Yeh kya jagah hai, diaspora?
ANY definition or understanding of ‘music’ should consider the distinctive mediations of recording and playback technologies as they shape sonic and audiovisual material. Attention to contexts and practices of listening to and watching media remind us that music is social; it often happens with other people. These are commonplace assumptions in media studies, sound studies and cultural studies, but worth restating to counter the formalist musicology and populist hagiographies of musicians that stack the bookshelves, particularly in India.
Even film studies can project particular textual readings as universal. Such approaches to music and media not only assume how people experience and use media, but are normative and sometimes moralistic about how people should be engaged. For example, focused, contemplative or deep listening are privileged over distracted listening, or using music as background during other activities. But all listening is partial and involves shifting and flickering modes of attention. Emotions, feelings and affects fluctuate, as well as the subjective and collective meanings of music. The heart wavers. Language is lost or remains untranslated.
For me, Indian film songs involve both love and disaffection, embrace and alienation, like the heroine in an old film turning her face away from the hero just as he’s about to kiss her on the lips. These double-edged modes of listening and conflicted feelings might be dismissed as improper or lacking, but there is no correct way to listen to music.
The territories of diaspora come with their own vulnerabilities to accusations of inauthenticity and improper identities. Not Indian enough. Too Indian. Western. Gora/Goree. Bilkul Angrez. ABCD (American Born Confused Desi). NRI out of step with the homeland. Caricatures colour the everyday attitudes of Indians in India. The repeated little humiliations and shaming in family and public discourse back home, and from elders in the diasporic community, are jabbing reminders that one is unable to quite fully belong. While there may be common elements of diasporic consciousness that are shaped by and respond to these typical slights, the auto-ethnographic genealogy here has no expectations that my South Asian diasporic listening is the same as millions of others.
I was born in Karachi in 1962, the first child of so-called Muhajirs whose families left Delhi and Meerut to cross the new border in 1947, not so much enamoured of the Pakistan project, but worried for their safety in the midst of communal violence. My father who was an Indian until he was 15 years old left Pakistan as a young Lahore-graduated doctor for Aden in 1954 and married in 1960. I spent my first five years in Aden, then due to the war that transformed it from a British Protectorate to the independent state of Yemen, my parents became refugees for a second time in 1967. My pregnant mother with two little boys in tow was sent back to Karachi for safety while my father packed up the house, gave instructions for shipping our belongings, and left for England to pursue more qualifications and employment.
After my sister’s birth in Karachi, the four of us joined him in Walsall, not far from Birmingham in the West Midlands in 1968. Just a few months before we landed, local Conservative Party MP Enoch Powell had made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech where he prophesied civil war if immigration from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent were to continue. Our less than impeccable timing meant that, soon with an additional baby brother, we were subject to unwelcoming looks, racist taunts and insults on a regular basis at school, in shops and on the street. Thankfully, threats of violence outnumbered kicks and blows.
In those first few years in England, wooden crates arrived from Aden in dribs and drabs. Many of them had been looted before being shipped. But most of Baba and Mama’s gramophone records (LPs and EPs) had managed to survive war and the long sea journey. These records included American jazz, Country and Western, international easy listening, Hindustani classical, Urdu ghazals, Hindi film soundtracks from the fifties and sixties, and compilations of particular play-back singers and music directors.
As my father’s job positions improved, he devoted more recreation time with my mother to building a record collection and assembling his hi-fi – researching and buying the right components to complement each other in a living room sound system, tinkering with reel-to-reel tape recorders, copying records on to those tapes and later to cassettes and blank compact discs, capturing late-night concerts with visiting Indian and Pakistani artists in our living room on the latest recording walkman with high quality directional microphones. He cared for the records with anti-static rollers, soft cloths and fine brushes to keep the dust away. As children we were allowed to play the records at the same time that we were, without really knowing it, being trained in audiophilia.
There were recordings by Lata, Geeta and Rafi, often played when other Desi friends came to visit, played after dinner into the wee small hours with endless cups of chai. As young British children and teenagers we had little feeling for these songs. We were mostly interested in British and American music, the stuff on the radio and TV, and then the records we bought with pocket- or lunch money after reading about them in the weekly music papers. We were Desi at home in our habits, but like many other English kids as soon as we stepped out of the door. The hard consonants and vowel sounds of our accented English became more like the local dialects when we were in public. Our grip on the mother tongue was loosening.
My parents spoke to us in Urdu and we talked to them in English. In fact, the balance of Urdu and English in their speech also shifted so that they were combining codes as we interspersed a few Urdu words in our English vocabulary. The Hindi voices on film albums seemed alien and comical. We marvelled at how most of the female playback singers sounded the same, like an excitable Minnie Mouse backed by a thousand shrill violins. We mocked and mimicked K.L. Saigal’s nasal voice. But in any case, even for my parents, film songs were marginal in the domestic soundscape. My parents had a greater appreciation and love for Hindustani classical singers and instrumentalists. For lyrics and vocals, they favoured ghazal artists like Begum Akhtar, Farida Khanum, Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali over Bombay play-back singers.
