A recent video meme of the Tamil artist Hip-Hop tamizha (who fuses Indian music with Hip-Hop of the West) showed how the artist creates irksome music that rouses the sleeping audience to an instant fury. The meme shows Tom (Hip-Hop Tamizha) scaring Jerry (the listeners) when Jerry was least expecting him. This aptly describes the scene of Indian fusion albums in our country. In the name of fusion, kindergarten experiments with music get released. Meagre musicality, meaningless lyrics and electronically tweaked voices and instruments characterise the albums of these artists who soak in mediocrity.
What makes artists like Hip-Hop Tamizha, Guru Randhawa or Badshah thrive in the music industry? Is our country devoid of good music? Why is the land that gave birth to music forms like Carnatic Music and Hindustani Music settling to garbage that has stained the concept of Indian Fusion?
Does this mean there are no good works of Indian Fusion? Of course not! There are great works of fusion in which the musicians have deftly blended Indian music with other forms from across the world. The growing audience for Indian fusion across the globe since the advent of Indian music in the global map encouraged Indian artists to embrace the musical form. But, the level of artistry has become immaterial with growing technological advancements and improvements in music production. The real gems of Indian Fusion are lost in the motley of rocks and dust. And now, it has become the job of the listeners to extract the gem from the ore.
When Indian Fusion was initially born to popularise Indian music in the west, the works of fusion had quality as the principal characteristic feature of the content. Indian Fusion albums were celebrated for their sheer brilliance and were presented with prestigious awards like the Grammy. In fact, the Recording Academy has consistently been recognising eminent Indian Fusion albums that stand as evidence to the potential of this genre. Exploring those works of Indian Fusion that were conferred the Grammy will present a visual of what this class of music really is.
When Pandit Ravi Shankar won a Grammy in 1968, it was for his album West Meets East. The Indian Fusion album brought priceless glory to Indian music. That was probably the first time the popularity of Indian music saw an extraordinary growth at world level. He heralded an era of Indian Classical Music entering the global map. This was a new feather on the cap for Indian music. So was the case with his album Concert for Bangladesh (which also won a Grammy Award), a collaboration with George Harrison (a former member of the Beatles). Most of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s nominations for Grammys were for his works of fusion. His laudable efforts to bring Indian classical music in its raw original form to the world arena were not entirely successful. But his works inspired many artists to venture through the genre. The determination of Pandit Ravi Shankar to establish a place for classical music of India in the world music scene makes him the progenitor of Indian fusion music.
This practice of fusing Indian music with other forms was well received and created a fertile ground back home in India. Fast forward to 1991, when the famous ghatam player, T.H. Vikku Vinayakram won the Grammy award, it was for his collaboration with Ustad Zakir Hussain and an English guitarist John McLaughlin among others for Planet Drums. The album also brought Grammys to Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. This album put the indigenous ghatam on the global map. The brilliant alliance of guitar, tabla and mridangam with ghatam in the album was precisely one of the reasons behind the Grammy award.
This again was the case when A.R.Rahman won a Grammy award for his movie Slumdog Millionaire with Dany Boyle in 2008. Being a fusion musician by nature, Rahman had brought together various styles of music with Indian music to compose the songs for the film. The most famous single from the album, Jai Ho was adopted by The Pussycat Dolls and was recreated by them as Jai Ho – You are my destiny! The dance number Ringa from Slumdog Millionaire was officially borrowed by the Turkish singer-songwriter Sertab Erener to create the song Rengarenk. A.R.Rahman has composed innumerable albums of Indian fusion that have served as the definition for Indian Fusion today.
Other artists like Sandeep Das and Ricky Kej won Grammy awards for their outstanding works of fusion.Even at present, two Indian women have been nominated for the Grammy Awards this year for their works of fusion of Indian music with western forms like American Folk and Pop. Anoushka Shankar’s Love Letters (one of the albums that was nominated this year for a Grammy) has collaborations with German-Turkish and French-Cuban artists making it a work of Indian Fusion while Priya Darshini’s Periphery (nominated for this year’s Grammy) is also an Indian fusion with American Folk and Pop.
