Bhangra's many avatars from the radio era to the age of the music video.

Author:Roy, Anjali Gera


While it is true that the switchover to new media and technologies altered the Indian cultural landscape in a number of ways, the changes they ushered in were entirely different from those predicted by globophobes and technophobes. India's "satellite invasion" and privatization of the Indian skies in the 1990's, rather than swamping the Indian life-world with alien cultural images, heralded an ethnic return through several folk revivals. Belying the apprehensions of self-appointed guardians of Indian culture, who perceived new communication technologies and electronic media as signaling the demise of indigenous cultures, Bhangra, a Punjabi harvest dance, was "returned back to India" through transnational media corporations. In fact, new communication technologies appear to have given the Punjabi harvest ritual a fresh lease of life confirming Marshal McLuhan's optimism about the electronic media. But the Bhangra revival of the 1990's in which improved satellite transmission and electronic media collaborated to return Bhangra to the subcontinent is a complex phenomenon that interrogates the strong techno-determinism that undergirds "the media effects" model. The reinvention of Bhangra, which was a Punjabi dance genre, as global dance music in the 1990's compels a fresh look at its multiple transformations that were caused as much by electronic mediation as by socio-economic and cultural factors. Through juxtaposing McLuhan's insights into the electronic media with Raymond William's notion of symptomatic technologies, this essay argues that new media and communication technologies, together with deregulation, liberalization and privatization of the Indian skies, significantly altered Punjabi music and dance's content and form, released musical production and distribution from state control and led to a vernacular autonomy but simultaneously subjected them to new capitalist structures of domination. When did electronic mediation enter Punjabi music and dance and what were its effects? How did the possibility of recording sound, and then image, alter the nature, function and audience of Punjabi folk song and dance? How did new technologies of production, dissemination and consumption alter relations between performers and their patrons? What were the communities imagined through new genres of music and dance? The essay traces this history to reveal a strong imbrication of technologies with statist and capitalist agendas that transformed both Punjabi folk music and dance. (1) It shows that the introduction of radio, television and satellite technologies in Punjabi arts not only effected transformations in content, style and genre but also altered relations of production and consumption.

Believing that "the genre-based and stylistic categories of both mainstream Western and Indian discourses to be generally inadequate" (2011, 1) in describing Punjabi music, Gibb Screffler contends that Western musical categories like "folk", "classical" or "pop" tend to be confusing. Warning that "what one might approach from the outside under the rubric of "music" consists of numerous and not necessarily related practices, circumscribed more tightly by prescriptive cultural norms than what qualifies as "music" in the West" (2011, 5), he regards "the definition of "music" as something rather broad, to include but not to focus on, dance, drama, and other types of performance" (2011, 3). Assuming that the "Music of Punjab" is an area "consisting of music bound up in a particular cultural complex" (2011, 3), he proposes that we distinguish "multiple spheres or "worlds" of Performance" such as that of "the Amateur", "the Professional", "the Sacred" and "the Mediated". A brief look at the impact of electronic mediation in the past can provide a comparative perspective on contemporary sonic and kinemic configurations of the music of Punjab that eventually culminated in the parallel emergence of a new hybrid music in India and Britain known as Bhangra in the 1980s, which became part of global popular culture over the next two decades. As contemporary Bhangra hybrids have been produced through the marriage of Punjabi geet or song with dance, the history of electronic mediation in both song and dance must first be unpacked in order to understand the effects of technologies on Bhangra production, dissemination and consumption in the global era. In the sections that follow, the essay will trace the transformation of Punjabi performance practices through the media of radio, film, television and music television, which are revealed to be complicated through economic, political, social and cultural developments. It will show that contemporary Bhangra hybrids evolved from Punjabi music, song and dance that were continuously reinvented through electronic mediation in the era of radio, television and the music video.

Persian Kafi, The Gramophone Company of India and Hindi Urdu Taste Hierarchies

Regula Qureshi has detected a hegemonic alliance between recording companies, dissemination media and patrons in the gramophone era in India in which centralized state-controlled media like radio disseminated music produced by a monopolistic recording industry (1987). Although Punjabi music figures prominently in the list of the Gramophone Company of India's (GCI) earliest recordings, the choice of artists and genres recorded clearly reflects its policy of prioritizing classical and spiritual genres. The company's repertoire between 1908-16 includes a considerable number of kafis--mainly those of Bulleh Shah, some qawwalis and giddha in the secular music category and an equally large number of recordings of Sikh spiritual music. The inclusion of Sikh spiritual music may easily be explained by the GCI's strategy of targeting segregated sectarian constituencies and that of Persian derived kafis and qawwalis by company's catering for its elite Urdu/Hindi target consumers' tastes. Quereshi points out that production and dissemination of music was centralized and controlled by a small taste group in metropolitan centres with the means of dissemination under state control during the colonial and postcolonial era and foregrounds their dependence on a monopolistic recording industry.

It may safely be assumed that the All India Radio (AIR), a broadcasting station set up by the British in the 1930's, (2) addressed itself to disseminating this high cultural heritage to a more diversified audience. Radio broadcast could be viewed as democratizing in so far as it made cultural production available to the masses at a fraction of the cost. Radio owners were more widely distributed than those of gramophone and for those who could not afford to possess one, music was mediated through other technologies such as loudspeakers, community owned radio sets and so on. Despite the emergence of democratizing technologies for the dissemination of content, the radio merely served the function of bringing high art within the reach of a large populace who did not possess the means of accessing live concerts or records. However, though the radio diversified the constituencies of music beyond the elite owners of gramophone by making it available to those with no purchasing power, the recording company and the broadcast media allied with one another in perpetuating their control over the listening community on matters of music. As Qureshi points out, the radio continued to act as the custodian of "high-class" classical music in the face of the withdrawal of royal and aristocratic patronage even after Independence (1987). Cultural authority was transferred from the elite connoisseurs of music in the gramophone era to the state in the radio era, which arrogated to itself the right to arbitrate in matters of taste through its appointed officials.

The deployment of music noted in identity management by colonial governments was continued by successor governments in both India and Pakistan after the Partition of 1947. The first step in the construction of distinctive Indian national identity was the excision of the shared Persian Islamic cultural heritage in the Persian Urdu language and the invention of a sanskritized Hindu nationalistic tradition through the promotion of a Hindu classical tradition. Given that Indian musical traditions were eclectic and musical boundaries interpenetrating, a division of shared sonic history proved to be a far formidable task than the construction of geographical boundaries. A centralized classical cultural tradition in which regional and vernacular traditions were co-opted was now made to reflect the Unity in Diversity ethic of the independent Indian nation state. The state-owned AIR's broadcast and programming was representative of the nationalistic ideal of the production of a national culture in which folk and regional difference could be successfully co-opted in a conscious strategy of subcultural management through the marriage of technology and hegemony. The official policy on content--classical and folk--replicated the Great--Little interdependency underpinning the ideologies of nationalism. (3)

While the state appointed itself the paterfamilias to mould the tastes of the masses and deployed the media to construct a sense of national identity, its promotion of regional languages and cultures through its regional centres paradoxically helped them to forge a stronger regional identity. The airing of folk music was supplemented by the setting up of Units for Collection and Preservation of Folk Music at 20 stations for the purpose of indexing and systematization. The decision of AIR, now owned and controlled by the independent Indian state, to air Punjabi folk music in the 1950's may be viewed against this backdrop of the construction of national identity through music by the state controlled media in which folk vernacular traditions were arranged against the classical as interdependency. The construction of a post independent...

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