Music Lessons: On Social Actors, Voices and Aesthetics in the Subcontinent

by Gautam Pemmaraju

I. Deviations Images

Last December, while at a common friend’s house in North London, Steve Savale or Chandrasonic of the British band Asian Dub Foundation played us a video clip of a recent concert of theirs in St Petersburg. Prior to their performance, a local production person had approached the band with a message – there was a man who needed to see them urgently. A Tajik, who had earlier that week been brutally beaten up by Russian police, pleaded with the band to put him on stage for just the one song. In his plea, heartfelt as it was, there appeared to be the promise of the undoing of some wrong, an anodyne correction of injustice and brutality. He went on stage to sing a medley1 of two Bollywood songs, both from the 1982 hit film Disco Dancer – Goron Ki Na Kaalon Ki and Jimmy, Jimmy. Keeping rhythm on a aluminum bucket while providing instrumental phrasing, solos and bridges alike, the impassioned singer incorporated a famous desi trick, well known to and enthusiastically advertised in low-brow entertainment of small town India, as well as in filmi shows that travel to perform for diasporic communities across the world: ‘special item – man singing in ladies voice’. The first song, with its popular humanist message, declares that the world belongs neither to whites nor to blacks, but to those with hearts (or lovers to be less literal), while the second one, well known to many South Asians for its kitschy appeal (and the nostalgia it evokes), was covered by M.I.A a few years ago. A version by the Russian pop singer Angel-A has also made its appearance recently.

This collision of different identities sets up the stage for many a discussion – the insidious and wide influence of Bollywood, shared culture amongst the political allies of the Cold War era, the efficacy and appeal of humanist and polemical messages, dynamic appropriations of fringe elements in pop-culture, and issues of ‘authenticity’ and ‘false-consciousness’ in fetishism and bricolage. Amidst all the elements that may find themselves in the mix, so to speak, the twin processes of creation and mediation and the actors involved, provide fascinating insights into what seems a duplicitous web of irresolvable complexity.

Having been associated with music, musicians, music television and music production for a significant part of my professional life (and continue to be), I am resigned to many unanswered questions and contentious issues– there are no hit formulae, there only appear to be some at certain times; finding ‘voice’ is unpredictable and imprecise; what people like is highly complex and yet seems, oftentimes, really quite simple; resonance is both a physical and psychological phenomenon. What I can though say with absolute certainty is that I still remain profoundly enamoured by music and its diverse gratifications.

II. Bum Notes Quick_Gun_Murugan04

The primary distribution channel of popular music in India historically has been cinema. Non-film content (ghazals, folk, devotional and western), released as ‘private albums’ in the decades leading up to end of this millennium, always played second fiddle. At times, these forms have been co-opted into the film machine and provided for the occasional hit and the brief stardom of fringe players. 1992 was a watershed year – it saw the arrival of satellite television. MTV brought ‘foreign’ images and sounds that fed the insatiable appetites of the country’s youth and then in its wake, Channel [V] created a unique identity, staking its claim over the nation’s psyche and articulating a youthful, brash and homegrown confidence. The famous catchphrase ‘we are like this only’, expressed the idiosyncratic post-colonial nation coming into its own, self-aware in the knowledge of its flawed English, the obfuscating non-linear head nod, its confounding vegetarianism that drew derision from all quarters, silly moustaches and rice bellies2. The underlying message was unambiguous: this is how we look, this is what we eat, this is how we speak, and we don’t care if you laugh at us because we will laugh at ourselves before that.

This was far from the highly problematic triumphalism that has infected the nation in the last decade – most certainly not ‘India Shining’. This was the being self-aware and having fun with it.

The fact that it all unraveled is unsurprising – successful pop culture percolates. Advertising and Bollywood co-opted this new idiom and the many tropes it generated, most often to gimmicky, insipid ends, only occasionally managing to hit the right notes; the music industry, having churned out one too many Bhangra-pop artists and ‘feel-good’ romantic ballads, up-ended and all but stopped releasing ‘Indi-pop’ artists; the effects of piracy and the ‘long-tail’ syndrome kicked in; digital distribution tentatively made its appearance; and music artists finally began to wake up to the fact that they had to either capitulate to Bollywood/advertising or live a life of abject penury.

