Bad Culture


[originally published in Du-kool]

There was a time many years ago – I think I was in class 6 or was it 7 – that my mother thought that it would be a good idea to make her son into an outdoor type of person. So I was sent off to a one week nature-study-camp in the forests of Orissa. There I learned how to tie knots, identify constellations in the sky, and the proper steps that must be taken when your torch falls into the communal toilet at two on a moonless night. This camp, which as you can see I enjoyed a lot, used to have a daily event, the campfire where camp attendees were encouraged to perform. You could recite poems, do skits, tell a story, or you could sing.

One rule however.

No Hindi film songs.

Actually no Bengali film songs either, except songs from Satyajit Ray films, which were of course okay, because, Satyajit Ray.

In Bengali, “apasanskriti” is a four-letter word, whose most appropriate translation to English, would be “bad culture”. A Bengali might forgive bad behavior or bad breath, but never bad culture. And film songs, both Hindi as well as Bengali, were considered to belong squarely in the middle of the “bad culture” Venn Diagram (which, to Bengalis should actually Benn Diagram because we have no “V”).

So what was good culture? Rabindrasangeet. For variety, there was Najrul-geeti,  Dwijendralal Roy songs, and of course, songs of red-hot patriotism. But mostly Rabindransangeet. I grew up in the middle of Rabindrasangeet, the buttery Subinoy Ray, the robustly muscular Shantidev Ghosh, the mellifluous Suchitra Mitra, the innovative Debabrata Biswas,  their voices streaming out every few afternoons from the open-reel audio recorder, a possession of the Ray family, as prized as the Telerama Color TV and the EC Black and white that came before it. To this aggressive home diet of Rabindransangeet, was added music class in school, where corpulent aunties closed their eyes, swung their heads to the side, and belted out, “Amar ei deho khani tule dhoro” (“Lift my body in your arms”), accompanied by giggles from the back benches, and if this was not enough, there were generous servings of Rabindrasangeet on TV and on radio and everywhere I went.

I rebelled. I mean, I could have left home and driven cross-country on a bike, and started a revolution. But I didn’t.

I embraced Hindi film music.

Not that I did not like Rabindrasangeet. Balmiki Pratibha, Rabindranath Tagore’s dance-drama on the origin story of Valmiki with its rather peppy tunes – I could sing it all from memory.

But it happened that as the years went on,  I went deeper and deeper into my own personal anti-intellectual revolution.

I would stand at the very corner of our third-floor verandah listening to “I am a disco dancer”, or “Kasam paida kadne waale ki”, playing on a loudspeaker from the nearby slums, my foot tapping to the rhythm. One could not sing Hindi film songs at school. Which meant I just had to. “Oye Oye” was bad culture. So I hummed it. So was “Ek Do Teen”. I hummed that too. Soon I was participating in college-level Hindi film antaksharis, and as I came to the US to study, was conducting my own. Some of my friends were into metal and other “foreign” stuff, and I loved my Michael Jackson and my Madonna and my George Michael, and even Cyndie Lauper (yes, scoff and judge me as much as you want), but that was where I stopped my Western influences. It lacked the melody I craved.

Hindi film music stayed my only love, even when the rebellious impulses had died away by time. Soon my parents, Hindi film music skeptics, were sitting with me, watching Superhit Muqabla, the first Hindi film music countdown show on TV. Not that they always liked what they saw, outraging, like everyone else, over double-meaning lyrics and provocative dance-steps and the effect of these on the moral health of impressionable children like their son, but they still gamely hung on, connecting to their teenage son in the language he understood and also, I suppose, keeping a careful eye on what he was consuming.

And now I am pushing my late thirties. I appreciate Rabindrasangeet once again, being old enough to understand the concepts of love, devotion, mortality, nature in a far deeper way than I was when I was ten, when I had to nod along to whatever my parents said was good.

