Music and Class in India

I was in middle school when I started listening to American music (we called it English music) and watching American TV series (on Star World, for those in the know). Soon, I was listening to a lot of Backstreet Boys, and watching a lot of Friends, Dexter, etc. It was a strange feeling. Although I enjoyed consuming all of that content, I obviously couldn’t relate to much of it. Society in India was very different. People were a lot more discrete about dating than Joey, for instance. In fact, the concept of dating as such did not really exist. People mostly just decided to get into a “relationship” right away. And the word “relationship” too was a new thing! In the generation before ours, such liaisons were called “affairs”, and were essentially looked down upon as dishonorable and irresponsible. If you were having an “affair”, you were probably bad at studies and hence didn’t have much professional hope anyway, reneging on your duties towards your family, and blowing through their hard earned money. It was with this cultural mindset that I watched my favorite American TV characters trying to get dates with everyone in sight, laughing loudly with the soundtrack each time. It was surprisingly easy to co-exist in two contradictory worlds.

The same can be said about American music in India. I started with listening to pop, and soon progressed to classic rock like Michael Learns to Rock or the Eagles. Metal was still too weird for me, and I never quite took to it. But it was not just me. Almost everybody in my class listened to English songs, and we took pains to memorize the lyrics so that we would be able to sing along with those songs in class or wherever. A part of it was obviously an intention to signal status….and that’s not exactly the same as wealth, or caste. Class could, in some sense, be built by an exposure or affinity to “the West”. If I was a a low caste person in India with not a lot of wealth, I could still signal class if I knew the lyrics to a lot of American songs and knew what was up in the West. If I knew who Kirk Hammett was, for instance, I was in, my family circumstances notwithstanding. However, this was rare. Most times, caste, class and wealth would be in alliance. If you were born into a high caste family with wealth, you were likely to be exposed to Western influences, and hence earn “class” as well.

Fine. So we all consumed a lot of American content to signal “class”. So what? Well, a natural outcome of this is that some people wanted to do this professionally. We have a very large number of rock bands in India that are still chasing the kind of fame that American rock bands see all over the world. Our film industry is full of filmmakers exposed mainly to western influences (often educated there), and often base their whole storylines in the “West” if their budget allows. Although the TV industry has mainly withstood the onslaught of western influences, they end up merely being the Indian versions of loud telenovelas that are often derided by our generation on social media. Essentially, we are invested in producing a lot of “westernized” content in India partly because they seem nice, and also partly because we want to signal “class”. But this never quite catches on. There are no Indian rock bands that regularly rule the music charts. Overly western-ised Bollywood movies regularly fail to recuperate their investments. Hence, this strategy has repeatedly failed to produce an authentically Indian voice that can resonate with the people.

But what is the authentically Indian voice? Is it the Hindustani or Carnatic music that we sometimes hear when our calls are kept on hold? I don’t think so. I would go so far as to say that most Indians (especially those living in rural India) have never even heard much classical Indian music, if any. Carnatic music was historically cultivated in Tamil Brahmin households, and has strong caste roots. Moreover, Hindustani music has also mostly been developed in esteemed Muslim or Hindu households, and was not commodified for the plebs until very recently. If you are a lower caste person working the fields in Madhya Pradesh, chances are you haven’t heard much of either kind music. It’s like the French saying that caviar is representative of regular French food.

In their search for the authentic music of India, some music outfits have tried fusing Indian classical music with rock, jazz, etc. And by my estimation, they’re musically brilliant! However, they have still eluded making it big. So what is the real music of India?

There are two ways of looking about it. If you talk about reach, then the real music of India is mainstream film music. Wherever you travel in India, you are likely to be blasted with Bollywood or regional film music. In my city of Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta), you will often experience loud Bollywood music blaring all around you. The rich and poor equally enjoy dancing to the latest chartbusters that play on TV and radio stations all day every day. Hence, the real music of India is a bastardized offspring of Eastern and Western influences, packaged together with lavish sets and dancing film stars.

The other way of looking at it is, of course, status signaling. The reason why most of us started listening to English music was to signal our “class”. However, soon listening to English music became too mainstream, and people needed an alternate way to signal class. Thus, a lot of Indian college going hipsters began celebrating Anurag Kashyap and his brand of rustic, “authentically Indian” movies like “Gangs of Wasseypur”. I’m not saying that the movie wasn’t good. It was. However, the wave of appreciation that the movie saw was clearly culturally counter-revolutionary. It was a way for the urban elites to tell the masses that they, the rarefied and gentrified, still had their feet planted firmly on the ground, and perhaps understood real India better than the frauds who were trying to appropriate their superior class by listening to English music.

As music evolves in India, people will soon find another way to signal their class. They may start listening to old European music, or perhaps even Bhojpuri music ironically. However, the real music of India will always remain Himesh Reshammiya’s chartbusters, or perhaps Badshah’s “rap”. At least for some time to come.

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Graduate student

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