By Anjum Altaf
The seeming disconnect between the aural and visual dimensions of popular Indian culture has left me in shock and struggling for an explanation. There are many things I don’t fathom but most of the time I can advance plausible hypotheses to work towards an understanding. Not so in this particular case.
I have come upon this puzzle late and in a peculiar manner. Being aurally-oriented to an extreme, I have had very limited exposure to the visual medium. I have watched some classical dance live, attended the occasional play, and consumed some sports on TV. But as far as visual expressions of popular art forms are concerned, I am largely ignorant. Movies, in particular, I haven’t watched for decades.
This changed recently when I found myself responsible for managing senior citizens whose daily routine included a number of hours before the television. Hoping to wean them away from StarPlus soap operas and gruesome news footage, I proposed what I thought would be an acceptable compromise – leveraging new technology to watch video clips of classic Indian film songs of the 1960s and 1970s that evoked pleasant memories for all.
The senior citizens took the experience in stride but for me it was a monumental disaster. What had retained an enormous emotional hold for decades was rendered unbearable when picture was added to sound. I have since found it very difficult to unburden myself of what I can only describe as a contamination of the pure with the profane.
For me, one of the most sophisticated aspects of Indian culture is its music represented at its apex by the classical forms. One cannot miss the influence of this sophistication on popular film music as well, at least that of the 1960s and 1970s. The most haunting and memorable film songs of that period bear the unmistakable stamp of the classical tradition. The same sophistication in the visual dimension is represented by classical dance. Yet, that seems to have virtually no relationship to the depiction of movement in the popular domain. Why might this be the case?
Clearly, one argument would pertain to the nature of the audience; classical forms have a limited audience while popular forms are aimed at the mass market. But this does not provide a complete explanation. If the mass audience can relate to adaptations of classical music, why presume they would be unable to adapt to classical movement?
It is not even as if the visual representations are derived from Indian folk traditions. The folk forms, music and dance both, are beautiful in their own right. After all, the classical is nothing but the extraction of the essence of the folk, a process of refinement that has been going on for centuries. What I saw on the screen was neither classical nor folk; nor was it a caricature of Western dance forms although that might be a possible source of inspiration.
Could it be that popular Indian movies aim to appeal to fantasy and there are many more liberties that can be taken with movement than with sound to serve that end? Would it be correct to conclude that, at least in the minds of movie-makers, the Indian audience cannot be visually entertained without being titillated? Can one assume that this is not a trend likely to be reversed any time soon? And is music now also belatedly being liberated of its sophistication?
If one adds to this another presumption that suggests itself from my recent limited exposure, that the mass Indian audience is amused only by watching something silly, there is the making of a truly surreal experience. From what I remember of the Charlie Chaplin I watched as a teenager, there is an entire tradition in Western movies of being silly in an amusing way which seems quite different from the Indian tradition of being amusing in a silly way. And it seems to me that this acculturation starts at a very early age. Last year, I tried to watch the StarPlus Chhote Ustad series, a music program for very young children from India and Pakistan. I gave up after the first episode because I found the MC unbearable. It seemed it was taken for granted that the children would only be amused, entertained and made happy by the most grotesque kind of silly actions and conversation.
I really have nothing to offer here except my puzzlement and would greatly welcome any enlightenment, even censure of what may possibly come across as elitism. The only comparable experience I recall was pondering over the Ragmala paintings that are supposed to illustrate various classical ragas. I was unable to comprehend the connection but that did not ruin my enjoyment of the music itself. This experience belongs to another category altogether. I am now unable to listen to the songs without the association of the accompanying visuals. Shutting the eyes tight is no help.