The musical route to literature

If popular music can be the medium that can attract to our literary heritage those who are unaccustomed to it, or are hard-to-please on that front, we should welcome more such music. That will help restore some balance in today’s life

June 28, 2016 12:41 am | Updated September 16, 2016 04:40 pm IST

Last week, my 12-year-old daughter thrust a headphone to my ears, forcing me to listen to her current favourite song. It was a peppy number from a yet-to-be released Tamil film that has logged more than one and a half million views on YouTube since the end of May. Its music, scored by A.R. Rahman, draws inspiration from the 15th century Tamil devotional classic Tiruppugazh , and melodious Carnatic varnams . Having liked what I heard, with some apprehension I pointed out to her the original Tiruppugazh renditions — knowing well her disinclination for anything that does not sound contemporary and modern. I was surprised by the unusual interest she evinced.

I realised that my daughter is not the only one smitten by this newfound love for an old literary treasure that she did not even know existed. The comments on the YouTube pages of some of the older renditions reveal how many people, presumably young ones, have discovered Tiruppugazh thanks to Rahman’s brief interlude in the film song. Undoubtedly, creative repackaging has enhanced the appeal of a rap-like literary and devotional classic composed centuries ago.

This happened to qawaali , the traditional Sufi devotional songs, in the 1980s. The innovations that the meastro of qawaali music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, had incorporated western rhythms and instruments into soulful qawaali music. Consequently, the western audience with no knowledge of Urdu or Punjabi lapped up the largely qawaali music from the Indian subcontinent. By his own admission, Khan saheb’s aim was to make the traditional music appeal to the young in a form they can relate to.

On song

Recently a Bengali friend told me of a youngster who listened to ghazals in his car every day during the rides to office. As he liked the songs, one fine day he asked for the CD of those Bengali songs, little realising that they were actually in Hindi.

I have seen several children in India who cannot read or speak in any Indian language. As large numbers of youngsters pursue exacting career paths, ignoring literature and heritage, interest in India’s diverse literary gems can be rekindled by thoughtful and creative interpolations in popular culture, be it in music or movies.

Such innovations have always found new takers. The novel retelling of Indian epics, often in a contemporary style and setting, has become popular these days. This has created a new league of fans who may have missed their Amar Chitra Katha as kids or the originals later but have found Amish or an Ashwin Sanghi engaging. Why only the epics? The waning interest in Test cricket over the years has given way to the immensely popular T20 format. Even the humble snack murukku , not really in any danger of losing popularity, gets a makeover to stave off the competition. A popular chain of sweet shops in Chennai sells murukku in an attractive pack with the tagline “new age snack”.

By any reckoning, making ancient literature attractive to an indifferent audience is a herculean task. If popular music can be the medium that attracts those hard-to-please, like my daughter, to literary heritage, we should welcome more of it. It can restore some balance in our life circumscribed by technology.

(The author is an associate professor in physics at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune. He has published nearly 50 research papers and has held visiting positions at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Oxford University and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy. He could be reached at )

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