On 19 March, the online edition of The New York Times featured a riveting video in its opinion pages. Titled Spring, it spotlights Egypt in my Heart, an art video by Iranian artiste Shirin Neshat. Barely 4 minutes and 25 seconds in duration, the film includes a video clip from a 1965 recital by Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, whose work and deep commitment to Arab culture earned her titles such as Mother of Egypt and the Voice of Egypt. Shot in black and white, the live concert footage has none of the airbrushed, colour-manipulated gloss and slickness that our current home-grown music videos air. On the contrary, it retains even those irritating horizontal lines that scroll up and down on a television monitor, usually when there is some electrical interference. Photographs by Larry Barns are juxtaposed with the concert footage to create an art video that uses images, both still and moving, along with music, to signify a time when “As spring arrives, so too do the seeds of a new era for the Muslim world”. It is meant to be a tribute to the scores of young protesters who, in Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, have made a vociferous demand for change and reform.
The video worked for me in many ways. For one, it introduced me to the art and artistic sensibilities of the artistes—chief among them being Kulthum herself and Neshat. Before I received the link to the video on 20 March in an email sent by my sister-in-law Deepti Pradhan (who generously feeds my more than considerable appetite for music and information related to music and the arts), I had no idea who Neshat was, and Kulthum was a name, vaguely familiar, but one with whom I could neither associate a voice or a face or a piece of music—just one of those figures somewhere in your mind with a “isn’t she a famous musician” tag on them. Admittedly, this is a regrettable lapse in my education, and I wish we could adopt a system of music education where students could be introduced to the world of artistes such as Kulthum alongside lessons in Indian music.
Cine revolution : Artiste Shirin Neshat. Manfred Werner/Wikimedia
But the video also reminds me of a world, outside the one in which we live, where artistes and musicians create works that comment unabashedly on politics, religion and society. I cannot speak for other forms of art, but India’s music industry today will without doubt brand any work that is associated with social, political or religious overtones absolutely untouchable. Representatives and decision makers in our music industry are unshakeably convinced that songs associated with a cause have no takers and, therefore, can be dumped without further thought to their promotion and distribution. It isn’t surprising then that we placidly watch images of nature’s fury and the devastation in Japan, and the unrest in the Middle East, but continue to remain largely unaffected at least in our musical responses. We’d rather concentrate on inane remixes and even more unimaginative remakes of earlier hit films and songs. If we do get really creative and imaginative, we start talking of collaborations that entail the grafting of the vocals of one of our current divas on to a track by an international star without the twain ever meeting, discussing or making music together. And oh, even a kiss between the two digitally conjoined collaborators will be specially grafted on for the music video! And that is sure to herald a new era in the world of Page 3 art of India.
Write to Shubha at email@example.com