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Musafir: Rethinking popular culture

Breaking into a song in Venice. A screengrab from Musafir

Breaking into a song in Venice. A screengrab from Musafir

Dir Pierre-Yves Perez & Cedric Dupire
color, 84 min, 2004
Documentary Educational Resources

When the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government organised the Festival of India series in the mid-80s abroad, it went beyond the realms of cultural diplomacy. Yes, at one level it took Indian arts and crafts to the world, but it had another unintended consequence. India had begun the process of becoming a sub-set of global flows through a tele-visual age (mass reach of terrestrial television signals) and thus the images of the magic of “another” India was being beamed back into Indian homes (or those that could afford tellies). This was also a period when cinema was beginning to appropriate folk culture for us to reimagine it in urban chic terms. An example of this is Reshma’s rendering of “Lambi Judaai” for Hero, Dir: Subhash Ghai, 1983. Subhash Ghai reimagined the folk through the hit “Choli key peechey kyaa hai”, Khalnayak, 1993. Though parallel cinema had attempted to work narratives centred around rural India, for e.g., Mirch Masala, Dir: Ketan Mehta, 1985, its very commitment to realism and authenticity returned Indian folk to its place within a symbolic order, where it was often associated either in terms of a romantic past (othering) or a symbol of backwardness/pre-modernity (for example caste-based rituals). On the other hand, the re-working of folk culture in popular cinema allowed for its reimagination in a form that suited a wider and rampant circulation. This circulation was made possible by a new cultural matrix calibrated by India’s entry into a liberal economic order. This order brought both the outside and the inside closer to each other. The result of this is the use of filmic use of folk music in what appears to be a victory for folk music, for example Bhangra, Rajasthani, UP, and other such folk traditions, which are now (seemingly) in better public consciousness.

Of course, this is not a new trend. As far as back as the 1930s, melodies for full-length songs were based on “popular theatre songs derived from Indian classical and folk melodies”. In contrast to the socials of the 30s, films and their songs from the 40s used entertainment formulas, which included formulas for songs. Folk songs from North India were used as melodic bases for film songs, and harmony was added by Christian musicians from Goa. Despite the disapproval of the censors after independence, by the 50s, Indian film music came to be known as hybrid music both within and outside the country. Raj Kapoor’s 1955 film, Shree 420, for example, has the flamenco guitar and the Strauss waltz styles interwoven as the instrumental introduction. The most significant institutional influences on film song during the 1960s and 1970s were from Hollywood, Anglo-American popular culture and western classical music. In the early 1960s the Hollywood theme song device was introduced by Bombay producers. The theme song was used to set the mood for the movie. Although the song was not necessarily related to the story, the title of the song was frequently used as the movie title¹.

Video 1 (below) “Lambi Judaai” Hero, 1983

Video 2 (below) “Choli Key Peechey Kyaa Hai”, Khalnayaak, 1993

Video 3 (below) Mirch Masala, 1985

The illustrations above provide a good example of how folk culture is represented in Hindi films. But what does Musafir have to do with the Hindi film industry? The question is not about its link with Hindi films, but rather how the film helps us develop a nuanced and sensitive understanding of folk art in India, especially when mass culture pushes folk art into the realm of exotic otherness on account of which we perceive it as objects of our pleasure. Thus, when we desire an imagination of the Indian nation we call upon them to supply the symbolic constituent parts of a constructed India (for e.g., an articulation of the “unity in diversity” theme during republic day pageants) , or the “incredible India” tourist campaign of the Indian government). It matters to us little that the artists’ only role is to dance past the field of vision of television cameras, reinforcing our beliefs that the nation is indeed safe in how we imagined it. It is not ironic that when the cameras pan or cut to show the exotic flotillas disappearing into the stretch of Rajpath the “Real” of folk artists literally fades out of our consciousness. This is, of course, one aspect of the imagination of folk art — the “other”. We do not let go of the “other” so easily, especially when they can be marshalled for purposes of pleasure. Besides placing such folk art within a non-threatening order (such as song and dance sequences), folk art is also deployed in the construction of post-modern identities, which mutate into multiple meanings. The clips below highlight my point adequately.

“Nimbuda”, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, 1999

“Kajra Re”, Bunty aur Babli (2005)

“Rasiya”, The Rising, Ballad of Mangal Pandey, (2005)

The above examples illustrate the appropriation of the “other” to lay out and define a “reality” within a cinematic narrative that is constituent of our web of symbolic relationships (love, desire, individual wages, nation, duty, leisure). Thus, for example, in the clip from Hero when the folk singer renders “Lambi Judaai” (Long Separation) the folk artist as a singer is brought into the frame only to reinforce the pining of the lovers Jaikishan and Radha, as if beyond serving as pseudo-articulation of our own sexual energies and a reconstitution of the mythic libido of Krishna and Radha in the modern space, the folk artist had no other purpose in our perceptual field. Having performed the function of elevating for our pleasure the tension to an eroticised level the singer (a faux one at that) is conveniently abandoned in the order of shots. Somehow the rendering of the song by a folk artist is supposed to eroticise the song more than Radha could do it herself. Here myth, folklore, the imagined nation, gendered subjectivities are hemmed in a creative genius. Thus, the song sequence is neither about the song, folk art, or the folk artist. Instead, it seeks to arouse and sustain the libidinal drive, and while the artist literally performs in the background, the narrative unfolds (the destruction of Jaikishan) which is depicted through a series of montages. The narrative moves ahead and the devices cleverly employed by the filmmaker recede in our memory. After the film is over we can go home satisfied with its reinforcement of our symbolic order, and we can replay the fantasy by perhaps buying a copy of its music and literally owning and reimagining folk tradition in our own spaces of modernity, tradition, or hybridity. The Real of the folk tradition, the Real of the folk artist, i.e., their existence other than symbols of our imagined nation and culture is none of our concern. It does not matter to the audience that Real is very different from the eroticised representation in popular films.

