Friday, March 25, 2005


I recently found myself trying to explain contemporary Indian music to my "Modern India: Literature and Film" class. Very messy and complex, especially since I don't have much of a musicology background.

I used one helpful article on some of the recent trends in Indian popular music, by Peter Kvetko. It's called "Can the Indian Tune Go Global?" (Drama Review 48.4, Winter 2004; not online, though people with a subscription to Project Muse can download it here). Kvetko went to a conference on "IndiPop" sponsored by Planet M and MTV India in Bombay in 2000.

The attendees at the conference seemed to be most preoccupied about the prospect of an emerging global audience for the newish genre of non-filmi pop music -- by artists like Lucky Ali, Colonial Cousins, Adnan Sami Khan, and Stereo Nation. If Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias are so huge in India, why can't Stereo Nation be as huge in Puerto Rico? This question doesn't interest me all that much (I'll believe it when I see it), but Kvetko's explanation of the musical distinction between Indi-Pop and contemporary Hindi film music is helpful:

The influence of this music on Indipop artists can be clearly heard in the increasing use of “riff-based” compositions, as opposed to the typically “raga-­based” music of films. For example, Lezz Lewis and Hariharan of the success­ful Indipop duo known as The Colonial Cousins sit together with an acoustic guitar when writing songs. The chords and riffs they choose dictate the form of the song. Film song composers, on the other hand, pick out single notes on a harmonium (a small organ with hand-pumped bellows) in order to find a memorable melody. Later, a music arranger will fill in the background with accompanying chords, but the organization of the film song is determined by the melody and lyrics.

Furthermore, the overall structures of many Indipop songs are formed around moments of harmonic tension and release. Similar to many Western pop songs, "the hook" is deferred by a sequence of chords to create the effect of a buildup.8 Only then, after we have been kept in anticipation, do we reach a moment (often intentionally brief) of musical release. In many ways, I find this to be a fetishization of the act of listening itself, and it stands in direct op­position to what several film music directors told me: "If the audience can’t sing along within the first few seconds, the song will never be a success."

Other characteristics of Indipop music include a preference for guitars and drums over the synthesizers and electronic drum machines of today’s film mu­sic. Examples include Lucky Ali, The Colonial Cousins, Silk Route, Eupho­ria, and Strings. Of course, the founders of Indipop—Biddu, Daler Mehndi, and Alisha—came out of a disco-influenced era and made extensive use of synthesizers. But as the Indipop movement has come of age, the trend has been toward “authenticity” and a heightened sense of tradition with the use of In­dian instruments and rhythms.

Kvetko seems generally right to me, though this passage forces us (if we're trying to teach this) to explain in some approximation of technical detail what exactly a raga is. Yikes. Even with Google, this turns out to be fairly hard to do, especially if you don't know your modes from your chord progressions...

Separately from the issue of defining "raga-based music," there are a couple of blind-spots in the essay. For one, with his exclusive emphasis on Indi-Pop, Kvetko doesn't allude to the other trends in Indian popular music. Especially glaring is the omission of reference to A.R. Rahman, who does make raga-based Hindi film music -- but who is equally comfortable using the western pop/rock format. And quite a number of Rahman's compositions are considerably more complex than your standard filmi fare. If corrected for the advent of Rahman (and Rahman's imitators), Kvetko's history of recent Indian pop music might look something like the following table, if he charted it (the table is actually mine):

EraFilm musicNon-film pop music
18th C.-PresentHindustani Classical Music (Raga)
1950s-1980sClassic, Raga-based Hindi film music
1990s Contemporary Hindi film music (still raga based)Disco Indi-Pop
Late 1990s-PresentNeo-traditional/folk & Rock/Hip-hop film music (Rahman, etc.)Neo-traditional Indi-Pop (Rabbi Sher-Gil, etc.)

