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Ignoring the notes and sounds

By putting Indian music in the World Music category, the West overlooks its versatility. Vidya Shah writes.

india Updated: Jun 21, 2012 21:35 IST
Vidya Shah

On June 21, music aficionados across the world celebrated World Music Day. And now that we are done with the music shows, dance and theatre which marked the day in India, let us take a moment to think about the rich tradition of Indian music.

Even though the country has a rich and diverse musical tradition, Indian music is usually relegated to a nebulous category called ‘World Music’ at international award ceremonies, including the Grammy awards. A lead artist of an Indian band recently remarked, correctly, whenever influential musicians of the West can’t make head or tail of any particular type of music, they throw it into one large pot called ‘World Music’. This includes India’s rich tradition of classical, pop and folk music and even the robust and rich forms of Latino and African music.

In the international arena, non-western music production is often under-represented and marginalised. Even in India - barring a few exceptions like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan or the genius from across the border, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, there has been a tendency to overlook non-Western locations of music performance and production. The only exception, however, is Hindi film music.

Even though Indian music has come a long way, many of its identities have been lost. As the well-known ethnomusicologist Ashok Ranade says: “Indian music is a cultural federation of sorts.” Such an overview might help us put into perspective the present form, patronage and the manner in which Indian music needs to be consumed and disseminated. Also, it is important to acknowledge that Indian music has been influenced by modernity, technology and access to it. Like elsewhere in the world, here too technology has revolutionised its distribution, democratised its access and re-imagined the scope and scale with which an artiste can create a vision and reach out to an audience.

However, there are many problems here too: many still refer to a tanpura as a sitar, a sarangi is often considered a museum piece and many people are not aware of the differences between a sarod and a banjo. Unfortunately, many young people don’t even know the greats like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Vilayat Khan.

But thankfully the culture of music in India has withstood major challenges. It has also found acceptance and appreciation in the world. In fact, Indian classical music is a wonderful example of how music can resist — and adapt to — changes in time, space, expectations of audiences and performers.

But we need to overcome the challenges. Only by doing so, we can start celebrating ‘the music of the world’ rather than just ‘World Music’.

Vidya Shah is a musician and director, Women on Record

The views expressed by the author are personal