Tuesday, September 20, 2005

An Indian Rock Connoisseur

Uma's post on Global Voices led me to the blog-archive of a music critic named Jaideep Varma.

Varma wrote for an Indian magazine called Gentleman (which, despite its name, was not that kind of magazine), which folded in 2001. He's now putting up his archive of music writing in blog format, indexed through here.

He is passionate about the great rock and folk acts of the 1960s, and writes glowing long-form essays on the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young. I particularly liked the Leonard Cohen piece, but then I particularly like Leonard Cohen.

And here, he's quite critical of Hindi film music and of the Indi-pop scene, which for him lacks that crucial element of individual, personal expression. The piece linked to was written in 2001, but I think Indian popular music is still pretty much where it was five years ago. Here's Jaideep Varma:

This kind of singer-songwriter has never existed in our popular culture. Mainly because film music is the popular music in our country. Indian cinema has produced many wonderful songs with excellent melodies, but all within a very limited format. Ultimately, a film song has to fill a situation in the film. And today, popular Indian cinema, with its accent on ‘timepass’, cannot produce songs of depth and passion. The format in which they exist simply won’t permit it. Even the older songs ultimately suffer from the same sentimentality and melodrama that the films themselves were steeped in.

This is the voice of someone who is utterly convinced about what he's trying to say, but that doesn't necessarily make him right. (Read the rest of the piece; he surveys virtually the entire Indi-pop music scene.) It's quite possible to say that Varma is guilty of Euro-centrism (or rock-centrism) in his perspective on music.

Varma loves British and American singer-songwriters for their individualism and sincerity, but is it not possible that that individualism is itself a kind of pose? And isn't it also possible that sincerity may be overrated, that the craft in the better work of a Bollywood composer like A.R. Rahman, may have real value -- even devoid of the individual touch?

The ability to appreciate different musical sensibilities on their own terms is often called "aesthetic relativism," generally by people who don't like it. But it may be just as correct to call it "eclecticism." Whatever we call it, it is a capacity that Jaideep Varma, for his considerable talents as a music critic, may not have.


Aswin said...

I find this line particularly troubling:
"Ultimately, a film song has to fill a situation in the film." Film songs circulate in the public realm much before and long after a film itself does. And given the manner in which film songs permeate both public and private spaces, it is not hard to imagine the range of desires and attachments that people in different situations bring to bear on their engagement with the music [an example that cuts across youth cultures around the world: making mix tapes for all kinds of reasons].

*hmph* I could go on and on, but I'll just be snarky and say rock snobs never seem to tire of critiquing film music perhaps because they recognize that rock music in India has never quite managed to move from being a subculture to something more mainstream.

10:32 AM  
Kanya said...

Aswin's comment is great. The popular relationship to Hindi film music is pretty complicated. For instance, even if you haven't seen the film, it is often the repository of romance fantasies, provides a language for 'love' that is pretty much absent in other forms of Indian (certainly middle-class culture), and has a suggestiveness that goes beyond the film. Many educated Indians note that they revert to English when they need a language of romance. Hindi film music has had poets like Sahir Ludhianvi and Gulzar associated with it, and they go far beyond the situation in the film. Technically speaking, film songs borrow from Indian ragas though arguably the possibility of improvisation is limited by the format. I think I am going to have a serious discussion about this with my husband. He is a desi blues musician who laughs at Hindi film music and is steeped in the history of rock, jazz, and blues in this country. Why do we feel we don't have a comparable complex tradition? Surely Bollywood music should be compared to Hollywood theme tunes, not to popular music traditions in general.

11:54 AM  
Gameboys said...

Thanks Amardeep! My brother was a regular reader of The Gentleman and Jaideep Verma, and got me to read a few of the same critiques posted on his blog. On this, I'll spread link-love for sure ;)

I agree with Aswin that Indian film music (not just Hindi film music, folks) has an existence beyond the films/situations. However, I have an issue when talks about rock not being mainstream at all in India - remember that rock/pop/blues are much more mainstream in the whole wide world than popular Indian music.

