Friday, June 22, 2007
A couple of Fridays ago this Critic's Choice -- a preview of an upcoming concert -- appeared in The Backwards R:
Dubbed the "Asian Mozart" by the Daily Telegraph, 41-year-old composer A.R. Rahman redefined contemporary Indian film music in the early 90s, transforming a style that was formulaic and drowning in kitsch into something diverse and sophisticated, infused with everything from Baroque strings to pop guitar to dancehall beats. A student of Carnatic music who'd played keyboards on tour with tabla master Zakir Hussain at a young age, he earned a degree in Western classical music from Oxford and made commercial jingles at his home studio before taking his first film commission, Roja, in 1992. Since then he's scored 70 films and two Broadway musicals (Bombay Dreams and The Lord of the Rings), selling more than 200 million albums in the process. His Chicago debut promises to be a Bollywood-scale spectacle, with nearly 50 musicians, 20 dancers, and a dozen of India's top playback singers (the people whose voices you actually hear in Bollywood musicals), including Sukwhinder Singh, Sadhana Sargam, K.S. Chitra, and Hariharan.
This letter to the editor appeared in my inbox the following Monday:
I am writing to you regarding this Saturday June 9, 2007 blurb about A.R.Rahman by Caca, posted below. In this blurb, Ms. Caca states that Mr. Rahman transformed Indian music which was “a style that was formulaic and drowning in kitsch into something diverse and sophisticated.” First, Ms. Caca’s opinion on Indian music is unnecessary for the information she is giving to the readers about the show. Second, the words are offensive, as Indian music prior to the 90’s was not formulaic, drowning, or lacked sophistication, agreed upon by millions of people (and many experts). Indian music is renowned for being intricate and graceful and has inspired music around the world including The Beatles, John Lennon, Madonna, and many more. Also, while Mr. Rahman is a musical genius, he is not the “Asian Mozart” by any means. Bollywood has a long history of brilliant composers who, in their time, contributed to India’s artistic growth for decades. As early as the 40’s, Indian music infused Western and Middle Eastern tunes with traditional Indian tunes to create original musical pieces. This is evident in the musical works from Kishore Kumar in the “black and white” era to Bhappi Lahiri’s “disco” era, and many more. Ms. Caca and the Daily Telegraph may not be aware of this since India has only recently been included in the Western music scene, which was primarily xenophobic until the 80’s and even now is faced with many racial challenges. Ms. Caca is obviously not an expert on Indian music so how did her comments get approved by your editing staff? After all, as with any published work, one must do a fact check prior to printing anything. I am sincerely requesting an immediate apology from the Reader and Caca for this appalling and racist attempt to put down Indian music. I am shocked that a paper that prides itself of covering the non-mainstream voice would deliberately allow such an offence to take place.
This was upsetting, to say the least. I mean, don't they know I'm a wIndian?
And that journalists know everything.
(I really was upset, though. The last thing I want to do is disrespect Indian music).
To my surprise, The Backwards R said a few days later that they were going to print the letter, as well as any response I wanted to make.
At first I was going to be all peace-love-yoga, thank you for your letter, I'm sorry I upset you bla bla bla.
Then I consulted Bindi and The Colonel as well as a woman from Kerala and a man from Andhra Pradesh-- some of my best friends are Indian -- to see what they thought.
I ended up writing the following, while listening to Rahman's utterly sublime Dil Se soundtrack (which is playing right now, as I compose this post):
To clarify; I said that contemporary Indian FILM music IN THE EARLY 90s was in a rut, not Indian music in general.
From all accounts, this was the case, as the major composers had died off or retired. As Rahman told Time magazine’s Lina Lofaro in 2004:
"When I started in 92, Indian film music was very segmented. This made me take a film song and produce it in such a way that it would go beyond language or culture. That worked because, basically, I’m from South India [the Tamil capital of Madras]. It worked across North India [Bombay, Calcutta, New Delhi, etc.], which is a completely different culture. “
I stand by what I wrote. I only wonder if it would have provoked such a strong reaction had my surname been Indian, rather than Danish .
The new Backwards R came out yesterday.
No letter to the editor.
Not even in the online edition.
There's a lesson in this somewhere.