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On the Dilemmas of Artistic (Con)Fusion: Music

On the Dilemmas of Artistic (Con)Fusion: Music

Smitha Radhakrishnan gives us a sampling of Indian music over the years -- classical, film, and diasporic -- in Part Two of her series on artistic fusion.

By Smitha Radhakrishnan

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Duration: 9:39


Desi Dilemmas
Connecting Personal Issues to the Big Picture

Smitha Radhakrishnan has been publishing her podcast Desi Dilemmas from Podbazaar since November of 2005. On August 2007, she joined Asia Pacific Arts. Desi Dilemmas weaves together narratives, opinion, and research with Indians on three continents, to place common issues facing desis in a larger social and economic context.

Questions? Comments? Write to her at


Listen to Smitha Radhakrishnan's podcast


Surely you've noticed: it's hip to be hybrid. And I'm not just talking about cars, I'm talking about everything: clothes, food, dance, music, you name it. For those of us who have been living the so-called hybrid, hyphenated experience our whole lives, it's validating, but also makes us feel indignant that everyone else realized just how hip we are a bit too late. But, what happens when hybrid goes mainstream? Is something gained, lost, or are we all just enhanced in a sort of multicultural euphoria?

In my last piece, I reflected upon some of the promises and pitfalls of fusion efforts in South Asian dance forms, so consider this the follow-up as I explore some of the latest hybrid trends in music from the South Asian stratosphere.

Dance, in some ways, still seems to have an audience that is a bit specialized, at least when it's off the Bollywood screen. On the other hand, music that brings together East and West is everywhere and spans a dizzying range of genres. Pop, electronica, hip-hop, and jazz come to mind right away. I can't possibly cover them all here, so consider this a tiny taste, a micro-introduction to the "fusion" music, desi style.

Indian music producers have been mixing traditional Indian music with styles from the West for a long, long time now. In the 50s and 60s, Carnatic vocalist Madurai Mani Iyer wanted to show that Carnatic music could produce something that sounded like an English waltz and came up with a song that's still enjoyed among Carnatic audiences today, called "English Note." You can still hear the lilt of the waltz through the ancient-sounding recording.

Film producers in India have also been borrowing from the Western musical vocabulary for ages, but it was always translated into something Indian audiences could relate to. The swelling violins of Hindi and Tamil films even as late as the 80s and 90s indicated swelling emotion, and that became its own kind of cliché. In the 90s and through today, A.R. Rahman has taken this East-West mélange to a whole different level, getting beyond clichés and making complex music accessible to everyone. Rahman's distinctive use of percussion and instruments, however, has made it difficult to easily identify what's Indian and what's not Indian about his music. He seems to just do his own thing: sometimes resonantly patriotic as in his now-classic rendition of the nationalist anthem (not to be confused with the national anthem, which is a different song) "Vande Mataram," and sometimes not Indian at all, as in his very acoustic pop-sounding song from the film Rang de Basanti.

Okay, but Rahman is firmly Indian, after all -- a global phenomenon, no doubt, but still, not "technically" hyphenated. Diasporic Indians have been up to other things, sometimes radical, sometimes not so much so. In Britain, artists like Talvin Singh and the Asian Dub Foundation have been redefining electronica with Indian sounds -- usually tablas, sitars, and the occasional raga -- since the 90s. (That in itself could be another whole series of podcasts because the British Asian scene, at least at first, had a political purpose behind it, and the acceptance of the music into the British mainstream signaled a major shift for Asians living in Britain more generally.)

Following in the footsteps of our diasporic brothers and sisters in Britain, South Asians in the US have started to do some interesting things, particularly since the 90s. Probably the one who's gotten the broadest recognition is Karsh Kale, whose single now apparently comes standard with the latest version of Windows Media Player on Vista. You know you've arrived when you come standard with Microsoft, right? Well, arrived or not, Kale's mix of soulful melodies, energetic percussion, and layers of sound give his music amazing appeal, even to a non-techno person like myself.

But speaking of knowing you've arrived, the fact of the matter is that a lot of Americans had never heard Bollywood or anything else remotely Indian until they heard the background music to the Truth Hurts hit 2002 single, "Addictive." "Kaliyon Ka Chaman" -- sung originally by the crowned queen of Bollywood playback singing, Lata Mangeshkar -- was not a very well-known song. In fact, when Addictive started busting charts in the US and UK and Bappi Lahiri, the original music director, finally got a call that his song of the 70s was at the top of the UK charts (though not in his name), rumor has it that he had to be reminded that the song was his. He'd forgotten. The truth is that the song had already been swiped and remixed by Indian pop star Meghna Naidu, whose version is the one you actually hear on the Truth Hurts song. Naidu's sexy video for the song, replete with gorgeous, scantily clad women only a little bit unlike some hip-hop videos, was probably the one Dr. Dre had seen in the first place. So, Addictive was actually a copy of the copy, or something like that. The Indian music industry finally pulled itself together and sued the American record label to the tune of $500 million.

This little story takes us back to the opening question: what happens to hybridity when it goes mainstream? Hasn't multicultural euphoria lost some of its pizzazz in this neverending hall of mirrors? Can we distinguish anymore -- if we could ever -- what's real and what's fake? Did Truth Hurts and Dr. Dre mean to build some sort of deep cultural bridge between Bollywood and hip-hop? Probably not. Madonna, on the other hand, probably did have those kinds of intentions in the badly-pronounced renditions of Sanskit slokas in 1998's Ray of Light, but it's no surprise that those tracks on the Grammy-award winning album stayed clear of the top of the charts.  

Thank goodness that in all of this fusion and confusion, there are still excellent independent bands that make non-corporate, original music that's free of intercultural clichés. Take the music of VidyA, for example, a San Francisco band that's been making waves on the local scene for the past couple of years. If you've ever listened to a podcast of mine before, you've heard them -- the opening and closing music I use in my show is theirs. VidyA's music, composed and led by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, is intelligible to jazz and Indian classical audiences alike. Fans of American jazz find a traditional sax, drums and bass trio format -- a driving rhythm section held together by the silky dark texture of the tenor sax. But afficianados of Indian classical music are able to instantly name the raga and talam of each song and can appreciate the patterns of the compositions and the tiny nuances.

In the end, though, all the fusion, confusion, hybridity, and profit should tell us a little something about how the dynamism of art, and music in particular, can provide us with a compelling snapshot of when, why, and how cultures collide, and the zillion possible things that can happen when they do. What's Indian and what's not? More than ever, it's hard to tell. 


 Click on the podcast to listen to samples and commentary about the music in this article.

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