In a scathing review a couple of years ago of the popular Hindi film ‘Rock On’, which portrays the journey and the regrouping of a Bombay based rock band (named Magik), Guardian journalist Nirpal Dhaliwal, angrily attacks the film as an embodiment of what he hates most about contemporary urban Indian youth (or ‘mollycoddled bourgeois hipsters’) – mindless aping of the west, ‘desperate, pretentious attempts at looking hip’, ‘psuedo-laddish camaraderie’ and empty rebellion3. He argues that India provides its youth many things to be angry about but all that seems to come to the fore, all that seems to find voice and agency, is this sort of offensive schmaltz.

Indeed, there are many things to be angry about as there are many things to be concerned about, many things to be elated about, many things to feel easy about, many things to feel many things about. So is there music that expresses these many things? Or has India been so ‘up its own arse’, so self-congratulatory, gleefully wringing its hands at its new found wealth, be it even ill gotten, that it now just diabolically fetishizes its venality and self-indulgence? Is the music being created linked to and honestly responsive to our individual and collective realities? What does the music we make say about the nation at large? Are we as a nation fearful to confront our demons, fearful to speak out? Who are we?


III. Three Rappers

Roushan Illahi, aka MC Kash, a twenty year old student of Srinagar in Kashmir, is a rapper. A news wire agency ran a story of his song “I Protest” and several publications carried it4. When I finally got through to him on the phone he asked me to call back. Later that evening, Roushan, a well-mannered and thoughtful young man, explained to me that he had been at a friend’s house earlier watching some home videos. In one clip, Roushan continued, his friend’s young niece, all of three years, posed for the camera and called for azaadi (freedom). She was so cute Roushan went on to say, particularly, in the little dramatic scene that she acted out wherein she pelted stones at the armed forces and stood her ground defiantly.

Roushan was born in 1990, in the year of the Intifada he explained to me, and has been witness to the uprising, militarization, militancy and more recently, the bloody violence resulting in the deaths of hundreds of innocents. The lyrics of his song are clear: “I protest, I will throw stones and never run; I protest, till my freedom has come”. When I asked why he did not rap in Kashmiri or Urdu, he politely explained that he had earlier considered rapping in Kashmiri but everyone around him knew what was going on. He didn’t need to tell his people, he said, it was the world that needed to know. Hence English.

The language of victimhood and protest (‘scars everywhere’, ‘scared parents’, ‘truth is infinite’, ‘suffering of my people’) is contextually powerful. In the context of young, urbane, English speaking Kashmiris reaching out to share their experiences and their thoughts (Basharat Peer’s book ‘Curfewed Night’ is a first of its kind), particularly in the digital age where countless distribution channels are available, MC Kash’s raps gain critical relevance. And they point straight to the heart of the matter – examining one’s reality and giving it artistic dimensions is a key process in ‘finding voice’. The mere fact that he has raised his voice in a new and innovative way (for his context) is testament to some manner of change – despite the constraints of the system he is able to ‘act’. Roushan wants to go abroad for an MBA and continue doing music and speaking out for his people.

Suresh Agalianbose aka Slimstyler Sean is also twenty years old, has finished his Bachelor’s in Commerce and he too, wants to go on to do an MBA. Sean is a part of the ‘Tamil Electro’ group Sout Dandy Squad based out of Dharavi, the large slum/ghetto in Bombay that caught worldwide attention due to Slumdog Millionaire, much to the annoyance of many, including Sean, who declared that he was irritated with people asking him about his house, his circumstances, living in a slum, etc, and not about his music. He petulantly informed me that he was not interested in questions along those lines. It was a happy coincidence since I was keen to know what his group sang about. With a bit of fame under their belt, Sean and his 'posse' are playing it safe he informs me. They have shared stage space with Apache Indian, the Timbaland crew and have had a track remixed by the Black Eyed Peas. He refers to Tupac as one of his influences (but Tamil composer Ilayaraja as the main one) and when I ask why, replies compactly: “He’s from the ghetto, I’m from the ghetto. That’s all.”

Their song My Blocc fascinatingly references early electro rap and hip-hop with stacatto beats, Roland TR 808 style, incorporating filmi strings, tabla phrases, and featuring English and Tamil lyrics. One Marathi line pops up in the track, a phrase they hear a lot from local beat cops: “motherfucker, get back inside”. The main English refrain – “dis is my spot, dis is my crib, dis is my shot” – Sean tells me, is not just about his neighbourhood D-Block (Dharavi), it is about Mumbai, and it could, he excitedly says, be about the world. The song is a dense, at times confounding, collage of diverse images and identities linked to their sense of pride in being Tamil and from Dharavi. The Tamil lyrics invoke nationalism and Dalit identity: “dis is my country, to protect dis is our duty, laws shud change, a new ambedkar shud be born”. No guns, drugs and booze feature in their raps although there are occasional allusions to ‘bitches’. Armed with ample attitude, clothes and flash to match, Sean is a true homegrown ‘Rude Boy’.

