Blog :- Across Genres : Classical, Folk and Popular Music #JLF2021

The 14th edition of Jaipur Literature Festival(JLF 2021) officially kick-started today(19 Feb 2021). It is scheduled to be conducted virtually from 19 Feb 2021 – 28 Feb 2021, a period of 10 days. You can read all about the programs, writers involved, debates planned and register for this festival here. Personally, I’m so pumped up to finally attend this festival. Taking that long, tiresome train journey all the way from my home state, Kerala to Jaipur just to attend this festival has been on my to-do lists since college days. I still cannot strike off that dream because the Corona virus pandemic has robbed both that train journey and the experience of enjoying these wonderful conversations amidst a live crowd from me. Nonetheless, I still feel so fortunate and privileged to have the time and technologies required to attend this fest from the comforts of my home. This series of blogs are my humble attempt to make these conversations accessible to at least some readers, aspiring-writers and art lovers who might have missed them.

The first event I was able to attend from start to finish was titled ‘Across Genres: Classical, Folk and Popular Music.’ It was designed as a conversation between Prasoon Joshi and Vidya Shah. Prasoon Joshi is an Indian poet, writer, lyricist, screenwriter, communication specialist and marketer.  He has also received the National Film Award for Best Lyrics twice, for his work in the movies Taare Zameen Par (2007), and Chittagong (2013). He has also penned the lyrics for popular Bollywood films like Black (2005), Fanaa (2006), Rang De Basanti (2006), Delhi 6 (2009), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) etc. Vidya Shah is an Indian singer, musician, social activist and writer. I found her training and works in various musical genres like Carnatic, Khayals, Thumri-dadra, Ghazal, Sufi, Bhakti, tribal music etc extremely interesting especially in the context of the current conversation.

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Prasoon started the conversation by talking about the human ability to appreciate music without dividing them into genres. When we are initially introduced to music, say while listening to lullabies or other popular songs as a kid, we didn’t differentiate it into any genres. Genres are something we started to recognize and appreciate as our knowledge and proficiency in music increased.

Both the speakers gushed about their shared love and appreciation for folk music in detail. Prasoon wondered how easily folk songs tiptoes into our subconscious. Before the realization dawns in, we are already humming the song or singing along. In Bollywood, he said, there is even a playful saying among the musicians – “when in doubt, always hear a folk song.” Like the smooth stones on a river bed, folk songs are perfected by time and many generations of people who edits and improvises it. Vidya lauded this metaphor and opined that there is an element of familiarity and accessibility associated with folk songs that make them so enduring and heartwarming. Folk songs, she felt, are basically for people, by people and about people. Prasoon added: even though there is an element of artists’s self/ego/individualism in music or any art form, there is also a sense of collective in it which is so obviously evident in folk music. In fact, a lot of our culture has been retained through folk songs. The folk songs reflect our people’s minds, their emotions, the time they live in, their society and their sense of collective belonging.

Vidya reminisced about her work with Thumri genre, she even demonstrated the genre by singing a few songs. The genre as such was created for the royal audience in olden times but slowly opened up to the common people after a few generations. She explained how folk music have left its mark in other music genres like Thumri, classical music, popular film songs etc. Music has a property of osmosis. It easily crosses boundaries and genres to permeate into each other, she reasoned. Prasoon also gave examples of how the songs in Thumri, especially their lyrics, were often tweaked to adapt to the current generation. In an old love song, a woman would wait for her lover’s return the whole day. Today she can’t, she has to go to work, he mused. Such adaptations and improvisations are important, in his opinion. Music must be contextual, otherwise it will become a museum piece.

Both speakers talked about the representation of genres like folk and classical in film music. Vidya felt that the linear slotting of classical or folk genres in music were problematic. Linear slotting here means portrayal of these genres without showing their nuances or influences from other genres of music. While Prasoon was okay with adding minor tweaks in folk, thumri, classical songs etc to use them in movies, he condemned the tendency of musicians to use them just to sound “cool” or to add “masala”. As long as the soul of the song, its intention, nuances etc are portrayed in its real sense without any superficiality, he felt these songs were in safe hands. However he expressed his concerns in the narrow representation of folk music in films; often using only its rhythms, catch phrases etc, that too solely for entertainment purposes.

According to Prasoon, artists in entertainment tend to write(or create) what people understands or appreciate in general. But he said, as artists, sometimes we also have to challenge people to seek true art. Shabdh/word is a culture in a nutshell. However, art is beyond mere communication. When we hear a Shabdh, we imagine it and a picture comes to our mind. So music is in real an art form co-created by the musician and the audience. That is what A.R. Rahman meant when he said, “Music is in between the notes.” Most of the time, we get so obsessed with the message in music. But sometimes there is no message, sometimes we just have to get lost in the sounds. We have to let music to submerge us emotionally and intellectually. The ultimate music is in the silence, it transcends all genres.

Overall, I loved this session despite not having much proficiency in music. I just wish the switching into Hindi language at times, was followed up by an English translation of that portion considering non-Hindi speaking listeners also. Also, I wish the Hindi lyrics were at least roughly translated into English for wider comprehension. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this discussion very much.

I would like to conclude this blog by sharing a personal experience. If this discussion happened even one week back, I might have skipped it to attend something more closer in theme to books or literature. Music has never been my forte. I don’t sing or play any instruments. I never really understood music. I often fell in love with songs just for the lyrics. My favourite songs are usually the ones with great lyrics, irrespective of their tunes or rhythms. I don’t even understand such terms in its full artistic, musical sense. But one week back, I randomly chanced upon few videos with just instrumental music, mainly using percussion. And for my own big surprise, I was hooked. I have been watching one video after other of concerts playing various instruments especially percussion. I know these musicians are legends. But I still don’t understand a thing about the ragas or thalams they are portraying. But when I listened with great interest and attention, I could feel the musicians pushing beyond their human-limits, playing their instruments with such ecstasy, connecting to each other in some magical sync, transcending… Here’s one such video I particularly enjoyed. I hope you will feel it too. Maybe then you will fully or partially begin to understand what the speakers mentioned above about music and silence. 🙂

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