Esteemed artists adroitly handled the fusion process that won them these accolades. While it is a concern that songs like High Rated Gabru, Bamb and Kuchchi Mittai Kuruvi Rotti are more popular than, say, A Jasmine in Twilight by Pandit Jasraj, it is more important to understand what brings these mediocre artists into the music scene.
The recognitions for Indian Fusion from prestigious establishments like Recording Academy have made the genre alluring to all, including amateur and inexperienced musicians. Technological advancements in making music and cost-effective solutions for accumulating recording equipment has enabled these pseudo-musicians of today to explore the music forms with half-baked knowledge. The flawed idea that fusion music is an easy route to fame has become widespread.
It probably arises from not understanding what fusion is, which severely hinders the progress of the genre. A fusion is not a simple addition of two or more styles of music but in fact, an intellectual process of composing a blend that ennobles all the forms of music involved in the composition.
However, it is troubling that these pseudo-Indian Fusion albums also become a hit in the billboard. The audience of today settle for music whose popularity is fleeting and momentary over the ones that last forever. A plausible explanation for the popularity of artists like Hip-Hop Tamizha might be that the inclusion of techno-noise and auto-tunes in the songs grabs the attention of listeners. Social media provides a platform for every Tom, Dick and Harry for this very purpose of promoting oneself by seeking (in some cases, undeserved) attention. In a music scene where “likes” and “shares” serve as the currency, the prevalence of such mediocre albums becomes inevitable. As a regrettable side-effect, the good albums go unnoticed.
Although the taste of the audience might be changing constantly for several reasons, it is imperative that the artists should stay truthful to the art they have chosen to spend their life with. They should resist themselves from settling into mediocrity for popularity and thereby destroying the art. Artists are duty-bound to let the art flourish. Every artist, even the second-rated ones, must be impelled to steer their art to the future in all its depth and glory. The mediocre artists might have acquired the stage and popularity; but they are merely fleeting moments in the sun. If they intend to persist for long, it is crucial for them to learn the depths of their art.
The musicians today need to equip themselves with musical knowledge instead of acquiring technology to compensate for it. It would be fair to remind here that the basic rule to compose a fusion is to have a firm hold on at least one form of music to explore other forms and fuse them together. Abiding by this rule will effectively prevent the musicians from mediocrity and most importantly, will prevent them from wrecking the invaluable forms of music. Following this golden rule, it is not too hard to realise that in order to compose an Indian Fusion, the musician should have a deep knowledge in Indian Classical music, if not in the other forms involved. Sturdy roots in Indian Classical music (or any form of music) are also a prerequisite for exploration of other forms.
The idea of instant fame among the youth is not only fuelled by the social media and the seemingly easy process of creating a fusion but also by the growing weariness towards the traditional Guru-Shishya training for classical music in India which they consider ossified. Addressing the disadvantages of Indian classical music training would encourage people to take up this art form and will keep them from choosing the shortcuts to fame. This will also revive and revitalise the prominence of Indian Classical music in India.
Establishment of conservatories and colleges specially dedicated to music will encourage young musicians to make the effort to learn Indian Classical music. Setting up research institutions for music and musicology will open several opportunities for the musicians to explore, research and learn their art form. Providing options of apprenticeships and internships to the students of music to nurture and enhance their musical knowledge will provide them a hands-on experience. Although the Guru-Shishya system of music education has been practising apprenticeship as the main medium of education, it is slow-paced and time consuming which makes it less sought-after than the convenient sources available on the internet. So, short-term internship opportunities would provide significant experiences for young student musicians. Young musicians should be provided the opportunities of performing with experienced stalwarts enabling them to learn from their expertise.With this, the finesse of classical music can be retained through generations. Above all, auditoriums, concert halls, sabhas and eminent stages should be set up to nurture musicians and performers and to make Classical music reachable to the masses.
Revamping classical music in India will aid Indian fusion music by endowing the artists with a strong grounding in their classical roots thereby enhancing the quality of both native and the fused forms.
-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)
Picture Credits: Pratyusha Ganesh