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Musings VII : On Music and Popular Taste

The other day, at our annual departmental farewell programme for the outgoing MA final semester students, Manoj Hansda’s song beckoning us away to the tea gardens of faraway Assam set the house on fire. The entire assembly, comprising students and teachers, spontaneously broke into a clap the moment they got a sense of the teasingly repetitive beat which ably bore that bare song along on its slender frame.

It woke me up, yet again, to our primal, enduring hunger for rhythm. Rhythm alone could explain the comparable spell cast by Santiniketan’s anthem of spring ‘খোল দ্বার খোল লাগল যে দোল’ on the day of Basantotsav. The endlessly repetitive singing of this choric melody of spring – not the most remarkable among Rabindranath’s spring songs – is functional: accompanying the long procession of dancers all the way to the venue designated for the next, equally predictable, routine of customary dance numbers from Gitabitan. Instead of sounding wearisome, however, the repetition creates a strangely incantatory effect, transporting the spectators flanking the route and even chance listeners from distant rooftops to Santiniketan’s yesteryear.  It manages to weave the past and the present in a trance-like eternity not unlike what I have heard devotees at the Jadavpur Ram Thakur Ashrama share daily, as they lend their voices to thekirtaniya’s rhapsodic frenzy. Revellers in Santiniketan and devotees at the Ashrama walk back to their everyday drudgery with a curious sense of happy connectedness.

Girindrasekhar Bose, the pioneer of psychoanalysis in colonial Bengal whom I have been reading lately, makes a profoundly relevant observation on the cathartic function of rhythm:

Rhythmic action is inhibited action. Whenever a motion is stopped and is only allowed to play within a limited sphere the activity tends to assume a rhythmic form. When we throw a stone, and it is unimpeded, it takes its usual course, but if the stone be attached to a piece of string it at once begins to oscillate in pendulum fashion. In the organic sphere also we find that inhibited action takes up a rhythmic mode of discharge, because it is only by this means that the stored up energy can be dissipated. The caged tiger walks to and fro … Rhythm in poetry belongs to this type. Poetry is capable of rousing up and discharging the most intense affect as it starts in the reader or in the listener a rhythmic activity.[1]

 

I wonder why Bose does not extend his point to the more fundamental presence of rhythm in music. Indeed, it is rhythm again and not their frequently un-meaning words that would explain our ability to recall nursery rhymes decades after we learned them in early childhood.

Rhythm is elemental, its catharsis is more satisfying, because it effortlessly breaches the walls of perceived cultural difference we carefully erect around ourselves.  Manoj Hansda’s song reminded me not just of The Solitary Reaper or the racy ‘Lalpaharir deshe jah’ (albeit something of an overkill now for frequent travellers between Kolkata and Santiniketan), but also of the Zulu songs one used to hear on television in the 80s and the 90s everytime there was something to report about Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement: Africans in their glorious colours singing and swaying with the kind of natural coordination that comes only with years, generations, centuries of communal living, sharing and passing on. Mandela and Winnie would often be seen joining in, holding hands, smiling – and in those flitting images of an otherwise bitter revolution one caught a glimpse of the enduring spirit of humanity. My father and I used to remark how no one understands rhythm better than the black people. Of course, that had been an impulsively sentimental response. It had entailed the kind of suspension of judgement that, as I shall argue below, emanates from the intrinsic, intoxicating power of rhythm itself. I have since come to realize that rhythm is probably not the exclusive forte of any one people. Hadn’t I been just as completely mesmerised since childhood by Mikis Theodorakis, byArabian Nights, by Maurice Jarré’s hauntingly sweet “Lara’s Theme” on the balalaika for Dr. Zhivago, by Rabbi Shergill’s one song wonder “Bulla ki janaa main kawn”? Am I not currently rather more than slightly smitten by Pharrell Williams’ infectious number, Happy? It is the global rage now, on Facebook and Youtube. Doubtless it will peter out soon, as did earlier ephemeral sensations like Kolaveri Di. It is true, nevertheless, that some peoples of the world have been able to hold on to their heritage of rhythms more tightly than others in this age of global homogeneity.

Recollected television footage showing the Zulu people singing and dancing reminds me that even revolutions need rhythm, just as war needs the drums. Nothing is quite as liberating and enslaving at the same time: dramatically loosening the human body, and dare one add, the bodypolitik, from the grip of reason, unleashing a dizzying volley of memories, some true, others fabricated, inducing in us a sharp, desperate longing for all that we convince ourselves of having undeservedly had and lost or never had. Precisely because it is so overridingly a physical, bodily response to stimulus, rhythm is not just life-affirming but compulsively social. Rhythm is a natural bonding agent among men. Revolutions are impossible without the spell-binding wand of musical rhythm. I was struck once by a sixteenth-century Spanish jurist Balthazar Ayala’s analogy between musical harmony and military discipline:

For just as in string music and in part-singing different sounds and unlike notes are blended into an accordant harmony, so it may be said of an army (as Scipio in the discussion in Cicero’s Republic was made to say of the State) that is concerted activities are produced by the cooperation of the most unlike individuals, it being compacted into one by means of reason and discipline out of the intermingled ranks of upper, middle, and lower. And what musicians style harmony in the case of song is in the case of an army concord, that closest and most efficient bond of military discipline.[2]

 

Ayala contends that war is best waged without the “passion”[3] in which it originates and with a discipline analogous to musical harmony. Polanski’s indomitable pianist, playing away while the world falls to pieces around him, would probably rubbish this Orphic analogy and reaffirm instead the traditional dichotomy between the Dionysian disorder of war and the Apollonian order of music. I for one find it difficult to accept either extreme. Even more than poetry (hasn’t there been poetry for war as much as poetry against war?), music and the rhythm that Clutton Brock identifies as its inalienable component[4] wield a mighty amoral power. They can unleash and subdue passions with equal mastery. War demands just such a combination of effects: a selective but simultaneous release of sentimental love for one’s own people and programmed rage against the purported enemy. I can’t help remembering Francis Ford Copolla’s ironic use of a The Doors song and Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries as background tracks for images of destruction inApocalypse Now. National anthems are put to similar use on the World Cup football field.

