Why Indian Music Scene Still Suffers A Genre Identity Crisis

This article originally appeared in an edited format in the July 2016 edition of FWD(forward) Magazine.

The magazine both digital and print editions can be found by clicking here

What separates humans from the animals?

Imagination.

Music is what is within our imagination given form. It can be something as simple as a whistle, or it can be a full orchestra along with a chorus. But how did something so basic and primal become the varied and complex art it is today?

Just like everything else in the world, through evolution.

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Genre Evolution

Music is defined by the genre it belongs to. Genre can be defined as the scientific classification of a particular type of music. That doesn’t mean music has to be limited to that set of rules that particular genre represents. But true innovation only happens when you push against the limitations of that particular genre. But this cannot be done by a singular individual. Just like change in society cannot be done by an individual, it needs to be a collective effort. Genres influences each other. This fusion sounds genre will eventually become a new genre itself. This requires artist driven original music. It should be experimental and ideally should be able to transcend the genre it originated from.

Western Genre

In the western genre, evolution happened because of the introduction of intermixture of various cultures. The cultural identity is most prevalent in its music. American music itself was a very mellow until the music from the African American community started influencing it. This resulted in the advent of Rock and Roll. Which itself by now have evolved into almost unquantifiable genres. Each unique and different although originated from the same source.

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Indian Genre

So in modern India there are two types of mainstream music, movie soundtracks and independent albums. Both can be said to have evolved from the classical Indian genres of Carnatic and Hindustani music. Add to this some Punjabi Bhangra hit mainstream during the last decade and we have a very unique voice of our own. But music industry in India consists 95% of movie soundtracks. Although there was a renaissance of original musical albums India in the 90’s with artists like Baba Sehgal, Alisha Chinai, and Shweta Shetty etc. this soon died out by the beginning of 2000s.

There do exist a smaller percentage artists releasing original music in India. But the industry has been so diluted with the sheer number of movie soundtracks, they are hardly able to make a dent. While might not sound that important in the bigger scheme of things, this is a serious issue plaguing the modern Indian music. The music itself is almost based upon trends than artistic merit. The problem with this approach is that when an artist is very successful with a song, he is forced recreate that with smaller changes. This works for a while, but the repetition will get to the consumer and eventually the artist itself is gone from the mainstream. For example, Atif Aslam the Pakistan pop star entered the Indian movie industry with the wildly popular song “Woh Lamhe”, after which he came out with songs which while popular sounded remarkably similar. But his performance on Coke Studio Pakistan is much more original than anything else out there. There he is unrestrained by the market expectations heaped on him. Music is a very personal thing, tailoring it to match the expectations of millions of people is never going to be the answer. A change is necessary and even be inevitable.

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East vs West

A country with as many disparate cultures as India needs to have more unique genres and experimentations with its music. Like everything there are exceptions. The movie “Rock On” had a soundtrack inspired from the western rock ballads. The movie “Omkara” had really rustic soundtrack inspired from local Uttar Pradesh music. Both are examples of music standing out from the norm and creating a sound of its own. There has even been instances of fusion music like movie “Gangs of Vasseypur” had sound track with a mixture of rustic sounds with electronic music. But these were the exceptions and were soon forgotten among the sheer number of generic soundtracks which came out.

East Vs West Redux

So should we also be paranoid and assume that eventually western music genres will take over and that will result in us losing our cultural originality?

Xenophobia of any kind never helped anybody. An artistic process limited to a set of rules is never going to evolve. Music and mathematics might be the only two universal languages left. The importance is that they evolve. Our religious or political views doesn’t have anything to do with the music itself. Due to the advent of the internet, we are a global species now. Not just Indian. Harlem or Haridwar, the music will remain. The people might not.

Consumer Action

So what can we as a consumer do to kick-start this evolutionary revolution?

Vote with our wallets, this is a democracy after all. Listen to music other than movie soundtracks. If we start experimenting with our music listening, definitely the industry itself will try to give us what we want. Basis of any industry is demand and supply. But if something is not done soon we will be living in a post-apocalyptical musical landscape where everything sounds uniform. Life would be boring with uniformity. We do need some color in our lives.

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