And yes, Indian film music and the Indi-pop scene do suffer from lack of personal expression. On the other hand so does, increasingly, western pop/rock. No wonder Verma's reverence is reserved for mostly past masters. Hard as I may try not to romanticize the '60s/70s, today's singer/songwriters are not a patch.

12:26 PM  
Kanya said...

What exactly does 'personal expression' mean? Isn't everyone performing within a tradition? And yes, some are more innovative than others--all rockers are hardly Santana or the Beatles. The same could be said of popular singers in Indian films (correction noted though it's best to speak from the tradition one knows)who bring their own stylistic features to songs or to innovative music directors who borrow rhythms from folk or other popular music. Would you say Dylan was musically innovative or just a great poet/songwriter?

3:13 PM  
Aswin said...

Gameboys - like I said, I was being snarky :)

I'd also add that film music has always been such a happy site of musical influences from all over the world coming together. And rock's influence is most evident in the expansion of orchestras and introduction of new instruments from many different places.

Check out Naresh Fernandes' delightful article on how Goan Catholic arrangers played such a critical role in shaping the "golden age" of film music:

4:39 PM  
Amardeep said...

Thanks everyone for your views and links...

The American rock scene was strongly Romantic in its 1960s glory days. The old idea of the poet-visionary-hero (Keats, Wordsworth) became transformed into poet-rockstar-visionary-hero in the 1960s.

Many people doubt Romanticism for one reason or another, but the truth is, it's hard to shake. I personally admire many of these singer-songwriters for exactly the same reasons Jaideep Varma does. Dylan and Neil Young in particular wrote some remarkable songs. (I could do without the Grateful Dead, and some of the others on Varma's list)

But that doesn't mean one can't also take Indian popular music pretty seriously. I think popular music in India has much more emphasis on identification and collective experience (think of the phenomenon of Antakshri, which doesn't exist in the U.S.).

There's beauty in that -- and a very sophisticated regime of taste -- but it works a little differently than the western rock model. I think if we take it seriously we do have to throw out most Hindi film music that's coming out these days. We're left with A.R. Rahman's best work (Lagaan, Dil Se...), and maybe soundtracks like Parineeta. Virtually everything else is disposable.

I don't know why he's so hard on the new Indi-pop scene. (Though I think it's interesting that few big stars -- Rabbi Sher-Gil being the recent exception -- have emerged out of that scene since the late 1990s. The popularity of that music has been kind of replaced by endless remixes of classic Hindi songs, don't you think?)

The other thing Varma doesn't talk about is new electronic stuff like Midival Punditz (based in Delhi, they are). Nor does he get into the new (largely NRI/ABCD) fusion music. He makes a favorable mention of Rabbi Sher Gill, but I would be curious to know what he would make of Vishal Vaid or Kiran Ahluwalia...

Hm, seems like there's another post in all this discussion. (Someone needs to do a compare-and-contrast of Antakshri and Karaoke...)

7:21 PM  
jaideep said...

Hello everybody, found this on my google search; really glad to hear so many interesting points-of-view, which is something I didn't get at all when I was burrowed in my hole during the paper-media days.

I took a lot of flak for that film music comment when it came out. Four years have passed since then, and frankly, that point is made even more strongly now. There is a direct correlation with the films that are being made.

I'm not really a Brit and American rock snob though, I love some Middle-Eastern, South American, and a LOT of African music for their kind of personal expression (my biggest grouse with Live 8 was that they didn’t showcase the African musicians enough when such a great opportunity presented itself). Don’t check out the chart-toppers there – their mainstream is almost as bad as ours, but the work happening outside it. It’s more than being musically innovative – it’s expressing something more rooted to who they are and what is preoccupying them, not in an escapist sense, but in a real one-on-one sense. That’s what personal expression means to me, anyway. The whole singer-songwriter movement came out of that.

