Posted by: Vikram | October 12, 2008

Indian and American music: Tradition (and pretension) vs Innovation

As with many (perhaps most) young urban Indians in India and abroad, my collection of music includes an array of Indian (mostly filmi) music and Western (mostly American/British). I can conjecture that I among the few young Indians who include Talat Mahmood‘s Jalte Hain Jiske Liye among my collection, although I wouldnt mind if this conjecture was false. Indeed, if movies, like Rock On!!, are any indication of what the ‘mainstream’ Indian youth likes these days, they are perhaps more likely to know who Elton John is, than Talat Mahmood or Mukesh.

Comparisons can be drawn straight from the 50s/60s when the modern popular music industry began to take shape. What I find commonly in Indian songs, is a very great emphasis on the lyrics and the vocals. Jalte Hain Jiske Liye (जलते हैं जिसके लिए) is a great example of this, a stanza of which goes,

दिल में रख लेना इस्से हाथों से ये छुटे ना कही,
गीत नाज़ुक हैं मेरा शीशे से भी टूटे न कही,
गुनगुनाउंगा यही गीत में तेरे लिए ….

There seems to be a general theme of unrequited or (socially) unpermitted love in Indian songs of that day, these are less frequent in American music, which tend to be more about the people in love than the love itself, an example being Elvis Presley’s ‘You Are Always on My Mind‘. There is also a tradition of songs that convey great pathos and pain (not necessarily romantic in origin) in Indian popular music, one example being Talat’s Ae Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal (ए मेरे दिल कहीं और चल), the last lines of which go,

लुट रहा था किस्सीका जहाँ,
देखती रह गयी यह ज़मीन,
चुप रहा बेरहम आसमान

(Somebody was losing everything,
But the earth watched silently,
And the merciless sky was quiet)

Of course there are songs in the same sort of genre in American music too, but they tend to emphasize the faults of man than the general environment, one famous example being John Lennon’s Imagine.

There was a great revolution in Western music in the late 60s with the arrival of the Beatles (popular introduction of bands) and Led Zeppelin (Album Oriented Music). Till today, the rock genre of American music has more or less retained these aspects. However many innovations have been ushered in this genre in terms of the musical content, prominent among these being the country/folk rock of The Eagles, the psychedelic space rock of Pink Floyd and then later the more modern/punk rock introduced by the REM and Pearl Jam in the late 80s which are probably the dominant influences today.

I cannot say that Indian music has undergone a similar ‘revolution’ at any time in the last 40 years. Indeed, it has been faithful to the filmi concept, where the bulk of the music industry is an integral part of the movie industry, perhaps it is the only entertainment industry where this arrangement exists. In any case, this has greatly restricted the development of Indian music in my opinion. Particularly, in producing a truly independent musical counter-culture like the rock band Pink Floyd represents, Indian music comes up very short. While retaining its lyrical beauty, mainstream Indian music has failed to produce music that genuinely surprises people, and makes them think, cry and smile, even 20-30 years after it was originally made.

And I am afraid, movies like Rock On and their music, far from representing a ‘rock’ revolution in Indian music, or the genuine creativity of the Indian youth, are simply misdirected pretensions. Rock music represents an outlet for anger or passion, which is the result of some kind of oppression. I dont see whats oppressing India’s Levi’s wearing, Domino’s eating youth when many millions of children eke out a living on the streets that they make more dangerous after drinking their Smirnoff’s and speeding in their Fords. Of course, they will always have the ‘Times of India’ to tell the world how it was really the poor labourer’s (or the government’s) fault that he died under their speeding wheels.

There are indeed truly revolutionary Indian bands, Indian Ocean is one example that I am aware of. But when was the last time you heard that name on MTV India ?


  1. @ Vikram : Nice post though your Hindi/Urdu seems to have some spelling mistakes 🙂

    Indian folk music is what I like a lot. I also like Nepali pop/rock and folk music.

    Sorry about the spelling mistakes, I guess I am better at Marathi spelling than Hindi spelling since that was our second language in our school, Hindi only started in 5th standard I think.

  2. I also wrote about some old favourites of mine today 🙂
    I like the Hindi songs you have mentioned, though the one I really like is from ‘door gagan ki chaon mein’.

    Yes, the old ones are always the best ones arent they ? 🙂

  3. I liked this post very much. I am a man from Rome, Italy, and in my last post I talk about Indian music though not possessing a real knowledge of it. I don’t know if Indian popular music has undergone a revolution or not in the last 40 years. But I basically prefer it to western popular music. It conveys more depth, in my view.

    All the best

    Man of Roma

    • @ Man of Roma, welcome. Yes, Indian music has some very unique qualities vis a vis Western music. In particular its lyricism and syncretism (both in lyrics and instruments) are very endearing.

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