Our listening to Hindi film songs was mostly detached from the moving image. I don’t remember hearing or coming across the term ‘song picturization’ in the 1970s or early 1980s. We rarely watched Hindi films screened in the local Desi movie theatres. Even when we moved from the West Midlands to West Yorkshire in 1976, and met regularly with several families in the nearby Pakistani and Indian communities in Bradford and Leeds, we were quite different from the family in the film East is East, corralled by patriarch Om Puri to watch Chaudhvin Ka Chand on a visit to Bradford. We were more likely to make family outings to animated and live-action Disney films.
As family friends acquired VCRs, the grown-ups used videos of Hindi films to pacify the kids in the basement or a spare bedroom, while they chatted for hours in the living room. Occasionally, the adults used the alibi that these films were teaching us about ‘our culture’. We would fast-forward through the song and dance numbers, eager to move the narrative along, rather than be stuck in limbo for what seemed like interminable sequences compared to 3-minute pop singles or the typical scene in a Hollywood musical. While we took British and American rock and pop seriously, Hindi films and particularly their songs were the epitome of cheesiness with their dated fashions, gaudy polyester and wide shirt lapels, often worn by ageing potbellied heroes.
The music sounded tinny, and during this period was chock full of trebly knock-offs of disco records without enough bass. Video releases of Hindi films from companies like Eros and Shemaroo and the dubiously legal tapes from Dubai with their ticker-tape ads along the bottom of the screen didn’t have subtitles for songs, so we barely registered any details of the lyrics. It was only in the mid-1980s when Channel 4 began to screen renovated prints of canonical Hindi and Bengali films, curated by Nasreen Munni Kabir, that subtitles in blocks were legible. Kabir’s Movie Mahal series devoted episodes to songs in the pantheon of auteurs such as Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor and interviewed lyricists and composers.
We began to appreciate the lyricism of these older songs, just as Hindi film tunes seemed to be shifting to more vernacular, simpler and less traditionally poetic lyrics. However, we still tended to encounter Hindi film songs most often in the background, filtering through our urban environments. They were fuzzy and hissy on ‘Asian’ AM radio stations in cars, with booming echo hiked up in jingles and cheaply produced ads for local Desi businesses. They were earworms in Gujarati and Punjabi grocery stores as we trailed behind our parents, and on those rare trips to Desi record stores in Birmingham and Southall in London.
Hindi film songs disappeared for a while from my radar as I threw myself into learning about and buying so much other music, primarily from the US and UK. Once I was away at university in Nottingham in the mid-1980s and then in the US for postgraduate studies, I also tended to avoid Pakistanis since many of them were becoming more religious when I was becoming an atheist, drinking and taking recreational drugs for clubbing and parties. I barely knew any Indians. Most of the South Asians on campus were in engineering, medicine or science and rarely spotted in the arts. But as a music journalist for university newspapers in the 1980s and then an amateur but regular radio DJ since the mid 1990s in the US and Aotearoa/New Zealand, I have been well placed for the growing presence of Hindi film song in DJ culture.
At grad school in Austin, Texas, I also met my future partner, a Gujarati postgraduate student, who introduced me to leftists and drinkers from Pakistan and India who didn’t care for religion or nationalism, whether Pakistani or Indian. This was the first critical mass of South Asians I had met in my life that weren’t socially conservative. This rapprochement with real, radical and liberal South Asians, many of whom played Hindi film songs and sang them when we hung out, happened to coincide with the ascendancy of Hindi remix. In India this genre category evolved from the world of jhankar beats, T-series cassettes, and Saregama milking its back catalogue of HMV recordings.
This development was part of a broader global phenomenon of retromania in popular music with its recycling and nostalgia. In the UK and US it was also a manifestation of second-generation desis getting back to their roots through sampling and looping their parents’ records and reframing their childhood listening in new music more influenced by R&B, hop hop, house and techno.
During the nineties and early 2000s this cultural production in the diaspora was boosted by the Hindi cinema’s rebranding as Bollywood in a globalised, neoliberal India. The academic corollary was the growth of Indian film studies that now took popular cinema seriously after having been dominated by concerns with art rather than mass entertainment, parallel cinema rather than commercial cinema. This was the case in Indian universities, but particularly marked among the greater number of Indian postgraduate students and assistant professors in US departments, many of whom would contribute and edit new works on Hindi cinema, now reframed as Bollywood.
The prints of old films on video, then DVD and digital platforms were sharper, better subtitled and had wider distribution. It became easier to access and manipulate this media content for research, lectures, seminars, radio shows and remixes. Scholarship, including mine, celebrated the hybridisation of the new music as a sign of new ethnicities, but also vexed about cultural appropriation in hip hop tracks and mp3 mashups. Off the page we sniggered at the gall of copycat Bappi Lahiri’s attempt to sue Dr Dre for sampling one of his tracks.
