacing the earlier one, and used as background for a prurient video track that often has nothing to do with the lyrics, or is dubiously connected to them, but promises to be titillating nonetheless. I'm thinking of videos like Kaanta Lagaa, Kaliyon ka Chaman and their ilk. The raunchier they are the better they sell. Everyone knows what the subtext is but the public plays along with it anyway.

Rhythm literally drives today's popular music, as A.R. Rahman's music has shown. Rahman borrows ever so subtly from American soul or gospel. He draws generously from rap, disco, folk, reggae, quawali, Hindustani and Carnatic rhythms. And the vocal ornaments of Carnatic music are ever present. Orchestral textures and harmonies typical of Western music often grace the background. His is a truly international music with a distinctly Indian feel; he has experimented as perhaps no other Indian composer has before him or does now. Some may be tempted to call it Indian fusion music of a high order. I've heard his music being used as background in a German TV feature unrelated to music or to India. His score for Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Bombay Dreams (2002) broke new ground and was well received in London.

To be fair, though, it should be noted that the recent score by Ismail Durbar for the remake of the film Devdas (2002) had a distinct classical base, but with a popular appeal in terms of the lyrics and the large, spacey sound.

Bade Gulam Ali and Amir Khan were very influential classical singers, who also won critical acclaim. Yet their art was a study in contrasts. Bade Gulam sang to entertain, sending his listeners into rapture. Amir Khan sang for the connoisseur, with a repose worthy of a dhrupad singer, and refused to sing anything but khayal and tarana in public. Still, he was determined to secure a large audience for serious music, without gimmicks. But even he couldn't resist the occasional urge to impress his audience with the suppleness of his voice.

Kishori Amonkar is a classical singer with wide appeal. In full flight her singing can be rhapsodic. But there's much in her music—her classicism in particular—that hardly reflects popular taste: the serene, stately, meditative nature of her alaap in a khayal, the slow tempo that allows her to adorn and caress the notes, the elaborately improvised phrases. And yet many are drawn into her musical world. One reason may be that the gayaki she puts to use in lighter forms like, say, Marathi abhangas, is true to their sense and feeling; they seem almost to emulate the style of her Meera or Kabir bhajans, which have moved her listeners to no end. On the other hand, the massive architecture of Bhimsen Joshi's gayaki seems to clash with the poetry in those abhangas. Yet people faithfully attend his abhangawani programs, and continue to play his recordings in public. Kumar Gandharva achieved a following with his Tulsidas and Nirguni bhajans. Classically trained voices have thus found their way into people's hearts. No matter that it is the regional folk traditions which inspired these singers and enriched their music.

But classical musicians, instrumentalists and vocalists alike, have become popular by virtue of their public visibility and their slick packaging for the music trade. It's as though they were snuggling up to the consumer of conventional popular music like film songs, ghazals, bhajans, bhavgeet, quawalis, rock, rap, jazz and blues, folk and country. The listening public has moved along the spectrum toward classical music to the extent that that music is available and packaged to suit their tastes. Indeed it may be fair to say that classical music has been moving slowly from the concert stage, from its image of exclusive soirees, and into people's homes via the music industry. If you can listen, and watch, in the privacy and comfort of your home, why go to a public hall or auditorium? Going to a public concert has become a second choice.

But the huge access young listeners have to popular music from abroad has kept most of them tilted towards the popular end of the spectrum as far as musical taste is concerned. Indian popular music has itself undergone a transformation: indipop borrows heavily from styles found in the popular music of the West: rock and jazz, folk, hip-hop, rap. Western styles or idioms always seem to work better in our music, with our lyrics, than the other way around. There’s a Hindi song based on the theme from the film Love Story. Devotional music has the classical touch, but still weighs heavily in the popular imagination due to the numerous festivals that are celebrated the year round.

Music is now a big business. It has become a commodity, and its role in the life of the consumer is increasingly like that of any other commodity. The dilemma of 'To have or to be' raises its head here: 'To have' is the consumer mantra—a far cry from music-making as a form of expression for its own sake in the privacy of one's home. If merely 'to have' is to become a good listener, then all not-so-popular music has a chance to merge with the popular.