[Note: One significant problem with this table is the way it short-shrifts the 1950s-80s era in Hindi film music. Anyone who knows their R.D. Burman from their Kalyanji and Anandji Shah is likely to be peeved; same for fans of the lyricists. How might my table be improved?]

Finally, I think Kvetko is on to something when he outlines a shift in production values across the board in Indian popular music in the 1990s:

One of the clearest distinguishing features of Indipop production is the lack of the heavy reverb that characterized much of film music throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Indipop producers prefer a clear tone that will sound good on head­phones, personal stereos, and in other modes of individual consumption. This is in clear opposition to the echoing sounds sought by film music producers, who attempt to create a sonic space compatible with the modes of public con­sumption associated with films—such as movie theatres, rickshaws and taxis, and open-air bazaars where film music is blasted from loudspeakers.

Good point, though again, I think Kvetko isn't anticipating the degree to which Indipop production values have been integrated into the Bollywood music universe. Lucky Ali and Adnan Sami Khan routinely do songs for films, and mainstream, 'timepass' movies like Hum Tum hire producers like Rishi Rich to produce Hip-hop inflected tracks. And IndiPop has itself maybe lost a little steam recently, with the overwhelming crush of classic Hindi remix numbers...


Blogger Apu-Swami & Ek-Kahani said...

Does Kvetko take into account the differences/similarities in Tamil/Kannada/Telugu/other regional film music w.r.t Hindi film music? Esp when one considers Rahman, given the way his compositions move across linguistic and/or regional boundaries. Like other discussions on Indian cinema/film music, seems as if the ideas here need to be "corrected" for their convenient neglect of the regional film industries.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...


He's talking just about Hindi music, and pretty much just about the music industry based in Bombay.

I suspect South Indian film & pop music ought to have its own historical chart (or charts), which have been a kind of vector of influence on Bombay/Hindi music via the cross-over work of people like Rahman. Have you got any ideas about how a comparable south Indian music chart might look?

5:14 PM  
Blogger Apu-Swami & Ek-Kahani said...

I'm afraid not. Bhaskar Chandavarkar, a musicologist, did a series of articles on the development of film music in India (in 'Cinema in India', an NFDC publication I think) -that might be one place to start. But here's another very useful link to look at - this one is particularly useful since it talks about the history of sound in Indian cinema, with songs being one specific development. Talks about dialogue and even the use of dangling earrings to produce certain effects! (

8:40 AM  
Blogger senioritis said...

This is an inviting introduction to Indipop for those of us unfamiliar with it. Are expatriate crossover groups such as State of Bengal included in the category?

8:11 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...


State of Bengal are part of the Asian Underground 'drum n bass' scene in England. They should be on a parallel column in my chart, next to Indi-Pop: "Brit-Asian music."

Interestingly, just as Hindi film songs have incorporated Indi-Pop sounds, they are starting to work with drum n bass as well. So there is some drum n bass in a very crappy Amitabh movie called "Boom."

But more importantly, there is a song on the 'Swades' soundtrack that bears a strong similarity to the State of Bengal sound in "Tana Tani."

BTW, I wrote a review of that CD a few months ago. It is here.

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Professor,

I've been much engaged by your site - there is lots to read here and I find your writing (esp your critiques) entertaining. :) Thanks.

Onto this particular post, with reference to your table: probably the SDB/RDB/Kji-Aji transition could be expressed as:

'a movement away from merely being melody-based to being both melody-based as well as RHYTHM-based'.

I believe the biggest contribution of RD is the introduction of fascinating and sometimes, almost unintuitive beats to the song, thus jazzing it up. Also, the use of innovative instruments such as the harmonica, jal-tarang and even the lowly spoon&plate!! :))

Also, Sir*, while I understand your biases for Rahman, don't you think that the trend of marrying various systems of music with our own dates back to the Moghul era and shouldn't be credited to ARR alone?

Specifically wrt to the HFM, all our MDs - all the way from C.Ramachandra to ARR and later - have been keenly influenced by other systems of music, within and without India.