My problem with Indian film music, like popular Indian films (and indeed, Indian fiction too, for the most part, popular or not), is that they do NOT express the real feelings in our society most of the time, especially the contemporary milieu. And when they do, they express a very very narrow part of it. In the fifties or sixties or even seventies, I think our film music did express those emotions much more accurately because our films were more rooted. (One of the reasons why the Beatles exploded in the early sixties in the UK was precisely because everyone related instantly to their expression. See what was going on there otherwise – skiffle, The Shadows, etc; in Ireland – show bands.) Perhaps that will happen in India too one day; people like Rabbi and Indian Ocean have started that, on their terms, but the music industry in India today is very different from the UK in the early sixties, so there are many more obstacles.

I think Kanya's comment is very interesting - "Surely Bollywood music should be compared to Hollywood theme tunes, not to popular music traditions in general." Bang on. That also explains my “personal expression” observation – which is basically that any expression within a format, and one as sickeningly kitschy and derivative as today’s hindi films, does not have the mandate to explore as much as the “western-style” singer-songwriter does. And, of course, film tunes have a complex relationship with the audience; it’s almost the only music most people get to hear in India.

And Gameboys, no, my fascination is not with the past masters at all. They’ve just had more time to build a body of work, but I think there is absolutely great music that is coming out today as well, from new and old bands/ musicians; it’s just not in the mainstream, that’s the big difference.

And Amardeep, it doesn’t matter what musicians are on your (or my) list of all-time greats or not. The songwriters series was meant to include all those (or as many as possible) who made a huge difference to that music. There were some who have had an undeniable impact, but I didn’t like them as much, but that doesn’t mean I (or you) can deny their impact. Nirvana, for example (which was why I had asked someone else to write that piece as their music spoke to him) You’re missing the point by talking about how romantic American music was in the sixties. This is almost four decades later – the music has survived – nothing romantic about that.
Why am I so hard on the Indian pop scene? You answered it partly yourself after asking it. Midival Punditz? Fad music, like 99% of the ABCD pop scene. Simple test – see how much you remember of that music just two years later (or after it comes out).

Antakshari? Let’s not mistake a catchy pastime for a major cultural symptom. But one observation – if you notice the songs that are remembered by people, the proportion of post-eighties to pre-eighties songs could startle you.

Have said a lot, but I guess I got stirred by all your responses. Thanks for that, and thanks Amardeep for starting it.


1:41 PM  
kanya said...

Thanks to Amardeep, Jaideep, and everyone else for maintaining a truly high level of exchange on this very interesting subject. I actually liked Jaideep's article more than I thought I would once I read it all the way through. Most of all, I really appreciated the measured response to everyone, the seriousness with which he took comments, and the good spirit in which he responded. Why do I find it unusual? Because a lot of discussions on desi websites get heated, abusive, at cross-purposes, dogmatic, and opinionated, and no one wants to entertain another person's idea for even a minute.
Thanks again, I am enjoying this.

4:56 PM  
jaideep varma said...

Thanks Kanya. Yes, it is a very interesting subject, and different points of view always add dimensions to the issues. Not sure if anybody else is enjoying those dimensions in this case though.


4:26 AM  
Slogans said...

The American and British muscians mentioned here are history anyways. That was probably the zenith of their culture. I have a feeling that we will be seeing some good music coming from India.

I particularly like Rabbi and his song called "Jugni"

If you guys get a chance, listen to it.



2:41 AM  
Atin Dasgupta said...

Hi guys,

Just a googler here who somehow managed to wander into this space inhabited by some really intelligent people exemplified by the language used and the radical thoughts expressed. I did not have the time to read all of it though I have come to the conclusion that the denizens of this page are really vociferous about the non-existence of the Indian pop and rock music scene and the lack of individuality inherent in the scene today. Well, I couldn't agree with all of you more on that. I happened to read one of Gandhiji's sayings quoted by a life insurance advert stuck on a back of a bus while driving today. It said - You must try and be the change that you wish to see in the world. Very true. Please click on the link below and download a song that is available for free to dowbload and burn - a track that we have recorded recently and that has been received quite favourably amongst musicians and the music buffs at large. Please burn the song if you like it and listen to it at home, on the way to the office, at your office, at a friend's house, etc. Hope you like it.



Atin Dasgupta

8:59 AM  

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