The World of Music: Finding a Voice

Article by Vidya Shah in the Hindustan Times, 21st June, 2012

21st of June is celebrated as World Music Day, a day when music is celebrated world over. We should think of a celebration too, after all India is known for its rich musical traditions. But maybe it’s a good time to think of what we should celebrate. Indian music is usually relegated to a broad, nebulous category called “World Music” seen most obviously in international award ceremonies including the coveted Grammy. A lead member of a well-known band in India recently remarked, whatever music some influential musicians in the west couldn’t make head or tail of was all thrown into one large pot and called world music. This includes our rich traditions of classical, pop or folk music and even the robust and rich forms of Latino or African music.
The perception from the west still evokes a sense of the exotic, sometimes a paradox. Reminds one of the famous picture showing the ethnologist Frances Densmore with a seemingly puzzled Mountain Chief of the Piegan Blackfeet during a phonograph recording session. Although it was a picture taken way back in 1916, there is an assertion of superiority that comes through in the dynamics between technologies on the one hand and traditional aesthetics on the other, which continues to resonate even today.
In the international arena, non-Western music representation is often romanticized still. In India too barring a few exceptions like Pt.Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan or the genius from across the border, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, there has been a tendency in general, there is little that non-Western sites of music both performance and production are aware of. The only exception has been Hindi film music, which has impacted local and to some extent global publics.
It’s true that music in India has come a very long way. But it appears that in the process it has lost its various identities. It hasn’t quite been understood as a heterogeneous reality and as the well-known ethnomusicologist Ashok Ranade said it as a ‘cultural federation of sorts.’ Such an aerial view might help put in perspective the present form, patronage and the manner in which this music needs to be consumed and disseminated (would call the attention of the state to the lack of imagination in this arena). Also it is important to acknowledge that Indian music has been deeply affected by cultural modernity, by technology and access to it. Like elsewhere in the world, there is no escaping the impact of technology. It has revolutionized distribution, democratized access, and re-imagined the scope and scale with which an artist can create a vision and reach an audience.
Not to suggest that closer home we are not saddled with other problems. Many in the audience at a classical music concert still refer to a Tanpura (the drone that is an essential in any vocal concert) as Sitar, a Sarangi is often looked at as a museum piece and people even ask if it’s a Sarod or (this one is a shocker) a ‘Banjo’. At a workshop on music appreciation with young college girls from Delhi and other smaller towns like Jallandhar and Lucknow, when presented with photographs of the legends, they were unable to recognize even one of the greats this including Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Vilayat Khan. Part of the problem stems in the way we tend to put all Indian music into one large melting pot!
But what is redeeming is that it is this very culture of music has persisted through major changes – be it wars or the rise and fall of kingdoms. This is also a culture that has journeyed away from its ‘home’ only to be welcomed in other parts of the world. In fact Indian classical music is a wonderful example of its ability to thrive and adapt across time and space despite the veritable metamorphosis that it has undergone over nearly four centuries and continues to adapt and evolve even today; redefining audiences, their expectations and those of the ‘performer’. These changes become visible, in performance and practice. Maintaining continuity between past and present, change and tradition, and music production is a challenge; cracking it might well lead us into a celebration of ‘musics of the world’ rather than ‘World Music’!

Vidya Shah is a musician and Director, Women on Record

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Ignoring the notes and sounds

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