I heard Pharrell Williams’ song quite by accident. My husband had paused in his channel-surfing for barely ten seconds, enough actually for a genuinely fresh whiff of melody, voice, arrangement of prelude or interlude, or even a single stock-phrase, to travel across to another room. I rushed to watch the remainder of the song video and couldn’t help envying the careless abandon of the dancing men and women. In his essay ‘What is Art?’, a philosophical defence of Aestheticism, A. Clutton Brock talks memorably of the time-stopping quality essential to art:

 

its essential quality for us is that it frees us from the chain of events which in other experience binds us to our past and future.[5]

 

Indeed, going by the staggeringly numerous regional versions it has spawned around the world, from Abu Dhabi to Chennai, this is just the kind of intended impact that Williams’s Happy seems to have had on the man or woman on the street, freeing them of the purposefulness that generally marks their comings and goings, their commuting in the public sphere. Instead, ‘Happy’ seems to have moved everyone to break into an uninhibited public display of dance and rhythm. In one shot of this globe-trotting song video, Williams is shown right outside the locked door of a hotel room, urging the people within to come out and join the celebration. I would add that the song’s politics of feel-good cosmopolitan humanism is borne more masterfully by its infectious rhythm than its unprepossessingly banal lyrics insisting on happiness being a matter of choice rather than circumstance.

Clutton Brock detects this liberating force in all forms of art – music, poetry and painting. I would submit that this force is strongest in music, and that the felicity of popular music lies perhaps in the ingenuity it applies to the mechanism of arresting the attention of a wide cross-section of people in remarkably short time, sparing scarce thought for longevity. This would in part explain the stupendous dominance of Bollywood music on the collective Indian psyche. It is that one feature of Indian culture that probably defies class, language and economic barriers. The far-flung appeal of our national opium rests precisely on its defiance of public memory, on its ability to disguise with relentless regularity notes, rhythms, styles and words already heard and forgotten somewhere sometime in the recent or remote past. The heady blend of Western instrumental arrangement, traditional Indian melodies and rhythms, and local singing talents wooed over with big money has helped Bollywood accomplish this masquerade. Thus urban discotheques are pulsating to the rhythms of re-mixed Bihu or Baul, while village belles and beaux in remote North Birbhum are gyrating to the sounds and rhythms of heavy metal; and children in Kolkata and Santiniketan alike are humming and nodding to the smart beats of Chandrabindu, blissfully unsuspecting of the songs’ profoundly sarcastic treatment of adult themes.

Our collective dependence (in spite of detractors) on Bollywood and its regional avatars for ready musical nourishment is a phenomenon that we need to address with wisdom and empathy, rather than snobbish dismissal. In course of a memorable public lecture hosted by the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University, recently, Malinidi, one of my teachers, attributed the discontinuation of government-commissioned appraisal of the state of culture in India since the P.N. Haskar Committee’s report of 1990 to the state’s surrender of its responsibilities as prime patron of culture to the vagaries of the market. Even as I admit that the state alone has the resources to counter or check the tyranny of the market, I can’t help wonder if the state may ever intervene successfully in the making and steering of a phenomenon as fluid as popular culture. The only way the state or society may try and do so, perhaps, is through a nuanced, non-judgemental, dialectical, inclusive, and comprehensive approach. It takes someone like Rabindranath to fashion a completely fresh, alternative musical culture for an entire community, down to fast-paced, funnily-worded songs best sung by toddlers in chorus. Inevitably, however, even Rabindranath’s avant garde legacy has had to grapple with the flightiness of collective taste. How many of these children’s songs are sung daily outside Mrinalini Ananda Pathshala? Haven’t I heard Bollywood songs rather than Rabindrasangeet on the lips of Patha Bhavana students as they cycle past? Society, rather than the state, would do better, perhaps, to try and understand the nature of mass culture, the secret of its power, the pivot, the fulcrum, that accounts for its Ciceronian leap from delectare – the power to please – to movere, the power to stir. To understand the pulse of popular culture, we must unravel its most powerful form, popular music. To do so, we must first acknowledge rhythm, the pole on which it turns.

 

 

Ananya Dutta Gupta

Santiniketan

May 2014

 

 



[1] Girindrasekhar Bose, Concepts of Repression (Calcutta: G. Bose, 1921), p.87.

[2] Balthazar Ayala, Three Books on the Law of War And on the Duties Connected with War And on Military Discipline, Douai, 1582, trans. John Pawley Bate, New York & London: Oceana & Wildy, 1964 (rpr.), p.ix.

[3] Ibid.

[4] G.F.J. Cumberlege (ed.), Several Essays (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1927; 2nd ed. 1952, repr.2008), p.107.

[5] Cumberlege, p.108: “rhythm in music is more masterful than in any speech.”

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