I also find myself outraging much. I am concerned about the misogyny of Honey Singh, mortified by the expanse of cleavage in “Blue Hai Paani Paani”, and extremely distraught by the Hindi-Bangla-English hybrid lyrics that seem to have become de rigueur for Bangla film songs (“Challenge nibi na sala, panga nibi na sala” and “ Majnoo-ta boroi deewana”).

A few days ago, my wife and I were sitting in the living room of my Maryland apartment, with my eighteen-month-old running around, watching Hindi movie songs on an Indian channel. A song from my childhood (Sridevi’s famously sensual “Kaate naheen katte din yeh raat”) came on. As the heroine writhed suggestively in her gossamer sari, my wife told me to change the channel. I looked at my wife, and said “Aww please, this is exactly what our parents used to say. I mean, this is nothing compared to what goes on today”. Then I paused for a few seconds, realized that she was right, felt uncomfortable, and changed the channel to that other music that I enjoy watching nowadays, Arnab Goswami on Times Now shouting down all, and sundry.

Which is when I came to the realization that while the music hadn’t changed, I had.

And there will be a rebellion coming in my own house within a few years, and new beats and new rhythms and new lyrics, while I shout “No you cannot. That’s bad culture”.

I can barely wait.



34 thoughts on “Bad Culture

  1. You are lucky you don’t have a son who would berate you for life for depriving him of Kaate nahin katte din yeh raat! 🙂

  2. I was never allowed to watch “Chitrahaar” or “Rangoli”, and being born & brought up in a quiet little town called “Durgapur”, never had access to Superhit Muqabla (never received DD Metro) … Well, I understand your pain.

    But, then again Honey Singh, and similar such assorted materials are immensely radioactive. Talking of foreign music, I mostly stick to trance. It takes a while to get used to, but when you do, you’ll appreciate it. For example, you can try – Space Brothers – I still love you, or Tilt-Invisible (Supernatural Mix) from YouTube …

    Boudi is concerned, she knows damn well that bringing up a daughter in the West could be far more challenging than bringing up a son; something what my ex Brit. project manager used to say …

  3. My daughter (2 and a half) is a big fan of 90s Bollywood music. Obviously because of me always shouting aloud – which by the way my wife says is similar to beggars singing in indian trains – an alternative career for me. Anyway so my daughter’s first ryhme was ” Ooooo piya piya …. Kyun bhula diya” instead of the usual “twinkle twinkle”

  4. you are turning into your parents!!

  5. funny you mention this just the other day my 22 month old started dancing to ITs my B day by WIll i am and then i played the original URVASI Urvasi for him and he seem to love that more. which made me think that rahman would be the only musician to have survived over the generations with his pulse firmly on the musical taste of india

    1. Lets your kid try RD…

      1. i will as soon as he understands the beautifully written words of gulzarsaab. which is a herculean task in itself

  6. Chitrahaar , Superhit Muqabla and Rangoli on EC TV black and white and later on Onida Color TV ! Nostalgia ! Thanks Arnab for a very entertaining read.

  7. Superbly written and I can connect with most of your thoughts…During my childhood I was not allowed to watch Chitrahaar / rangoli etc because of the supposedly “bad influence”…but now I deliberately ignore the types of Honeys and Himesh. Now I listen to Rabindra Sangeet and News hour which I hated most in my childhood…guess I am turning into my parents 😀
    Lastly speaking…you have some superb writing skills. I wish I could write something remotely like you. Keep it up 🙂

  8. Was like a Rohit Sharma inning..started well, looked in top form but underperformed

  9. Impossible to resist. I loved the style. Keep writing.

  10. Thank goodness you’re away from Chhota Bheem. But, o Greatbong, nostalgia…

  11. >>and I loved my Michael Jackson and my Madonna and my George Michael, and even Cyndie Lauper (yes, scoff and judge me as much as you want), but that was where I stopped my Western influences. It lacked the melody I craved.<>Soon my parents, Hindi film music skeptics, <<

    Kind of funny when you think that some of the best Hindi film music directors – Salil Chowdhury, Hemant Kumar and the Burmans hailed from Bengal.

