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Globalisation and India's performing arts

Gazal maestro Jagjit Singh, who passed away recently. File Photo: S.S. Kumar

Gazal maestro Jagjit Singh, who passed away recently. File Photo: S.S. Kumar  


Such is the impact of globalisation that the West, which not so long ago revered traditional Indian arts and music, is now increasingly becoming a consumer of Bollywood music.

Changing trends in performing arts rarely manifest themselves with dramatic abruptness. More often than not, they creep up silently, diverting the flow of continuing traditions and practices stealthily but resolutely. As the relentless tidal wave of globalisation swept across the world in the last two decades, Indian performing arts too were swept, tossed high and hurled down, without many even noticing that some of the great rivers of performing traditions and systems had changed course or, at times, been reined in forcefully. Looking back on some of these changes, particularly in the sphere of Indian music, it may be worthwhile to begin by examining a few words, terms and phrases that provide clues to some of the many ways in which globalisation has impacted the performing arts in India.

Other than in academic discussions, performing arts in India and its practitioners are today referred to most commonly as being part of the “entertainment industry.” This may seem innocuous enough to some, but the usage of the term and its passive acceptance in most circles definitely indicate a paradigm shift in the manner in which the arts are viewed by society at large. That today the arts must entertain and amuse in the manner defined by showbiz, and that they must form part of organised industry is the clear and unambiguous message conveyed by this shift. For creators and artistes who, in an ideal world, create art driven by an artistic urge or by that inexplicable creative charge that propels artistes towards their respective forms of expression, this shift from being an individual artiste or part of an artistic community, to being absorbed into or discarded by the politics and commerce of the entertainment industry, has had a far-reaching impact.

A closer examination of the global entertainment industry, its mores and terms, would reveal greater details about the changes steered by globalisation. Firmly entrenched in the idea of “increasing material wealth” by the opening up of international markets, globalisation is unabashed about its obsession with checks, balances, net profits and turnovers. It would, therefore, seem only natural and come as no surprise that even in the area of performing arts, those genres that have a record of yielding attractive enough turnovers and lucrative profit margins would be easily and successfully globalised. In the context of Indian music, the success of mainstream Hindi film music presents a case in point.

Without doubt, Hindi film music enjoys the greatest listenership in the country and, as a result, is also one the largest selling and economically wealthy genres of music in the country. Despite a severe downward trend in the quality of content, particularly from the artistic point of view, its popularity and consequent economic and financial success on international platforms have surged manifold.

One reason for this could be attributed to the ability of the Hindi film song to fit into the format or template that has found currency with the global music industry. A three to five-minute song template, available for full commercial exploitation in existing and developing formats, with snappy tunes and danceable grooves, and accompanying visuals featuring Bollywood stars, is easily picked up and put to the harness in global music markets. Its relatively shorter duration makes downloading easy, pricing remains standardised and, further, its massive popularity in an overpopulated country and among people of Indian origin in various parts of the world, make it a prime candidate for globalisation. In other words, songs that fit into this format are more likely to have a greater demand and thus achieve one of the primary targets of globalisation, namely that of increasing material wealth. Other genres like remixes, electronic music, hip hop and Indian pop music and fusion music also adhere to similar templates and thus find favour in a globalised world.

On the other hand, genres that appeal to a niche are, more often than not, left out in the cold. It is not surprising then, to find that traditional forms including classical, folk and tribal forms, which have enjoyed niche and regional following, have been slowly edged out towards extinction. In a nutshell, such is the impact of globalisation that the West, which not so long ago revered traditional Indian arts and music, albeit for their perceived spirituality and exoticism, is now increasingly becoming a consumer of Bollywood music!

Within India, the impact of this aspect of globalisation is starkly visible. Virtually the only form of music that the Indian population can access easily is music from Bollywood. On radio, television and mobile telephony platforms, it is film music that is aggressively promoted and distributed. The film industry, always flush with funds, has the resources to buy huge prime-time chunks on all media for publicity and promotions, and it is therefore not uncommon to find a forthcoming Bollywood film being discussed at great length on prime-time news hour telecasts, to the detriment and neglect of other more newsworthy issues. The film industry also has the financial muscle to reach out to international markets, and is leaving no stone unturned in its attempt to conquer large shares of the global music and film markets too. The impact is starkly evident in India today where most other forms of music find themselves marginalised and pushed either into regional corners or, worse still, abandoned.

Such is the impact of this aspect of globalisation that most forms of Indian music desperately try and conform to the successfully globalised Hindi film song. From the bihu of Assam, to the biraha of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, most folk forms are undergoing a Bollywood makeover. On television channels catering to regional viewership, music videos provide ample proof of this homogenising which has undoubtedly had a tragic impact on the diverse forms of musical expression in the country. Music from Rajasthan and Punjab have for long found favour with popular taste, but even the music from these two States finds itself being sifted for tunes and song types that will conform to the norms of entertainment and industry as set out in a globalised world. Therefore, songs with slow tempo or complex rhythms are usually rejected and what is retained are the songs that can be converted into dance tracks with a primal beat.

