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Diplomacy in D Minor
Rohit Gupta, 25 Oct 05

pbj_main.jpgDid you know that it is compulsory for cinema-goers in Bombay to stand at attention before each movie, while the national anthem is played? A sleepy, rhythm-less monotony washes over you while the lyrics in your Indian head recount the distant lands that formulate and compose the great territory that is India, or more precisely, the British Empire, since it was first sung as an ode to King George V, Emperor of India.

By having it play prior to every movie screening, the Shiv Sena (a local political force advocating Hindu nationalism) merely demonstrates that even in a zone of temporary autonomy (the darkness of a cinema) the mere remembrance of the anthem can make you a soldier for the nation - not standing in attention is disrespect for not only the anthem, but the animated call of the waving flag.

Music and politics have a deep, if sometimes hidden, link. Besides the formal channels of foreign policy and diplomatic missionaries, music provides alternative channels of dialogue through which nations and populations can talk with each other. By comparison, the Internet and other new media appear fragmented in their reconstruction of the Other; music provides a more complete and coherent description of a distant culture to the human mind, even to folk who do not have literary habits.

Of course, the images, while complete, are not always accurate. For instance, I thought for a long time in my college years that America was a lot like the landscapes conjured up by the Grateful Dead. I would imagine Montana in that cowboy song by Frank Zappa, and Chicago (the city, not the band) in the mobster swing of Royal Crown Revue. Thousands of Indians still harbor the notion that California is a ghost-hotel somewhere in America, courtesy the Eagles. I looked it up in the Wikipedia today:

Hotel California was an album released by The Eagles in 1976 …. Using Hotel California as a metaphor for the nation, The Eagles touched on many themes, including innocence (and the loss thereof), the dangers, temptations, and transient nature of fame, shallow relationships, divorce and loss of love, the end results of manifest destiny, and the "American Dream".

An entire generation of Indians grew up thinking that America was like MTV, but I suspect that is not how you’d like to be seen. Americans must be equally misled into thinking that India is a lot like Bollywood, an equally scary notion if it is true.

Nevertheless, the streams and flows of music across the world “represent” and construct the images of distant lands for us. Even today, it is the music orphaned from the artist via recorded media, the troubadour CDs and tapes and streams of Internet data and Bit Torrents, that bring news of distant lands to us. While artists may not leave their spaces of performance, the music travels by itself.

In the middle of the 20th century, a huge peninsular pie of the British Empire was carved into several pieces which created Burma (Myanmar), Bangladesh, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Pakistan, and India. The population migrations caused several million deaths, and many more displaced as refugees. One would assume that the general mood prevailing in the subcontinent at this time would be that of trauma and that it would be reflected in popular culture.

In the films made after 1947 -- always heavily punctuated by music -- this Partition is continuously transfigured into the melodramatic crisis of a single family, or the romanticized plight of one person, separated from the other, the loved one. It is for purposes of identification and narrative comfort that the nation needs to be reflected in a family, and the border in a verandah. An early example is V. Shantaram’s Padosi (1941) which addressed the growing Hindu-Muslim separatism through two neighbors - one Hindu and the other Muslim, who play chess with each other. The Hindu role was played by a Muslim, and the Muslim role by a Hindu actor, completing the metaphor of migration and displacement.

More recently, the TV viewing audiences were subjected to the case of Sarabjeet Singh, a prisoner in Pakistan whose offence was that he had stumbled across the border in a state of drunken-ness, and the subsequent plight of his family on hearing the news that he was going to be hanged. Repeated airings of this opera by a frantic media had temporarily converted him into a national father, husband, brother and uncle - as if his individual fate was directly connected to (and represented) all Indian families:

Even Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan has extended support to the family. “I hope he is back home at the earliest,” Shah Rukh, who played the role of an IAF officer imprisoned in Pakistan on charges of being a spy in “Veer Zara”, said last evening on the sidelines of a function. – The Tribune, Chandigarh

Film-maker and poet Gulzar’s film called Lekin (1990) is about a spirit called Reva who is trying to cross the Thar desert in Rajasthan (the natural “border” between India and Pakistan) even in the afterlife to rejoin her sister Tara. She is finally helped by her lover from the past life - Mehru, reborn as a government officer, in a quest to fulfill old commitments of eternal love. This poetic allegory of the Partition features a song of separation called Yara Sili Sili, and the tune is played on a ravan-hatha, the only instrument that can mimic the sound of winds in the scorching desert, locally known as the loo. It was also in 1990 that Pakistani singer Hassan Jehangir’s Hawa-Hawa (O Wind!) could be heard in almost every Indian street, blaring on loudspeakers. Yara Sili Sili reappeared as a popular club remix in April 2005, ironically just about the time that the last remaining “refugees” of the Partition have started succumbing to natural death (a notable example being the demise of film-star and Member Of Parliament, Sunil Dutt on May 25).