Calcutta based Q (Kaushik Mukherjee) has gained some notoriety for his recent film Gandu (Loser) which features a highly graphic sex scene5. The eponymous protagonist is a rapper, filled with anger that finds egress through his raps. His mother is a prostitute and he is a pushover, unable to grasp certitude, self-respect and confidence. His atmosphere is rife with psycho-sexual provocations and he is in constant battle with them. He desperately seeks release. Highly influenced by punk stylists Asian Dub Foundation, Gandu raps an onomatapoeiac song, mimicking the manner and the cadences of a cycle rickshaw in motion. The title track however, is a strident expression of his disaffection and rage. The only comfort he has is in striking back, turning the tables around on his many oppressors and usurpers: “One day I will haunt you like a ghost. You will be a ballon, and I will be the safety pin”. He raps also of the joys of masturbation, which Q says over the phone, is less a rap and more a dirty poem. The anarchic posture and the psychological militancy espoused by Gandu is very much what the filmmaker (a failed musician he informs me) himself feels. In a lengthy discussion very late at night, he offers that the frustration and anger is a creative one. Anger at false voices, bad films, stupid songs, annoying advertisements, phoney claims and general phoniness all around – this is the source of the anger. And then of course, there is sex. The graphic quality of this bleak urban tale is not to everyone’s taste and it has its share of pitfalls and flaws. But in concept it scores highly, cutting through the mindless, thoughtless and soulless collective consciousness that has increasingly found dominion. Here in India.

IV. In the neighbourhood of history and influence

The Pakistani TV show Coke Studio6 is hugely popular across board and online viewers in India are no less enamoured. The enthusiasm is genuine and is thankfully not yet tainted by tiresome bilateral political rhetoric. Recent Pakistani diasporic writing has explored the connections between music, identity and politics in Pakistan. Aside from musician Salman Ahmed’s book Rock & Roll Jihad, Kamila Shamsie’s recent memiorish piece in Granta examines these linkages while evocatively describing her teenage years, the emergence of pop-culture, the ‘dissonance’ of Islamization and the importance of hit songs such as Dil, dil Pakistan by the band Vital Signs, on youth culture and national psyche. Meesha-Shafi-1

Umer Sheikh, the CEO of EMI Pakistan, provided some background. In 1992, he said to me on the phone, around 8.4 million music cassettes (all genres) were sold per month, most of which was pirated Indian content – basically Bollywood content. With the emergence of the new economic, educated class that was born in the seventies, things started to change. Two main distinctions of music existed, post the demise of the Pakistani film industry (the last great film soundtrack he points out was Bandish in 1980) – urbanized popular music and semi-urban content. He points to social class, mobility, education as factors in the shaping of a distinct form of contemporary music, generationally unique and timely. Drawing strongly from folk, traditional and Sufi sources, Coke Studio, as Shamsie also points out, brings together a diverse range of talent and represents a successful, contemporary reshaping of the popular music landscape in Pakistan.

I spoke also to Rohail Hyatt – the Executive Producer of Coke Studio. On the personal level, he explained to me, the process of making music in this manner, before an audience, with diverse elements located primarily within Pakistan, evoking native sentiments, ideas, and associations, but with a rock, rock-pop encasing, is “a well thought out reaction to our environment”. It is therefore a process of self-reflection he added, a necessary one, and a means to grasp ‘who we are’. After having traveled metaphorically ‘outside’, by embracing western music and being in a rock band, the thoughtful Hyatt says that it has reached a point of traveling ‘inside’, ‘looking inwards’, and rearticulating what is essentially ‘ours’. He points to a sense of alienation and says Coke Studio is a process of recovery. The recovery here entails the humanist/spiritualist messages of popular Sufism, robustly articulated by the likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri Brothers, Aziz Mian, Pathaney Khan who too similarly drew from the well spring, from the Sufi songbook of the many saints, pirs, murshads and fakirs revered and loved by millions across the sub continent.