The fascinations I have with Hindi film songs remain informed primarily by the international sensibilities of DJ culture and electronic dance music, rather than what the lyrics mean to Indians or their sociological and cultural import, though I do teach about the latter in courses on popular music and media. I’m most interested in the texture of recorded sounds rather than the melodies or words, the processing and distortion of vocals, the way the strings of the studio orchestra evoke sadness, the yearning of flutes, the drones of sitars and tempura, and tabla timbres. The integration of these sounds in the texture of non-Indian music animate my research rather than musicological insights into the technical aspects of Indian musical forms or national-historical concerns with traditions.
My record collecting has also made me think about how Indian film songs are repackaged in the West, even when they’re not broken into fragments for digital manipulation. In that respect, my own musicophilia is akin to that of DJs, bloggers, curators and owners of independent record companies in Europe and North America that recontextualise Indian film music for international/western audiences outside of India. Labels such as Sublime Frequencies and Finders Keepers have compiled mainstream Hindi and Tamil cinema music, but also B-movie horror and soft porn music in films produced mostly between the 1950s and the 1980s.
For me, this involves a critical engagement that is open and not judgmental about the contradictions of listening politics and the organisation of music. On the one hand, it is problematic that Indian music is understood in these releases in terms of its relationship with international music movements and styles such as jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, psychedelia, funk, disco and synthpop, rather than indigenous or native music forms and theories of sound. On the other hand, these compilations do show that Indian music also borrows and absorbs from other sources, so complicating vulgar or banal critiques of cultural imperialism and orientalism.
These ‘foreign’ releases have also done much more careful and informative work in curating and annotating the back catalogue of Hindi film songs than Indian counterparts such as Saregama with their bucket approach to compilations, five-minute graphic design on packaging of the music, and little attention to remastering valuable recordings from the past.
Like the Indian companies, international labels don’t reproduce song lyrics. But it’s the sound of the voice rather than the words that matter to many of us.
My audiophilia is not representative of the diasporic experience of Hindi film song appreciation, since many Desis left South Asia for other parts of the world at different ages and times, and are more embedded in their languages. My partner from Ahmedabad and Desi friends will sometimes play Antakshari as I retreat to another room, a little bemused and amused by how every other song ends or begins with an ‘H’ sound because of ‘hai’, as ‘huh huh’ resounds as a command for the next team or singer. I’m an outsider in these activities because of the loss of language. Such moments are reminders of the gradations or continuum of diaspora.
With the mother tongue a fainter presence in my life, there is only one song that with its Urdu/Hindustani lyrics and instrumentation can hail and capture me completely. ‘Yeh kya jagah hai doston’ from Muzaffar Ali’s film Umrao Jaan (1981) leaves me in a pool of tears every time, in any of its YouTube avatars, with or without the original film sequence, in videos with imprecise translations. Sahryar’s words and Naushad’s music have come to define the liminality of my diasporic life. This film song captures something Desi or South Asian that might be akin to the yearning of saudade for Brazilians, as it suggests a specific ‘South Asian’ fluctuation between detachment and attachment for me.
‘What is this place? To which territory or region does it belong? Fate has brought me here to this foggy state of confusion. Who is calling me behind that screen?’ In the film Rekha as the famous tawaif of Lucknow performs for a group of men, unbeknownst to her, just across the street from the house where she was abducted as a girl. The picturisation includes flashbacks of her playing as a child with her younger brother outside her house. The sequence cuts to her mother on the other side of the street who listens to this singing, partially obscured by a bamboo screen in some of the shots in the sequence.
The last few seconds of the song are non-diegetic as the men get up to leave the gathering and Umrao Jaan steps across the street, Asha Bhosle’s voice on the soundtrack but Rekha’s lips not lip-syncing. She begins to recognise her childhood home, and as we see her enter the house, the song ends with the words ‘yeh kya jagah hai doston.’ As she looks around the familiar house, her mother appears from behind a wooden screen/shade, walks towards her but doesn’t recognise her. In the exchange that follows, her mother asks her ‘Tumari asli ghar kahaan hai?’ (where is your real home?). Umrao replies ‘Asli watan to yaheen hai, jahaan main kadhi hoon’ (my real place/land is here, where I stand) and only then does mother realise this is her daughter and they embrace, wracked with sobs.
At that moment Umrao Jaan’s brother returns, says she would be better dead because of the shame brought on the family, and so must leave the house and never return. This melodramatic ending wrings tears because it brings together a cluster of bittersweet emotions with allegorical force – the gendered tragedy of the courtesan genre; the beautiful decadence of North Indian Muslim culture at the turn of the 20th century; the rupture of Partition and the intergenerational transmission of its trauma; the erasure of Muslim India under Hindutva; the inability to fully belong to family and soil because of exile and migration.
The emotional wrench of the song is even more pointed during the Covid-19 pandemic, as I am unable to travel from Auckland to London to visit my own mother, who is now in her eighties and has vascular dementia. My brother sends videos of her every few weeks on our siblings whatsapp group. She sits in her favourite armchair, gazing out into the garden. My brother will have put on some music, and though she speaks less and less these days, my mother will occasionally burst forth with a perfectly remembered lyric from an old song. A similar fate may await me; fragments of Hindi film song in my mind’s ear, but probably a sample from a hip-hop mix or dubstep tune.