From Bollywood to London

Here's a paradox: Bollywood songs are actually more Indian than Hindustani or Karnatik music. Why? Because Indian classical music communicates profound truths that transcends the parochialism of any particular country. That is why anyone who takes the trouble to study it carefully can learn to appreciate its greatness, just as they can learn to appreciate Beethoven or Duke Ellington. In contrast, the ephemeral popular music of a particular time and place gets its charm from the personal experiences of those who have grown to love it.

I will never be able to justify why I still like Donovan and the Lovin’ Spoonful, just as my nieces cannot explain why they like Britney Spears and the Spice Girls. Similarly, when a non-Indian tries to appreciate Bollywood music, it sometimes seems like hearing a story that falls flat, and then being told “Well, you had to be there.” Part of what makes Bollywood music seems so un-Indian to outsiders is its willingness to incorporate glitzy fragments of Western culture. But it is only the Indian perspective which makes these elements seem glamorous—they are exotic to Indians, just as India is exotic to the West. And because no one can ever see themselves as being exotic, no Westerner can ever experience the appeal of Bollywood music. Q.E.D.

But this neat formula doesn’t work when globalization starts to dissolve the barriers that make one culture exotic to another. Now that Indian movie viewers have more direct contact with Western culture, they are not as easily dazzled, and Bollywood composers are developing facility and creativity with Western idioms to hold their audience’s attention. The result is music which, although still very commercial and “for the moment,” is no longer as parochial culturally. The best Bollywood music today uses multitrack engineering and sophisticated arrangements that can hold their own with the slickest hits at the top of the Western pop charts.

And as a result, Bollywood music is gradually shedding its Western image as a tacky curiosity. In England, India is now establishing its own cultural “Raj” over its former colonizers, as hip Londoners become infatuated with all things Bollywood. Almost every song that becomes No. 1 in India shows up on the English pop charts, and each new song appears to be staying longer and climbing higher. It seems that England is experiencing an “Indian invasion” in many ways analogous to the “British Invasion” of America that was lead by the Beatles during the ’60s.

The person who is unquestionably at the head of this invasion is A.R. Rahman. Like the Bollywood composers of the previous decades, Rahman has a thorough knowledge of symphonic orchestration. He studied music at Trinity College Oxford, and his father, R.K. Shekhar, wrote scores for many Malayalam films. But after his father’s death, Rahman was forced to go out in the world as a professional keyboard player when he was only 9 years old. This taught him things about synthesizers and electronics that gave him a composing style that everyone else in Bollywood now strives to emulate. This sound is based on an ingenious fusion of techno drum beats, funky electric bass, and traditional Indian percussion. Thanks to Rahman, London club-hoppers now find it completely natural to dance to Hindi lyrics sung on top of kaharwa or dadra tal, especially when the original versions have been remixed by Indo-Brit DJs.

These dance hits are actually only a small part of what Rahman is capable of composing. Some of his best work (which doe not get on the soundtrack albums) is the mood music, which is most effective when it isn’t noticed. In a historical movie like Lagaan, he created montages of sampled Indian folk instruments to suggest a time before electronic sampling existed, although bass and drum machine fade gradually in for the big dance numbers. In Taal, which takes place in modern Bollywood, he composed ballroom dances for a corporate party, and a spectacular hip-hop instrumental that combines electronic beats and breaks with an audaciously original arrangement for symphony orchestra. And yes, he has studied Indian classical music as well: Two years of Hindustani music with Krishna Nand, and two years of Karnatik music with Daksha Murti. But although he has Indian colors in his paint box, he uses them like a symphonic composer—not lines, but opulent textures that are perfect for the larger-than-life intensity of popular Indian movies.

It would be difficult to overestimate Rahman’s impact on Indian listeners. He has sold over 100 million albums; some press releases say as many as 200 million. Unfortunately, the difference between the two figures would have little impact on Rahman’s finances, because he is paid a flat fee for each movie score. Nevertheless, Rahman has a unique level of independence for a Bollywood artist. He receives the kind of attention from fans that used to be given only to those who worked in front of the camera. He is one of the few Indian film professionals, on or off-screen, who refuses to work on more than one movie at a time. He regularly works with directors who are committed to stretching or breaking the old Bollywood formulas. And now—what may be the biggest step ever taken by any Indian film composer—he has written the score for Bombay Dreams, a musical playing in London’s West End theater district.

The show was the idea of British stage composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who refers to Rahman as a “melodic genius.” Webber originally wanted to license songs that Rahman had already written for films, and build a show around them. But Rahman wanted the challenge of creating something in a whole new medium, and more than half of the music ended up being written especially for the new show. He also combined parts of his old melodies to create new songs with English words by Webber’s lyricist Don Black.

When I interviewed Rahman during the previews in London, he seemed tired, but remarkably patient and peaceful. I asked him how much he had learned about composing from his father. “I have memories of sitting on his lap when I was 5 and learning piano,” he said, “But shortly after that he went into the hospital and never really came out again. But he did teach me what it meant to be a human being, not just a composer. Everyone who knew him spoke of him as a hero.” I noticed that the orchestra pit contained only keyboard, bass, drums, and flute. Why was that? “It’s very hard to get a good mix with acoustic instruments,” he said, “so we sampled all sorts of instruments, both Indian and Western, especially for this score. We’ve got vocalist Murtaza from Madras in those keyboards, along with the Madras Session String Orchestra and sarod and sitar. But we hope eventually to use live cello and strings.” How about live Indian musicians, to play along with the two Indian percussionists seated on either side of the stage? “I love working with Indian musicians in the studio, where I can let them improvise, and then sample and edit so I can put the notes in exactly the right place. But you can’t mike them properly in a live situation, and you can’t expect them to read 65 bars of rests and then play exactly the notes you’ve written out for them. They’re like free birds, and you can’t cage them up that way.”

Does Rahman’s music thrive when transplanted to London? After seeing the show twice, I can definitely say that it works on its own terms. Not one second of it is boring, and there are many moments which are memorable and inspired. When Rahman’s keyboards create the crazed pastiche of melodies and Mumbai street sounds for the opening number, or when the hero sings while his friends mime an imaginary film studio with bamboo rods and a broken sewing machine, you know this show has captured both sides of the Bollywood dream. We see not only what these films are like, but also how much they mean to people who pay to see them even when they have no money for food.

As is usually the case with Lloyd Webber musicals, half the critics love it, half hate it, and the public is lining up for blocks to get in. Rahman is already getting offers to do scores for Hollywood films, and he seems well on the way to international stardom. But I cannot hope that the next step for him will be a return to—dare I say it—authentic Bollywood music. Does it make any sense at all to speak of purity when referring to commercialized filmi pop? Well, yes, according to my 10-year-old blond niece, who has now lost interest in the Spice Girls. She discovered Bollywood movies when she was living in Oxford, and now repeatedly plays the video-tapes so she can learn the dance steps and the Hindi words. In England, you can rent Bollywood movies at Blockbuster. And her reaction to Bombay Dreams was that the music was not Indian enough. I had to agree with her; without the rich palette of Indian acoustic sounds, or the distinctive Indian vocals, the score sometimes sounded like lamb curry without the curry. Rahman has shown that he can make Western music accessible to Indians. If he realizes that now he needs to lean in the other direction to maintain balance, he will almost certainly be equally successful in making Indian music accessible to Westerners.


Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.

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