Written by Radhika, Ishan Gupta

The perennial hierarchy of art forms and genres can be observed by juxtaposing the classical and folk music in India which form the two ends of the spectrum. Classical music requires more training due to its highly structured nature. As a result, kings often patronized classical music to fund the training of singers, sometimes not only because of their interest in the art form itself but because of their entitlement to such activities owing to their status as patrons. Folk music on the other hand, evolved as an art form through activities which were mostly associated with daily chores in village households or a song in the form of “telling a tale about the husband leaving the house for work and the wife waiting at the doorstep for him to come back” . “Because folk songs came through an aural tradition, as all folk music does, they were simple and could be sung without any accompaniment or training” (cited pg. 2, ‘Music for the masses’, Theodore Bhaskaran).

Keeping this in mind, let us move on to the beginning of recording technology. This  technology could only be acquired by those who could afford it – the upper class. They encouraged the recording of classical and not folk music because in addition to the cost of training that we spoke of earlier, they were also determined to distinguish themselves from the lower class, who they considered less cultured than the people of their own community. Therefore the access to recording material and training were concentrated within the hands of the upper class. Hence, it becomes apparent how classical music was thereon popularised and yet, not inclusive of everyone. In other words, participants of classical music were still a minority but the form was ‘popular’. The components of ‘popular music’ over time are interesting to look at because in contemporary India, popular music comprises largely of film or playback music. This transition has not affected the elite status of classical music but has only altered the music that the masses have access to. The reasons behind this transition can be reasoned out if we observe closely the conditions of the art form as well as the social and the economics of the country.

In the 1950’s, commercialisation of music coincided with post-colonial sentiments and financial state of the country led to an increase in access to movies by the masses. Simultaneously, it was observed that there was an increase in the number of playback singers due to a “shift in focus from artistic to commercial aspects”.[2.links] Commercialisation of music was also a result of financial pressure on the industry. The industry had to keep up with the economic shift in addition to propagating a sense of nationality among the masses, for the sake of the newly independent Indian state and patriots. This situation worked well for both: the masses, because they now had access to music that was easy to understand, as well as for the industry, which could now make more money because of increased reach and audience. In order to elaborate on how popular music is easy to understand, it is necessary to point out certain assumptions. They have been made based on the observation that there are more takers for popular music or playback music as opposed to classical music because of the minimum pre-requisite knowledge needed to be able to appreciate it. In other words, the cost of being a connoisseur of popular music is lesser than the cost of being a connoisseur of classical music. Therefore, by popularising music that is easier in structure and comprehension, authenticity of music is being lost due to commercialisation, which relies on inclusion through homogenisation.

The outbreak of playback singing in India is often associated with the moment when the first song was ever recorded for a commercial purpose. Music began to be recorded both for preservation of the art form and for popularisation. This is in contrast to the times before recording technology was introduced which included the era of theatre artists. Lata Mangeshkar’s statement about playback singing goes back to theatre culture and how the actors were required to be skilled in acting and singing as they would sing the songs,”I think playback singing has a lot to do with voice acting. I would suggest to all the youngsters to understand the character, situation and the story behind the songs. That is when you can add soul to the rendition which, I think, is missing in today’s music,” Looking at the current scenario when the industry is trying to go back to the era of theatre artists, “it is interesting to note that up until the 1930’s and 40’s playback singers were not favoured because most of the actors and actresses sang their own songs because they were selected for both their singing and acting abilities”For example, Shraddha Kapoor sang a few songs in her movie Aashiqui 2. There are other actors as well such as Salman Khan, Alia Bhatt, among various others. This is not to question the musical knowledge or the singing talents of these actors, but to evaluate and notice what Lata Mangeshkar is trying to say in her statement. The rendition of voice acting is being attempted in the movies by using such actors to sing as well as act at the same time; this does help in imparting the authentic emotions of the songs as the actors are able to connect to it more than the playback singers as they have to put on the character’s skin. However, in doing so and comparing such artists, on the grounds of prowess and capabilities without the use of enhancement technologies, with the ones who have devoted to playback singing, the authenticity  in terms of musical knowledge and capacity is being diminished. Keeping this in mind, although there is an attempt to revive the olden techniques of theatre in movies, Lata Mangeshkar’s statement doesn’t hold true for the current situation in the industry.

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Ishan Gupta

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