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Perhaps no Indian has ever identified A.R. Rahman by his religion. Photo: PTI
Perhaps no Indian has ever identified A.R. Rahman by his religion. Photo: PTI

Sound of the Nation

If the relevance of an art form is in breaking barriers, music is the most transcendental of them all

In 2005, a bomb blast in Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi killed 10 and injured 40 people. Lashkar-e-Qasab, an offshoot of Pakistan-based terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba claimed responsibility for the attacks. Ten years later, the Pakistani ghazal legend Ghulam Ali performed at Sankat Mochan Sangeet for its annual music festival. That night, facing the sanctorum in a packed temple courtyard, Ali sang, among other things, about clandestine love affairs and the pains of partition, despite protests by far-right regional party Shiv Sena before and during the concert.

If the relevance of an art form is in breaking barriers, music is the most transcendental of them all. Perhaps this is owing to the fact that the impact of a song is more immediate than film, painting or literature, its interaction with the receiver so visceral that it leaves little room for prejudice.

Composer Shantanu Moitra recalls meeting someone during a visit to the USA a few years back who described A.R. Rahman as a “Muslim composer".

“I remember thinking how I’ve never heard of any Indian identifying Rahman by his religion," says Moitra. Coke Studio Pakistan continues to enjoy a massive following among Indians so far unmatched by its Indian counterpart.

Diversity is coded in our musical DNA. Hindustani classical music has itself evolved through centuries of cultural exchange between Hinduism and Islam; the khyal, one of its freer forms, is considered to have been born out of the experimentation of two Muslim musicians in the court of a Mughal emperor. And even though Carnatic classical, the other branch of Indian classical music, is distinct for its absence of Islamic influences, the commonalities shared between Hindustani and Carnatic are more than its differences.

In music, we are more accepting of blending high and low culture. The classical template frequently permeates even the most popular of our musical idioms, which is film music. The world of film music has accommodated everything and everyone — from Goan folk to disco, from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Yo Yo Honey Singh. It switches register depending on the popular tastes of the time without compromising on the basic core of Indian melody.

When it comes to music, it would seem, we are even a little more egalitarian. The current debate about nepotism in the Hindi film industry is far less applicable to Hindi film music because it is, by default, more merit-based. Every music label and producer wants an Arijit Singh song in their film simply because he sells. If we consider the last three decades of Hindi film music, the stars of playback singing—Arijit Singh, Shreya Ghosal, Sunidhi Chauhan, or even earlier, Kumar Sanu, Udit Narayan, Alka Yagnik—and music composition—Amit Trivedi, Pritam, Vishal Bhardwaj, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy —they have all been “outsiders".

Indian classical music, which has had the reputation of being elitist, has tried to make itself accessible to the people over the years. Musician and activist T.M. Krishna is taking the Carnatic tradition from its Brahmanical milieu to fishing villages.

The internet has democratized things further, according to vocalist and music educator Mahesh Kale, who won the National award for Best Singer (Male) in 2016 for his work in Katyar Kaljat Ghusali. Kale lives in the San Francisco and has several Turkish, Pakistani and Afghan students. When he is travelling, he teaches them on Skype. In an interview a few years ago, he’d told me: “Anyone who puts in work in classical music will get the returns. One doesn’t need to have a legacy or privilege," he had said, “Music kisiki jaagir nahi hai, (Music isn’t a family heirloom)."

If India was like its music, we’d be sorted.

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