A Musical Journey

East to WestI have loved music all my life. In my earlier days going up in Mumbai, I was fortunate to be exposed to music from many cultures and of course western Pop, classical and instrumental to a lesser degree.

Those days Indian songs were published only as part of a movie. A typical movie would last 3 hours and may contain half a dozen songs with meaningful lyrics and placed at the appropriate part of the script. There was a logic behind this format of movie making and I realized that much later in life as I kept looking back for a better understanding of why the Indian movie format was so lengthy and lyrical.

Before movies, India had a rich culture of stage dramas. These were held in open air makeshift stage in villages. The story was told in song and dance format. In Maharashtra, the stage form was called “Tamasha” which means fun. In Gujarat it was called “Bhawai” and I am sure other states had their own form of theater based on story telling through songs.

While this evolved into two branches, we had the stage drama that we see now and it is mostly devoid of songs. It is my belief that the other branch took off from silent movies on to celluloid and thus was born the early “Bollywood”. In the early days, it was very expensive to make a movie. The producers were forced to make sure that the movie appealed to a larger audience. That meant having elements of the various states in the script so that the movie may find traction across India and have a better chance of returning the investment. Further, it was too risky to move away from the song based narrative and at the same time, the early success of drama without songs meant that the producers settled for a hybrid of script interlaced with songs. The diversity was achieved by having characters from different states or incorporating songs that reflected the culture of the states.

When I was growing up in the 70’s, the songs had achieved a certain quality both in terms of lyrics and recording. We had some great singers and some of them would modulate their voice to suit the actors that lip synced those songs on screen. Meanwhile, we started seeing playback devices such as turntables and cassette record players. In the eighties, we had good quality Stereo recordings as well as HiFi separates. However, they were very expensive for the average middle class household. Around the same time, lots of Indians got employment in the middle East and would bring back portable stereo players.

There is a rich variety of music in India.  One of the important contributor was Jagjit Singh who not only rejuvenated the ancient musical form of Ghazals but also gave great importance to arrangement, sound mixing and record quality. I think his body of work needs a separate post.

Between the 90’s and the end of the millennium, playback devices became cheaper and of better quality. Records became cheaper and more affordable.This lead to some movies being made with less songs and also indie bands released some really good singles and albums as well as music videos. A few of them come to mind – EuphoriaColonial CousinsSilk route. It marked the influence of western music on the Indian musical scene. Also we saw the rise of a young music director – A. R. Rahman. He bought a great emphasis on music arrangement as well as modifying beats. He experimented by importing internal influence into Bollywood movie music. Here is an example of the Turkish Sufi influence.

All this marked a stark contrast between the time before the 90’s and contemporary times. Before 90’s Bollywood music had migrated from Indian classical and folk base both in terms of style and musical instruments to a hybrid state where the classical base was overlaid with European influence by incorporating and giving prominence to the Accordion and Violin. The contemporary music now uses the typical Western musical components with the drum set as the foundation in place of the traditional Tabla and Dholak. Some examples are  – Alvida and soft pop – Kuch Khaas

Even though these days I listen to mostly Western artistes on the radio and TV, every once in a while I go to my listening room and take out the old records and play them. Of course, YouTube helps keeps me in touch with the more recent songs and musical developments in India. On my recent trip to Dubai, my brother gave me a copy of his entire remastered collection and it has been fun listening to it. I have been quite fortunate to have such a wide range of music to enjoy.

 Rhyme, Recite


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