A song and a story: Changing music of modern India (June 21 is World Music Day)

June 18th, 2011 - 2:33 pm ICT by IANS  

Amitabh Bachchan New Delhi, June 18 (IANS) You could call it a “desi” version of Bob Dylan’s social poetry set to music - novel to the ears. Contemporary urban music in India is drawing its soul from tradition, narratives from socio-political circumstances and beats from Western pop, rock and funk genres.

Journalist-turned-Bollywood composer and writer Neelesh Misra, who released his band’s new album, “Rewind: Nine Lost Memories”, at a concert in the capital Wednesday has combined the north Indian storytelling traditions of Dastangoi with funk rock in his new album.

The album tells the story of an upwardly mobile small-town young man in a metro - who suffers the pangs of love, loss, loneliness and the blues that come with a clash of values.

“I would describe my music as ‘funk kissagoi (storytelling)’, a modern take on the medieval story telling tradition of Dastangoi of Islamic origin. It is a meeting point of Dastangoi and contemporary funk-rock,” Misra told IANS.

A concept album, Misra said, “it was ‘thodi see kahani, thodi see geet’ (a bit of story and a bit of music).”

His group, A Band Called Nine, featuring Shilpa Rao as the lead vocalist, performs songs like “Yadon ki Idiot Box Mein” and “Rooboru” to stories, which he narrates as backdrop to the tracks.

Rahul Ram, lead vocalist of the country’s oldest folk rock and pop band, Indian Ocean, said social and political circumstances have always pushed protest music like in the US in the 1960s and during the civil rights movement.

“In one of the tracks, ‘Shunyaa’, from our new album ‘16/330 Khajoor Road’, we experimented with the narrative by weaving poetry into the song. We recite some portions of the song. Our song, ‘Bhor’ is almost an allegory - story composed to music.

“One of the tracks for the movie, ‘Peepli Live’, ‘Zindagi Se Darte Ho…’ was poetry by Pakistani poet M.M. Rashid set to peppy music,” Ram told IANS.

Narrative and music mingle frequently in our folk traditions, especially in the hearts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the vocalist said.

“We heard the Narmada activists singing ‘Ma Rewa’, a folk song, in the Narmada Valley. We adapted it. The fusion of poetry and music was common in old Bollywood during the days of Naushad,” Ram said.

The band’s lyricist Piyush Mishra, who wrote songs for the movie “Black Friday”, is an actor-writer-musician-lyricist and poet rolled into one, Ram said.

“The old songs of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) are set in the narrative tradition chronicling tales,” Ram said.

For Parikrama, one of the capital’s leading classic rock and fusion band which turned 20 Friday, “contemporary reality and circumstances have been a driving factor in music”.

Recalls the band’s keyboardist and backbone Subir Malik in a chat with IANS, “We were in Bhutan when 26/11 happened. There was no television nearby. At night, we caught the news on the lone Indian channel, NDTV. We cancelled our shows, returned to Kolkata, wrote a song about 26/11 and performed it. It was a virtual narrative,” he said.

Parikrama, which releases its music on the internet, is a live band which sustains on net downloads and concerts.

Though inspired by Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, the band is known for its violin, mridangam, flute and tabla repertoires and tweaks classic rock with Indian soul, chants and rhythms.

According to Malik, realistic and Western rap-inspired lyrics became a hit in the mid-1990s when Baba Saigal sang ‘Thanda thanda pani’ (a take on Ice Ice Baby).

“Every new generation of musician has a new music,” Malik said.

In Bollywood music, poetry made a successful combination with lyrics in the movie “Silsila”, directed by Yash Chopra. The track “Yeh kahan aa gaye hum” featured narrative voiceovers “Main aur meri tanhaai…” by Amitabh Bachchan followed by musical lyrics by Lata Mangeshkar.

The superstar adopted a similar storytelling narrative and music for a children’s track, “Mere paas aao mere doston”, a jungle tale much in the tradition of Rudyard Kipling, in the movie “Mr Natwarlal”.

Historians say one of the reasons for the pre-eminence of narrative and storytelling in Indian music can be traced to the fact that music evolved from mythological tales and temple rites in ancient India.

Itinerant musicians carried gospels to villages with narratives and accompanying music, which later developed into the musical theatre.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at Madhu.c@ians.in)

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