Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Lack of Originality

Among many of our age old Indian habits, which we stick to as strongly as we ridicule them, is that of stealing music.

Apparently, it all started in the seventies. RD Burman started giving a western flavour to our film music. He also used to lift pieces off western compositions. But they used to be from folk tunes or classical tunes. And his originality did show in the way he would facade his dishonesty with very creative pieces surrounding those stolen ones. But the less original contemporaries and successors of his followed his trend with less finnese, and soon started copy-pasting tunes from western block busters. In a country double-blinded due to export import licences and duties, this practice could get away with any degree of shameless copying. I have subsequently learned that many of the tunes I used to love in my childhood are direct copies of some western tunes. The practice hasn't quite abated in spite of a far greater transperancy in the recent years. Now many of us don't get fooled regarding the credit of a catchy tune, since foriegn music now has a fairly good access to the general body of music lovers in India. There have been some famous lawsuits regarding intellectual property rights resulting out of lifting music. The practice continues nevertheless.

In fact the practice of lifting music has extended to another dimension -- i.e. in the dimension of time. Remixes have started occupying a non-trivial share of the music market. They are merely remakes of the old film songs with usually a very crappy lead singer replacing the voices of flawless Lata or Rafi, and a hell lot of other voices (read 'noises') to hide the mistakes of the lead singer.

Even at this moment, there might be going on a plenty of original composition in the field of film music, but very few to reckon with, in terms of quality. And all that is clearly overwhelmed with a flood of much less original, catchier and noisier form of music that's produced and consumed at a far greater rate.

However, if you look a bit more closely, the practice of lifting tunes is not all that recent as we might be tempted to think.

In the early days of Indian film and popular music, it was a trend to lift rampantly from folk music and classical music. The film songs would closely follow the rules of Indian classical music to depict the emotional content. I am sure there was hardly a need for the film music composers to be awefully original in their work anywhere. Tunes of woe and glee, tunes of disappointment or determination, of love or hatred, of rain or desert, of devotion or eroticism, of friendship or romance. You name it, you have it all readymade in some or the other raga in the Indian classical music. Or you could even find very subtle depiction of moods in folk tunes. So much so, that you can trace the origin of some of the ragas in classical music back to some kind of folk songs. Even classical music has borrowed, if not lifted, ideas from elsewhere.

That was an age we look back at with some nostalgia, and term as 'the golden age' of Indian film music. Keeping that in mind, I wonder if lifting tunes is at all that bad. Had there been copyrights on folk tunes and ragas, and had there been a ruckus everytime a song critically followed one of them to convey its emotional content, what form of legacy of film music could we expect to have on this day? It could have forced us to be far more original than we have been. Perhaps, it would have brought in a trend of originality the lack of which the anonymity of the composers of classical and folk tunes has fostered in the very first few decades of Indian film music; and the lack of access to international music has fostered afterwards. Or quite to the contrary, it could have put too much pressure of creativity on the composers resulting in the death of Indian film music as a respectable form of modern Indian music. There's yet another point in support of this practice of lifting of music. Today, contemporary music in India is extremely rich. It's not surprising to notice the symbiotic coexistence of various forms of music in a single composition these days. In fact, 'fusion music' is quite fashionable these days, blending Indian and Western music quite seamlessly. No, I don't mean that fusion music is about lifting music from anywhere. What I mean to say is that what appears as a practice of stealing intellectual property by our composers may essentially be an evidence of our tradition of never copyrighting anything. Music has been in production for much longer than practices of recording it and selling it have been. Perhaps, liberalising the intellectual property rights issues has been one fantastic way of ensuring the perpetualisation of compositions which were good. Compare this with the Open Source revolution in software engineering. Indians seem to have invented open-source practices quite early on with reference to music. Great composers leave the stage pretty soon, while their compositions keep reverberating years afterwards. What's like stealing music when the original composer is still around, sounds like a tribute to the great artist when he is gone. More importantly, even if you are essentially piggybacking on someone else's creativity when he is gone and forgotten, he has no way to come after you and sue you! Notwithstanding the legal issues, there's surely an ethical difference between stealing someone's work, and paying tribute to him by playing it to others. Where does one draw a line? I am sure there are many ways of answering this question, and not one good way of doing that. I will close by drawing your attention to my thoughts about India's response to terrorism. Do you see the parallel? Similar to that context, even here in the context of music, we Indians are steady in practices which look distasteful and dishonourable in a restricted logical sense. And similar to that other context, we seem to be doing no worse than anybody else in the field of music. In fact, at least in music, India can boast of a richer legacy than elsewhere, and an international recognition which is fast growing.

This contradiction between a logically distasteful thing apparently yielding good long term results is a fairly interesting matter to think on!

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