Think of:
'Shola jo bhadke' - CR
'Mera naam chin chin choo' - SDB
'Tu ne o, rangeele kaisa jaado kiya' - SDB (Bengali influence)
'Chaand raat, tum ho saath' - Salil
'Sayonara' - Kji-Aji (?)
'Eena Meena Deeka' - CRR
Several of Bappi's disco tunes
'Petta Rap' - ARR (Tamil)
'Tillaana tillaana' - ARR (Tamil)
'Toodhu varuma' - Harris Jayaraj (Tamil)


All of the above songs depart markedly from the standard raga-based theme of HFM. I find that Salilda esp. had grasped the nuances of western 'chord-progression' based music much better than everyone else. While his imitations of Mozart etc. are well known, the example I've given above (from Half-Ticket) is a case of Salilda being original, YET, fusing Indian tunes with western style cleverly! Similarly, Jatin-Lalit and O.P.Nayyar have also shown occasional brilliance with piano-work.

In fact, while Rahman's work in Roja was truly of the watershed variety, the current crop of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and their ilk are doing a much better job than Rahman himself manages nowadays. :-) You may disagree, I know. :-)

And btw, that quote about the audience having to sing along in the first few seconds was SDB's, no? I distinctly reading this elsewhere, but can't recall the MD's name...

Sorry about the long post.


* I am an Indian and it is customary for us to call a teacher, "Sir".

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apologies for the grammatical and spelling errors in that comment. Just after posting, I noticed at least two! My apologies for not having proof-read properly.


1:09 PM  
Blogger Panini Pothoharvi said...

I truly wonder in what way Peter Kvetko’s article is helpful. Is it because of its depth of scholarship, degree of information or attention to detail? In what way Prof Singh?
This article to me seems to base itself, like much of the Euro-American scholarship on Indian culture, on highly questionable premises and a complete misreading of how the Indi-pop works at what I call, for want of a better word, its pre-production level or initial conception. It emerges as some sort of a quickfix and possibly a patronising look at the Indi-Pop for the western audience. I say perhaps because I haven’t read the article in original. (Ga ma ga sa dha sa dha pa sa)
What are these so-called “riff-based” compositions? In fact, befor raising this question, we need to address another more important one: who are the most successful Indi-pop artists in recent times. The answer is Daler Mehndi, Shubha Mudgal, Lucky Ali, Alisha Chenai, Adnan Sami, Rabbi Shergill and, if you wish, Leslie and Hariharan.

Both Daler Mehndi and Shubha Mudgal – two of the most successful ones - have never ever tried the “riff-raff”. Both of them do the bulk of their compositions on harmonium be it “Bolo Tara Ra Ra” (in any case this is an old folk melody of Punjab), “UchchaRa burj Lahore da ve soN*eya” (another folk melody from the 19th century Punjab) or Shubha Mudgal’s “TooN*a” (used in Kamasutra), “Ali More Angana”, “Seekho Na” or even a crass melody such as “Ab ke saawan”. Even with Lezz and Hari, not every composition is done on guitar. In any case, what can one say about the duo whose most popular composition “sa ni dha pa ma ga re ga sa” is based on a complete misrecitation of notes. In terms of melody, the notes are “ga ma ga sa dha sa dha pa sa”. Their other popular number “Krishnani begane” is based on popula kriti of Purandardas. So one doesn’t quite know where to slot Peter Kvetko’s kind of scholarship! In fract the only artist who does the so-called “riff-raff” act is Lucky Ali whose music is software induced and is completely inconsequential. Even Rabbi Shergill who does most of his compositions on guitar has a strong harmonium based feel to most of his work. It is amazing that the marker of scholarship on Indian music for you remains Peter Kvetko and not an indigenous Bhaskar Chandawarkar, Madan Gopal Singh or Partha Chatterjee. A thousand pity, indeed!


9:31 PM  
Blogger zyclop said...

what about a place to fit Asha Puthli in?

2:14 AM  

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