If someone was born in 1940, close to the Partition, he or she would be 65 now, edging towards old age, just like the Partition metaphor itself. The trauma from the sad songs of yesteryear is erased by the dance-floor beats imported from other lands. Remixing is huge in India, and I think it is a direct statement of globalization, or the rapid dissolution and transmutation of cultures as witnessed during rapid globalization. Yara Sili Sili is therefore embellished with the sound of what I suspect is a Jamaican reggae artist. There are countless other instances of how Punjabi bhangra, reggae and hip-hop have been mixed due to their similar rhythms.

A few other songs had heavy airplay on the radio early this year– first, Teri Toh Yaad Sataye by Bombay Rockers, which also speaks of “separation and memory” of the loved one in a hip-hop beat mixed with Punjabi bhangra. It is no coincidence that Punjabi (think Vikram Chatwal) is the most popular desi influence in global culture today, nor that pre-Independence Punjab was the state that bears the deepest cut from Radcliffe’s line that divided India from Pakistan.

Pakistani bands have rapidly gained an audience in India, as well, presenting an eclectic mix of Sufiana and classical Hindustani music with overtones of seasoned rock. Hindustani classical underlies the structure of much of the music of India and Pakistan. Listen, for example to the works of maestros like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Pandit Bhimsen Joshi (pictured).

A Bollywood remix of Pakistani band Jal’s song Woh Lamhe, Woh Raatein, again a song of longing, was being heard everywhere in India, most notably in controversial film-maker Mahesh Bhatt’s film Zeher – the Poison. Mahesh Bhatt's use of Woh Lamhe led to an intellectual property dispute with the song's creators, the Pakistani band JaL. Mr. Bhatt paid for the rights to the “lyrics and voice”, leaving out the tune; he then remixed the rest of the song locally after flying down Atif Aslam, the original singer of the song, who was estranged from the band and pursuing a solo career.

How do you divide and partition the rights to a song? Mr. Bhatt applied a logic similar to the Partition Of India. Suddenly, the question of territorial rights and that of intellectual property become one, and questions of identity are connected directly with questions of land-ownership.

At the same time, Indian singer Rabbi Shergill was becoming popular in Pakistan with his version of Bullah ki Jana. Written by Sufi mystic Bulleh Shah, performed by neo-Punjabi Shergill, the song invokes a loss of identity:

Bulla Ki Jaana Maen Kaun!
Says Bulla, who knows who I am!

Musical globalization in the minds of Indian and Pakistani audiences may dissolve the notion of national identity itself, no matter how often we hear the national anthem before watching a film.

Today, shortly after the earthquake in South Asia, ten months after the tsunami, while local diplomats argue the benefits of encouraging people-to-people dialogue, of opening the Line of Control so aid can be sent faster, little is really being done at the official level to expedite these urgent missions. But over that same time, I have watched the changes in popular music here with a growing recognition of its political power.

Music can tell us what nations as a whole feel deep inside, the great things afoot, as if it was the pulse telling the doctor of those discreet changes in the body's politics.

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Very interesting essay! As a fellow music-lover, I relate a lot to what you say.

Posted by: Michael G. Richard on 25 Oct 05

Bravo! I'm inspired.

Posted by: Zaid on 25 Oct 05

you guys might want to check out this pakistani band called Fuzon (i have no idea how that is pronounced) but they're very good.

Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 26 Oct 05

Nice essay... good to read your stuff after a while...

Posted by: Aditya Kuber on 26 Oct 05

Wonderful! Nice Writeup!

Posted by: Metamorphosis on 26 Oct 05

the song Bulla ki Jaana, was not written by Bulleh Shah. In fact, it is written by Rabbi Shergill himself. It only alludes to Bulleh Shah.

Its a beautiful song, with an intelligent video, which must be seen.

Posted by: Anshul on 26 Oct 05

the song Bulla ki Jaana, was not written by Bulleh Shah. In fact, it is written by Rabbi Shergill himself.

It was written sometime in the 18th century by Bulleh Shah, Anshul.Please see this.

You can also stream Rabbi's version here.

Yes, the video is nice.

Posted by: rohit gupta on 26 Oct 05

In Ireland, they play the national anthem _after_ the film; watching the audiance reaction prompted Ray Bradbury to write a play titled "The Anthem Sprinters."

Posted by: SteveS on 26 Oct 05

heh...that's an interesting bit of trivia, SteveS.

Posted by: rohit gupta on 26 Oct 05

Very well written article, it arrests the attention of the reader.

Posted by: Maurice on 26 Oct 05

Thanks. I also came across an American perspective on Indian music. Check out Erik Davis's excellent article from 1992.

Posted by: rohit gupta on 27 Oct 05



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