  12. You have written numerous posts on the blunder that people of Bengal did by thinking it will be the change for better, but this stunning attack on your and our alma mater needs a post from you, at your absolute best! Please?

  13. Only way my daughter eats her food is start honey singh music….:)

  14. LOL… would love to read some adult stuff written by you.

  15. Lol I was and am an unabashed Bollywood jhatka music lover despite being completely laughed at by the “Ma talika” and “phloyyyd” lovers throughout. I actually liked Floyd, nirvana etc but was loath to admit it to the “cool” crowd 🙂 guess my way of rebelling against the “party” line …. No pun intended
    Would have picked up a lot more dates with the dopey crowd though had I gone with the flow though

  16. Argumentative Indian September 20, 2014 — 6:59 am

    Thank God, if there is a God, that I never grew up.
    Still a rebel at heart, the pause button pressed for a couple of decades to make the money necessary to rebel in style and call the shots. I still find Kate Nahin Kat(th)e Yeh … superb and frankly quite tame, though I hardly have the patience / attention span to really listen to any song in its entirety, unless I’m driving myself, when there is no option but to let songs loop endlessly.

  17. Are you going to write anything on the JU incident?

  18. Being probasi always I did not suffer overdose of robindrasongeet – though I do think Mom would get a gate pass from her martial vows if Hemonto Mukherjee wwere ever to land up – such was her devotion to his mellifulous songs! But Hindi film music was looked down on – though strangely English/Western music was allowed – maybe nobody really understood the lyrics!!

    I still feel hindi film music (as distinct from the current bollywood tamasha) is among the most under rated genre. It is getting some respect now – but of course the what passes cannot hold a candle to music of yore. Now even Bappi Lahiri seems melodic!

  19. Being probasi from birth I was spared excess robindrosongeet, though i do think Ma would have got a gate pass from her martial vows if Hemonto were ever to come by that neck of the woods, such was her devotion to his rendering of the Kobiguru.

    Hindi film music is the most underrated genre of music – growing up in public schools hindi films were looked down upon while English/western pop and rock was allowed – maybe nobody understood the lyrics. Of course current music can never be as good as “in our days” – the days being of course a moving target. Now looking back, even Bappida sounds mellifluous sometimes!!

  20. LOL You listened to Cyndi Lauper? Please tell me you didn’t belt out “Girls just want to have fun” when no one was around.

  21. SUch a nice post, Arnab. Can relate to both the worlds, now that I have reached the age. Parenting and being restricted by my parents. If I can qoute – “Shei tradition somane cholche…”

  22. You posted once on annoying kids in an airplane. I said, WTF he’s so smug because he’s no kids. Niw you write this superb piece. All I have to say, Arnab, is that wait till your 18 month old is three and chota bheem tajes away the dish, the antenna and the remote and then your genius will be reduced to our mundane! Am I enjoying this!

    sorry I missed your Bangalore Yatrik…..kicking myself 😦

  23. there used to be a round table conference at home to decide if I should be allowed to watch the grammy awards. my thakuma, the protector of family virtues was assigned the task of sitting with me. and yes, I was sent off to fetch a glass of water, her tuhina lotion bottle at other items whenever she felt there was any nudity on the screen. lol!!

  24. debasisha mohapatra October 11, 2014 — 2:25 pm

    The bong in you will always subtly skewer Hindi.Amusing to read ‘Kadte’ for ‘Karte’.We non bongs always delight in teasing our bong friends.Good to see linguistic meme surviving.

  25. hey, I am a big fan of yours. I live in baltimore, maryland. Where do you live?

  26. Ive been following this blog for about 10 years now and its great to see how your perspectives have changed over time.

  27. Hahaha. Amazing how we unwittingly turn to be carbon copies of our parents!

  28. Awesome article. Cant actually explain how much i liked it.

  29. Everything was good, until the mention of you “enjoying” Arnab Goswami

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