Amardeep Dhillon wishes English-language music sites would stop exoticising India’s music scene, boiling it down to Bollywood’s Top 40
Last year, Noisey – Vice magazine’s music platform and favoured site of the edgiest millennials – ran a small piece on a dozen Bollywood tracks shared by the producer Ryan Hemsworth in the wake of the Nepal earthquake, where he encountered them last year. As a young British Indian, I read with pride as Noisey praised Hemsworth’s selection as ‘12 tracks of the most exciting, experimental music I’ve heard in ages.’ And then I listened to it.
These 12 tracks are some of the biggest Indian hits of the past two years – they are not particularly experimental, and definitely not deserving of the unqualified praise Noisey greets them with. ‘Shudh Desi Romance’ sounds like the meaningless pop song it is; ‘Pyaar Tera’ is a soporifically bland acoustic piece, and ‘Bawlaa Sa Sapna’ (The Children Come to Sing) is about as compelling as songs sung by five year olds can be. Had these songs been sung in English, I doubt they would have merited any attention at all. While they were shared for a good cause (to encourage donations in the aftermath of the earthquake), the extent to which they were lauded smacks of exoticism.
Bollywood is the bane of purists, the amorphous love child of Hindustani classical and Anglo-American pop, routinely reworking India’s diverse regional musical traditions and incorporating every genre on the subcontinent and beyond to churn out hundreds of soundtracks every year. Much of it may be mediocre or embarrassing, but the genre as a whole is pretty experimental. Of the artists on this selection, Bappi Lahiri has composed music for over 500 films, Sonu Nigam has sung for some of the industry’s biggest blockbusters and Shreya Ghoshal’s list of awards and nominations for playback singing has its own Wikipedia page. I’m not denying their talent, but they and the other artists featured here are representative of mainstream music, and any notion that they are groundbreaking displays a total ignorance of the Indian music scene.
This is not to say that popular artists can’t be groundbreaking. This year, for example, Sachin-Jigar’s immensely popular soundtrack for Badlapur featured the shehnai in a powerful rock number and a haunting sarangi riff in an understated duet, demonstrating the perfect acoustic love song and then remixed it expertly for the dance floor. The songs on Hemsworth’s selection, however, are as a whole less original. They might be different from anything Noisey’s heard before, but (unlike Badlapur’s soundtrack) that doesn’t mean they are a departure from Bollywood norms. Or even its best work.
It shouldn’t be enough for English-language music reviewers to acknowledge the existence of ‘foreign’ music as a curiosity: Indian music, like any other music, should be considered on its own merits, track by track. I’m tired of the fetishising superlatives, and I can’t quite believe that the ‘most exciting, experimental music’ in so long is taken from 2014’s Indian Top 40. The initial excitement felt at realising Indian music was finally receiving some coverage on one of my favourite websites soon disappeared, as I realised that it took a white guy going to Nepal and tweeting about it for a nation of one billion to even get a mention. It got me thinking about other foreign language music featured on online media.
European variants on hip-hop, punk, rock and indie are regularly featured on online English-language platforms: Indian equivalents, even when sung in English, are largely ignored. Even the most ‘alternative’ media’s exclusion of non-European music in its appreciation of youth culture reinforces the image of the cool kid as typically north of the Brandt Line. This is, I suppose, why a few hundred well-intentioned words have annoyed me so much – as a British Indian, media that unwittingly reinforces a cultural divide is personally alienating.
Aside from Bollywood and its folk traditions, there is a wealth of under-exposed, cutting-edge Indian music that would, I’m sure, be well-received abroad: Prateek Kuhad’s acoustic masterpieces, the ambience of trip-hop duo Sulk Station, Papon’s multilingual folk-fusion and the weirdness of Madboy/Mink’s electro-cabaret-disco-funk. Begum, Indigo Children and Peter Cat Recording Co are making the kind of indie rock that hipsters dream of discovering; Midival Punditz, Bandish Projekt and Nucleya are shaping a new Indian electronica; and Viveick Rajagopalan’s immersive percussion and Baiju Dharmajan’s Karnatic rock are the most recent examples of India’s ‘most exciting, experimental music’ I’ve heard in ages.
In the last few years, a surge in corporate sponsorship (with shows like Coke Studio) has brought some of these new artists into the spotlight. The on-going Bacardi-sponsored NH7 Weekender, a multi-city festival with a huge social media presence, proves that there is a mass market for Indian alternative music. But sponsorship shouldn’t be the only route to success for an independent artist. Exposure is essential to gaining a fanbase, and while YouTube and social media are making it easier for these artists to reach audiences across borders, they are still drowned out by the roar of Bollywood.
This is where sites like Noisey should come in – these artists need and deserve to be heard. I’d rather read about them than see the most accessible aspect of my culture Columbused as a niche genre of music. I appreciate the recognition, but Noisey, if we’re going to talk about Indian music at all, let’s do it right.