Traditionally, folk artists have played roles that were weaved into their social reality (for e.g., the Kariyala and Syang theatres from Simla district, Banthara specialised in satire) before modernity pushed them into the margins and near redundancy². It is within such a reality and the obscene contrast of the construction of the folk art as the other in popular cinema — the L’objet petit a (roughly translated into unttainable object of desire, though Lacan insisted for it to remain untranslated) — that we can locate the significance of documentaries such as Musafir. Unlike popular culture, which can get away by reconfiguring culture, experiences, identities, amongst others for the pleasure principle, the documentary (unless of course one was talking about propagandist films) invokes an expectation of a fair and honest representation of somebody’s experience of reality. So when we wash ethical demands off popular culture, we should be aware of the Real of the source material of popular art and the resultant representation in popular cinema is based on lack of fairness, accuracy, and honesty. This is not to declare that the intentions of popular culture are such, but the end result is definitely such. From the example given above, we can see that folk art is deployed for erotic purposes, i.e., to make the pop product easily consumable. This, of course, involves an audience complicity. Musafir (Nomad) treads a very difficult path, and in the face of an ethical demand that popular culture can choose to ignore, narrates an insightful story of folk artists centered around the travelling music group Musafir, which is led by Hameed Khan, a tabla player. The documentary film is based on the one of the journeys of the group from Rajasthan to Europe where they will perform to audiences. Unlike commercial cinema, which elevates the other to an unknowable, exotic other, Musafir reminds us of the importance of the documentary format and how, despite its apparent lack of drama, weaves layers upon layers of stories of ordinary life that passes us by. Thus, the film lives up to Michael Rabiger’s suggestion of the ethical contract with a film’s audience.

Living between Paris and Jaipur, Hameed provides opportunities to a diverse range of folk musicians from across Rajasthan. Musafir fuses divergent styles and backgrounds from all corners of Rajasthan: the Langas and Manghanyar, renowned wandering poets singing a wide repertoire of ancient songs from Thar Desert and playing the sarangi (Indian violin), kartals (castanets) and murchang (Jew’s harp); the musicians of the Court of Maharajas singing and playing the harmonium and the dholak (two headed drum); and classical musicians interpreting elaborate and sacred songs and performing on tablas.

The film opens with shots of two artistes singing a 70s Hindi film song on a Gondola in Venice, the sequence culminating in shots from a live performance. Here we learn of their affection for Hameed Khan. It would be natural then to fall into the trap of revolving the story around Hameed Khan or any one of the artistes. Instead the film is structured around a de-centred narrative with two stories being narrated, one is centred around the preparations for Musafir impending Europe tour and we see shots of the artistes practising in a humble house on the outskirts of Jaipur. Hameed, a classically trained tabla player, puts the artistes through their paces and suggests improvisations to the folk artistes. We realise this is not an attempt to tame or appropriate the folk art, but to let it flourish, to give it a voice. As we witness individual performances by the practising artistes, a different kind of story unfolds parallely. This time we discover the Subaltern histories, articulation, and construction of the folk artistes. Thus we learn about the Langas, the Kalbeliyas, and the Manghanyars through the artistes as they take us to their social settings. Thus we journey into the lives of Katu Sapera (Kalbeliya Dancer), Chugge Khan (Manghanyar, playing Guimbarde, Kartals, Vocals), Lum Nat (playing Dafli, Dholak, Algogya), Saddic Khan Langa (Langa, playing Sarangi, Vocals), and Dapo Sapera (Kalbeliya Dancer). They tell their own histories, which informs us not just about the value of Subaltern histories told in their voices, but also the Real of their existence, which places them in the periphery of modernity. For example, we learn how the Kalbeliyas shifted from giving performances with snakes to replacing them snakes with female dancers. On the other hand, they battle constant prejudice and literally live on the margins of society.

Despite the challenges, we learn how Subaltern pedagogies pass on these uncodified art forms from one generation to the other. There is a certain joy and matter of factness to the learning that is passed from one generation to the other. As the film cuts between explorations of the musafir (the traveller) and the journey of the group, it is evident that there is much more to folk artistes than the tokenist parading during republic day or the eroticised representations in Hindi films. Reality is not what is out there but what we know, understand, and share with each other of what is out there. Media affect the most expensive real estate of all, that which is inside your head. Documentary is an important reality-shaping communication, because of its claims to truth. Documentaries are always grounded in real life, and make a claim to tell us something worth knowing about it. Not that it does not have its flaws. There are questions it never answers. For example, Hameed speaks fluent French and English. What is the relationship between him, Musafir (the organisation) and the artistes. Does Hameed get paid to organise these tours? Do the artistes get a remuneration. Despite this, Musafir is a documentary worth watching.

1. For a detailed history of the Hindi film song, see Skillman, Teri (1986) “The Bombay Hindi Film Song Genre: A Historical Survey” Yearbook for Traditional Music Vol 18 pp 133-144

2. The Tribune has a report on the impact of popular culture and other conditions on the folk arts. “Pop culture and official apathy”, The Tribune, Wednesday, January 3, 2007, Chandigarh, India [Online] http://www.tribuneindia.com/2007/20070103/himplus1.htm

Stills from film


1 This face will not do. Aesthetics, class, and media | Subaltern Media { 12.10.08 at 2:13 pm }

[…] a “diverse” nation (read about rural India and Indian media and communications culture here). When the National News pages of newspapers such as Times of India carry articles about Bollywood […]

2 italy-india.gruppozenit.com { 08.03.12 at 5:07 am }

What about the different popular cultures of the different regions of India?

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