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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: May 2012

13 - Musical genres and national identity

from Part II - Cultural forms


In the film Shankarabharnam (Telugu, 1979), a drama about a south Indian classical singer and a young prostitute's devotion to him, there is a scene which epitomizes the way ‘classical’ music and ‘film’ music came to be opposed to each other in post-colonial south India. The larger theme of the film, the backdrop against which its events take place, is the destruction of south Indian, or Karnatic, classical music at the hands of charlatan gurus and hypocritical concert organizers, and through the steady encroachment of Westernized musical tastes. In this particular scene, the hero, Shankara Sastri, is fast asleep one night in his house when he is suddenly awakened by the strains of electric guitars being played Western-style. He opens his door to find a band of ruffians mocking his devotion to Karnatic music. ‘Our music is an ocean’, they sneer, parodying what is often said about Karnatic music to invoke its depth and complexity. Shankara Sastri challenges them to a musical contest. The ruffians sing their song, and Shankara Sastri proceeds, to their utter astonishment, to convert it into the syllables used to sing Karnatic music and sing it back to them. Then, improvising a short piece of Karnatic music, he challenges them to reproduce it, leaving them completely at a loss. Shankara Sastri scolds them: ‘While so many foreigners recognize the greatness of Indian music, how can you mock it? It is like making fun of your own mother.’ To make his point, apparently too important to be uttered merely in Telugu, he switches into English: ‘Music is divine, whether it is Indian or Western.’

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