The Impact of Globalization on Performing Arts in India

Changing trends in the performing arts rarely manifest themselves with dramatic abruptness. More often than not, they creep up silently, diverting the flow of continuing traditions and practices stealthily but resolutely. As the relentless tidal wave of globalization swept across the world in the last two decades, Indian performing arts too were swept up, tossed high and hurled down, without many even noticing that some of the great rivers of performing traditions and systems had changed course, or at times, been reigned in forcefully.  Looking back on some of these changes, particularly in the sphere of Indian music, it may be worthwhile to begin by examining a few words, terms and phrases that provide clues to some of the many ways in which globalization has impacted the performing arts in India.  Other than in academic discussions, performing arts in India and its practitioners are today referred to most commonly as being part of the “entertainment industry”. This may seem innocuous enough to some, but the usage of the term and its passive acceptance in most circles, definitely indicates a paradigm shift in the manner in which the arts are viewed by society at large.

That today the arts must entertain and amuse in the manner defined by showbiz, and that they must form part of organized industry is the clear and unambiguous message conveyed by this shift. For creators and artistes who in an ideal world create art driven by an artistic urge or by that inexplicable creative charge that propels artistes towards their respective forms of expression, this shift from being an individual artiste or part of an artistic community, to being absorbed into or discarded by the politics and the commerce of the entertainment industry, has had a far-reaching impact.

A closer examination of the global entertainment industry, its mores and terms, would reveal greater details about the changes steered by globalization. Firmly entrenched in the idea of “increasing material wealth” by the opening up of international markets, globalization is unabashed about its obsession with checks, balances, net profits and turnovers. It would therefore, seem only natural and come as no surprise that even in the area of performing arts, those genres that have a record of yielding attractive enough turnovers and lucrative profit margins would be easily and successfully globalized. In the context of Indian music, the success of mainstream Hindi film music presents a case in point. Without doubt, Hindi film music enjoys the greatest listenership in the country and as a result it is also one the largest selling and economically wealthy genres of music in the country. Despite a severe downward trend in the quality of content, particularly from the artistic point of view, its popularity and consequent economic and financial success on international platforms has surged manifold.

One reason for this could be attributed to the ability of the Hindi film song to fit into the format or template that has currently found currency with the global music industry. A three to five minute song template, available for full commercial exploitation in existing and developing formats, with snappy tunes and danceable grooves, and accompanying visuals featuring Bollywood stars, is easily picked up and put to the harness in global music markets. Its relatively shorter duration makes downloading easy, pricing remains standardized and further, its massive popularity in an over-populated country and among people of Indian origin residing in various parts of the world, makes it a prime candidate for globalization. In other words, songs that fit into this format are more likely to have a greater demand and thus achieve one of the primary targets of globalization, namely that of increasing material wealth. Other genres like remixes, electronic music, hip-hop and Indian pop music and fusion music also adhere to similar templates and thus find favor in a globalized world.

On the other hand, genres that appeal to a niche are more often than not, left out in the cold. It is not surprising then, to find that traditional forms including classical, folk and tribal forms, which have enjoyed niche and regional following, have been slowly edged out towards extinction. In a nutshell, such is the impact of globalization that the West, which not so long ago revered traditional Indian arts and music, albeit for their perceived spirituality and exoticism, is now increasingly becoming a consumer of Bollywood music! Within India the impact of this aspect of globalization is starkly visible. Virtually the only form of music that the Indian population can access easily is music from Bollywood. On radio, television and mobile telephony platforms, it is film music that is aggressively promoted and distributed.

Such is the impact of this aspect of globalization that most forms of Indian music desperately try and conform to the successfully globalized Hindi film song. From the bihu of Assam, to the biraha of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, most folk forms are undergoing a Bollywood makeover. On television channels catering to regional viewership, music videos provide ample proof of this homogenizing which has undoubtedly had a tragic impact on the diverse forms of musical expression in the country. Some examples are provided below as links to videos on the popular YouTube site:

What happens in such a situation to the innumerable artistes who are exponents of marginalized forms like classical music, folk music, ghazal, geet etc? Do they battle on valiantly, swimming against the tide or do they just sink unnoticed? There is no single answer to these questions as each artiste evolves individual strategies or decides to fall in line with trends that are perceived to be successful.

Globalization works with its own sets of paradoxes. On the one hand, it seeks out diversity because therein it finds fresh produce that can be offered to new and ever-growing markets. But at the same time, the diverse offerings it seeks to exploit must conform to the terms, conditions and templates approved by global markets even at the risk of losing their unique identities and traits, which in the first place made them so eligible. The creative mind is characterized by its ability to be unique and individualistic. Originality therefore, comes from the natural ability of an artiste to be distinctive and different from the pack.  In the globalized world originality is wooed only to the point where it can be made a unique selling point or USP.

Thereafter, it is expected to quietly conform to the templates of selling that are currently in fashion. In the context of Indian music, this would mean that in order to attract an international market, the Indian musician must retain some part of his or her Indian identity, but only in such measure as would set him or her apart and not make their ethnicity frighteningly unfamiliar or alienating. Thus the emergence and success of rock and fusion bands who play rock music as it would be played anywhere in the world, but retain some token Indian-ness. Rock musicians donning turbans, jackets, kurtas and vaeshtis made of handloom cloth, skirts or lehngaas and other items of ethnic clothing as costume; Kathakali face paint or kutchi ghodi, work hard to roll their r’s into sounding as ‘international’ as possible.

In a globalized world, Indians are fast losing touch with the charm and beauty of regional languages and dialects. Urban Indians have for decades urged their children to acquire fluency in English in a bid to secure admissions to high brow educational institutions, and to further professional careers. In such a situation, genres that relied heavily on literature and poetry such as the ghazal have taken a severe beating. Once a form that enjoyed massive popularity, the ghazal today faces a bleak future. Some exponents of this genre made attempts to modify the form to suit popular taste and preference. In the process, some abandoned the complex and evolved poetry of the great masters of Urdu, and opted to present simple texts that could be enjoyed by even those who did not fully comprehend the grandeur of classic Urdu poetry. While this strategy brought them some amount of fame and popularity for a short period of time, it did not by any means save the ghazal from becoming nearly extinct. Other exponents attempted to use catchy and even slightly Westernized tunes with musical interludes and backing orchestras that would be more appropriate for hip-hop or Indi pop. Music videos too did not help the floundering form and ultimately the ghazal specialists ended up branching out in other directions. Some took to bhajans, others to playback and still others accepted anything that came their way.

Over a century ago, Indians struggled to establish a national identity. Today it is the lure of a global identity that Indians pursue, for better or for worse. And if, in the bargain, art forms are lost or sacrificed at the altar of globalization, it does not really matter to most.  Indeed, all living art forms are dynamic and changing rather than static or stagnant.

Shubha Mudgal

Shubha Mudgal

1 Comment

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    Great Article. And thoughts. I really really wish there is a way to get updates on your blog or some sort of subscription to your blog like in wordpress and many other sites.

    I am lucky to have discovered your music and thoughts today.


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