[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.