Some examples are provided below as links to videos on the popular YouTube site:

• Assamese song “jon jonali tumi” sung by playback singer Kunal Ganjawala: >

• Bhojpuri song “Baksar jilla Bhojpur Aaraa se aage Patna”: >

• Highly successful world music artistes Paban Das Baul and Susheela Raman at the Jaipur Literary Festival: >

• DJ Vishal-Maha Ganapati Mool Mantra remixed: >

What happens in such a situation to the innumerable artistes who are exponents of marginalised forms like classical music, folk music, ghazal, geet, etc.? Do they battle on valiantly, swimming against the tide or do they just sink unnoticed? There is no single answer to these questions as each artiste evolves individual strategies or decides to fall in line with trends that are perceived to be successful.

One such trend that has found favour with many artistes and forms is to cultivate an involvement, albeit superficial, with popular forms like film, pop, fusion and electronic music. Others accept tried and tested solutions of opting to work professionally in fields other than music, which provide a steady income; and choose to practise music only in after hours. Many a successful Hindustani musician has been known to work in banks, offices of municipal corporations, law firms and other more dependable jobs.

Globalisation works with its own sets of paradoxes. On the one hand, it seeks out diversity because therein it finds fresh produce that can be offered to new and ever growing markets. But, at the same time, the diverse offerings it seeks to exploit must conform to the terms, conditions and templates approved by global markets even at the risk of losing their unique identities and traits, which in the first place made them so eligible. Translated into the context of Indian music, this would mean that the music industry would hunt relentlessly for varied musical content that could be found in India. With its enormous and ever-increasing population, India offers the greenest of pastures for selling and buying. So an iTunes, a Napster, Rhapsody, Amazon MP3 or any other digital music store will buy and sell any music, provided it conforms to the terms offered by them — take it or leave it. Therefore, it does not matter if the Punjabi kissa or vaar that is being offered to them for digital sale is one of the most rare, and that the artiste presenting it could be one of the only living beings on the planet to be able to sing and tell those particular stories. He is up for sale for 99 cents, whether he likes it or not. And if he doesn't like it, he gets left behind. For those who do get left behind in the rat race, there are virtually no options but to slowly sink into anonymity. It may be argued justifiably that in any sphere, those who are able to be in step with the times survive and others fall by the wayside. Therefore, this cannot be considered an ill effect of globalisation alone. But this counter argument cannot negate that this is indeed one of the many constricting and obstructive pressures that globalisation has inflicted on many an existing artiste and art form.

The creative mind is characterised by its ability to be unique and individualistic. Originality, therefore, comes from the natural ability of an artiste to be distinctive and different from the pack. In the globalised world, originality is wooed only to the point where it can be made a unique selling point or USP. Thereafter, it is expected to quietly conform to the templates of selling that are currently in fashion. In the context of Indian music, this would mean that in order to attract an international market, the Indian musician must retain some part of his or her Indian identity, but only in such measure as would set him or her apart and not make their ethnicity frighteningly unfamiliar or alienating. Thus the emergence and success of rock and fusion bands who play rock music as it would be played anywhere in the world, but retain some token Indian-ness. Rock musicians donning turbans, jackets, kurtas and vaeshtis made of handloom cloth, skirts or lehangaas and other items of ethnic clothing as costume; Kathakali face paint or kutchi ghodi, work hard to roll their r's into sounding as ‘international' as possible.

In a globalised world, Indians are fast losing touch with the charm and beauty of regional languages and dialects. Urban Indians have for decades urged their children to acquire fluency in English in a bid to secure admissions to high brow educational institutions, and to further professional careers. And now increasingly the rural population of India is following suit. In such a situation, genres that relied heavily on literature and poetry such as the ghazal have taken a severe beating. Once a form that enjoyed massive popularity, the ghazal today faces a bleak future. Some exponents of this genre made attempts to modify the form to suit popular taste and preference. In the process, some abandoned the complex and evolved poetry of the great masters of Urdu, and opted to present simple texts that could be enjoyed by even those who did not fully comprehend the grandeur of classic Urdu poetry. While this strategy brought them some amount of fame and popularity for a short period of time, it did not, by any means, save the ghazal from becoming nearly extinct. Other exponents attempted to use catchy and even slightly westernised tunes with musical interludes and backing orchestras that would be more appropriate for hip hop or Indi pop. Music videos too did not help the floundering form and ultimately the ghazal specialists ended up branching out in other directions. Some took to bhajans, others to playback and still others accepted anything that came their way.

Over a century ago, Indians struggled to establish a national identity. Today, it is the lure of a global identity that Indians pursue, for better or for worse. And if, in the bargain, art forms are lost or sacrificed at the altar of globalisation, it does not really matter to most. Indeed, all living art forms are dynamic and changing rather than static or stagnant.

(The author is a Hindustani vocalist, who has also worked with non classical genres of Indian music including film music and Indipop. She can be reached at

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2018 3:13:31 AM |