Whats right with Indian music?
You know what I donâ€™t like about those proverbial silver linings in the clouds? Sometimes you have to poke around so bloody hard for them that you almost give up hope. Iâ€™m afraid Iâ€™m feeling a bit like that at the moment, trying desperately to think of silver linings in the thick dark clouds that hover rather threateningly over the world of Indian music. But for whatever they are worth, here are some of the bright spots that I have been able to notice â€“
For one, we are sitting on nothing short of a massive and sadly untapped treasure trove of musical talent, and donâ€™t let those guys who insist on glorifying the hoary past and running down the future tell you otherwise. And whatever you do, please please donâ€™t let Ms. Pooja Bhatt tell you stridently that there is far better talent to be found in neighboring Pakistan. Donâ€™t get me wrong because this really isnâ€™t my shot at petty patriotism, but seriously, she and others of her ilk need to get out there and start listening to the many and diversely wonderful kinds of music that are made right here in this, our own country. Every genre of music in India that still hasnâ€™t been throttled to death by the friendly Bollywood monster, and yes, even Bollywood music has young talent that could bring a smile to the faces of the most hardened skeptics and pessimists with the exception of Ms. Bhatt perhaps. Whether itâ€™s the more heard and written about Bollywood singing stars such as Sunidhi Chauhan, Sonu Nigam, Shreya Ghoshal and others to the impossibly young, not-heard-often-enough and hardly ever written about Langa and Manganiyar children with their still-snotty noses who can take the stage by storm at any given moment, itâ€™s amply clear and evident that there is talent in happy abundance in this country. Rock bands writing original songs in Hindi, English, Bangla and many other Indian languages, lounge, electronica, hiphop, rap, classical, semi classical, folk, tribal, qawwali and much more- itâ€™s all out there waiting to be heard. But now here is where the silver lining is in danger of disappearing behind menacing dark clouds made up of the severely myopic vision of most people who control the music industry and this includes record labels, concert promoters, talent hunters out to make a quick buck. Any originality that the young and promising may show is swiftly and surely stifled to make way for the same stale fare that they believe is saleable. And there goes my silver lining number 1!
Now we all know that itâ€™s both fashionable and lucrative to declare these days that one â€œdoesâ€ Sufi music. Never mind the fact that a lot of the nouveau Sufi singers may not know whether this declaration refers to a genre or form of music or the poetic content of a song. With so many self styled Sufi experts running around a dime a dozen, Iâ€™m not sure I want to say this, but it has to do with my silver lining number two so Iâ€™ll say it nevertheless. In the midst of a whole host of freshman pseudo Sufi singers there are those who have kept alive a family tradition. I refer to the likes of the young qawwal Hamsar Hayat Nizami and his group, whose family has for years sung qawwali at the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, and others such as Zaki and Zakir Ali of Ajmer. They could give you a real taste of Sufi poetry and Sufi music too, but once again they have had to pay a heavy price for being exponents of the real thing, so to say. Scour the record shops for any recordings and you arenâ€™t likely to find them beaming down at you from a poster because none of the big wigs in the music industry thought fit to record and publish them. And thank heavens for that too, because had they been recorded, it is highly likely that they would have been coaxed into doing a disco and/or fusion/muqabla version of the qawwali! And just when you thought I was going to talk about the dark clouds again, hereâ€™s silver lining number 3! It took a music lover/film maker named Yousuf Saeed to record and publish a qawwali album featuring Hamsar and his group. Whatâ€™s more, Iâ€™m pretty certain that there are other Indian musicians like Hamsar and Zaki Ali whom I may not have had the good fortune to hear, but whose work will be documented and made available by other independent producers like Yousuf Saeed.
While we are on the subject of documentation, here is another piece of good news for those who have an interest in archival music. After years of sitting tight on one of the largest catalogues of Indian music, Sa Re Ga Ma has re-launched CD versions of their 78 RPM records, making it possible for students of music to listen to recordings made over fifty years ago. Currently five albums featuring 78 RPM recordings of Hindustani vocalists Bai Sunderabai, Surshri Kesarbai Kerkar, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Pt. Sawai Gandharva and Gaantapasvini Mogubai Kurdikar have been made available, and I sincerely hope that more albums of this nature are on the way because this is musical history being offered to those who value it. In a similar effort, Doordarshan has for some time now made available VCDs of music and dance from their archives. So you can actually watch footage of the inimitable Begum Akhtar, Shankar-Shambhu Qawwals, Pt. Mallikarjun Mansoor and others from the Doordarshan archives, that is, if you can lay your hands on the VCDs which are not readily available. Yet this is a truly commendable effort from the custodians of yet another mammoth archive of Indian music.
Iâ€™d also like to acknowledge with gratitude the immense contribution of non-resident Indians and non-Indian scholars and performers of Indian music, because like it or not, there are many from among this category who work quietly and dedicatedly for the cause of Indian music. They are never the recipients of the highly coveted and greatly lobbied for Padma awards or other national honors and yet, their contribution is valuable beyond doubt. People like Dr.B.N.Dixit, a Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Pittsburgh, USA, single handedly and selflessly ran a program for almost twenty years which brought hundreds of Indian musicians to the USA for performances and lecture demonstrations. There are others too like him, who need to be acknowledged for their devotion to Indian music. And then there are the performers and scholars like Allyn Miner (sitar), Adrian Mc Neil (sarod), Dr. Richard Widess, Joep Bor (sarangi), Ken Zuckerman (sarod), Steve Gorn (flute), Nancy Lech (cello), Francesca Cassio (dhrupad) and many others whose scholarship and proficiency in Indian music is redoubtable. And yet, many an Indian musician tends to retain a condescending attitude towards their work. Itâ€™s high time we dropped the condescension and acknowledged their work fairly.
By the way, if you are wondering why I havenâ€™t brought up the matter of the Grammy nominations in this piece, let me confess itâ€™s been a conscious choice. I am delighted that almost every year Indian musicians are nominated for the Grammies and for other awards such as the BBC World Music Awards. And I am absolutely thrilled that this year too we have two Indian musicians, or rather two musicians performing Indian music (sorry, Iâ€™m not too sure whether the lovely Anoushka Shankar has an Indian or an American passport) nominated for the Grammies. And Iâ€™m going to cheer for both Asha ji and Anoushka while I watch the Grammies on the telly. But what bothers me is the fact that they are nominated for a category called World Music. Why is there no separate category for Indian music or even for Asian Music despite its strong and unique presence in the world? Why do we have to be dumped into a category called World Music with the rest of the world? If the Recording Academy can accept a special set of awards called the Latin Grammies, why not a new Asian Grammy if not an all Indian Grammy? Iâ€™d rather wait for the Indian or Asian Grammies to happen before I include Grammy nominations for Indian musicians in my list of silver linings.
First published in Tehelka