Here too, in India, there have been several attempts at this recovery of an artistic humanist/spiritualist construct – the pop Sufi idea. Singer Rabbi Shergil found overnight success with his song, Bulla Ki Jaana Main Kaun in 20047 – an intelligent and emotively charged reworking of a composition of the Punjabi Sufi saint, Bulleh Shah. The song found great favour across the country, as did the songs of another popular singer, Kailash Kher. Interestingly here, one of Kher’s big hits Teri Deewani, an adaptation of a famous qawali (Khwaja Ki Diwaani) in praise of the patron saint of the Sufi shrine at Ajmer in Rajasthan, ‘secularizes’ the lyrics, removing from them any Islamic inflection. Espousing a generalized notion of Bhakti or devotion, the song’s message is one of crazed love, a common theme echoed in countless other compositions. Intriguingly, this process seems to be one of ‘anti-syncretism’ – an unconscious purging of ‘contaminants’. A great deal of this kind of music is natively syncretic in nature, drawing deftly from multiple faiths, traditions and customs. An incandescent example of this, found in the repertoire of the Sabri Brothers, Aziz Mian and Munshi Raziuddin amongst others, is the famous Meera bhajan, Eri Main to Prem Diwani. My personal favourite has always been the Aziz Mian version8.

Charles Stewart and Rosalind Shaw, in the introduction to their book Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism:9 point to the negative space that the term ‘syncretism’ has remained in, particularly in post-modern anthropology, where the preferred term for syncretic processes often is ‘creolization’. Culture as collage is more appealing than culture as merely syncretic. Citing Kenneth George, the editors argue “the arena of syncreticism is a deeply politicized site of difference, contact and reconciliation”. The current ideological import (or lack) of the contentious term is framed by opposing processes – the false distillation of religious, ethnic, linguistic identities across India. Hindutva conducts and leverages such ‘cleansing’ and empowers its agents with the resulting distillate.

V. Voice

Rahul Ram, of the band Indian Ocean10, probably the longest surviving Indian band, put it quite simply to me: who will ask you to perform if you are an activist singer? Although not a polemical band themselves, Ram is an enthusiastic advocate of independent voices. We discuss the Bant Singh Project, where a group of music composers, DJs and a rapper collaborated on a song with Bant Singh, a Punjabi Dalit communist worker who was viciously attacked and left for dead four years ago by upper class youth. The protest idiom, generated mostly in the hinterland and semi-rural India, draws directly from day to day experience and the political language of social justice. This brings up the proposition Ram discusses – it is in the absence of ‘authentic’ urban voices that richly imagined counter-urban voices seem more ‘real’ and ‘authentic’.

Jeet Thayil, a Bombay based poet, guitarist and writer, is part of the duo Sridhar-Thayil11. Somewhat of an oddity on the scene due to the ‘literary’ dimensions to their music (described as lyrical pop), their songs explore ‘urban grime’. He too suggested that false consciousness, in Bombay at least, is due to associations with Bollywood/advertising. Working within the idiomatic confines of these massive ‘behemoths’, he says, is pretty much condemning oneself to uncritical and for the most part, false ideas. It’s inevitable that one falls into a managed pattern of production and anything not contained within is rejected. Fringe voices have always existed, as a recent magazine article explored. Featuring four singer-songwriters, from Delhi, Calcutta to Shillong and Imphal, the article maps their struggles (creative and otherwise). 60 year Susmit Bose explains that his kind are not “desi Dylans”, but are just following “a tradition of socially engaged, relevant music”. Countless such fringe actors exist, some trapped idiomatically in the past, others unable to find 'voice', yet others condemned to day jobs and oblivion.

Asian Dub Foundation was on its first ever tour to India last week. I went to see them in Pune where five thousand people danced in unison as they exploded on stage. They are a formidable live act, deeply polemical in bits, punkish, challenging and hugely entertaining. In Bombay, they performed at the Hard Rock Café. Introducing the song Superpower, Steve Chandrasonic informs the audience that most people think the song is about America, but it’s actually about India12.

That is the dominant discourse in India – triumphalism. That is the dominant voice. Thankfully there are others. It’s just a matter of seeking them out.







7 Rabbi Shergil is also known for his outspoken, polemical songs


9 Charles Stewart & Rosalind Shaw (ed), Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism:The Politics of Religious Synthesis, Routledge (1994)



12 Writer/Journalist Naresh Fernandes pointed out Superpower to be the most striking track that evening while alluding to the obvious ironies at play.

* An interesting example of syncretic music is a recording of a Tamil Muslim troupe featured in the Laya Project – a documentary film on music in the regions affected by the 2004 Tsunami produced by Earthsync Productions based out of Chennai.

** Sean is the founder of the Sout Block Dandies who also consist of ML, MO, RaU, Skinny Blac (a graffiti artist), Notorious Shankar and Raze (a miniature artist).