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Shruthi in the West – A Chronology of Indian Sounds in Western Music


A Bhajan Out of Place

Music isn’t consumed as part of genres or eras to be mastered for most listeners, but as a constellation of deeply personal associations that map their lives. Yet, categories still form, and fans often become committed to a particular era, theme, genre or even just an artist. The larger ebbs and flows that music undergoes over time comes to mark different eras and chronicle a listener’s structuring in time, their relationship to their environment and the social circumstances that regulate who gets to hear what. Through these transformations, music acts as a kind of archive to negotiate social differences, community interests and cultural values.

It vividly conjures up the emotions and experiences of the listener. It ties it to the broader cultural and societal movements of the time, intermingling their inner psyche with the world’s happenings. In my case, this has meant getting excited whenever I hear Indian sounds or references in music played at cafes, bars or stores in the Netherlands, where I now live. A song I heard in one of the many hip, neon pink lit bars in Amsterdam that sent me straight back to a bhajan class that I didn’t even remember having been forced into till then. I couldn’t recognise the original bhajan, but I knew what I was hearing had Indian roots. But so did the people around me who had never listened to a bhajan in their lives. But how do we all collectively hear a sound and immediately label and experience it as Indian? Or for that matter, any place.

Hare Krishna

Early Beginnings

Tracing back the origins of Indian music samples in Western music ultimately often eventually led me to Bhangra music. As the state that has contributed the most people to Indian and Pakistani diasporas, it has been one of the most crucial points of departure for South Asian music, food, film and art. Bhangra music especially has gained renown and been collaborated and blended into music in the West. Bhangra was first introduced in 1957 as a quintessential Punjabi folk dance by the highly successful film Naya Daur. The film’s expansive reach caused Indian communities across the country to associate Punjabis with Bhangra, which has been a trademark symbolof Punjab in various Indian language films. Bhangra increasingly played a role in characterising Punjabi’s expression of cultural identity soon after Naya DaurThis was evident in the abrupt boost in government funding for promoting the dance, the emergence of prestigious nationwide Bhangra competitions, and even its place as part of Punjab’s school curricula.

Naya Daur

Bhangra co-option as intrinsically Punjabi concealed that it was more of an amalgamation of various folk dances across Punjab and Gujarat that further merged with other folk dances from Pakistan brought in by the refugees post British independence in 1947. Assigning Bhangra as constitutive to one ethnic community buried the cultural negotiation, strategies of representation, and empowerment between the various folk communities’ competing claims. A collective imagination of sounds, tastes, colours, and other objects of interests builds a national identity. An essentialisation by a dominant culture leaves other competing communities devoid of potential symbols to articulate a culture. This is seen in Punjab’s national population’s visible construction in terms of symbols that are chosen from a range of different interests and cultural histories. It reveals the notion of an “essence” or an “originary point” as inherently flawed. It suppresses the incommensurable differences and incompatible narratives of the folk communities across Pakistan, Gujarat and Punjab. These differences are further submerged as Bhangra travels to the UK to delineate the Punjabis in the West and encompass a broader South Asian identity.

Raving British Bhangra

In the 1960s and ’70s when Punjabis migrated to Britain on a large-scale in response to its post Second World War labour-shortage, Punjabi identity was forged by an encounter of newness at the borderline, necessitating what Homi K Bhabha would call, an act of “cultural translation”. Accordingly, the Bhangra that emerged in the UK was considerably distinguishable from the one in India. Bhangra culture in the UK elevated the importance of vocals, making the singers the genre’s stars. The growing electronic music culture in the UK merged with Bhangra music, creating several crossover genres such as bhangra-beat, acid Bhangra, bhangra-muffin and garage Bhangra. These sounds reflected the soundscapes of the younger generations of larger South Asian diasporas, who were familiar with Bollywood music, religious Hindu music, Bhangra music as well as the new sonic technologies and trends in England. The social circumstances of experiencing the music was a binding factor for the broader “South Asian diaspora” in England. This was further aided by the invention of daytime disco’s that helped young South Asians mediate their activities with their parents’ lifestyle attitudes, who found the intoxication and sexuality “inherent” to British nightclubs as running orthogonal to their cultural values. 

Bhangra Muffin

It was precisely this designation of Bhangra as Punjabi and rave music as British, placing them as oppositional to each other that stirred integration and collaboration movements. Bhangra went through these large transformations whilst still retaining a link to Punjabi people, and other associations that come with Bhangra indicate the strong attachment that cultures and identity have with the symbols around which they form. Borderlines necessitate that these cultural symbols translate to fit their environment and context. As a result, cultural meaning is not constructed by an ‘essence’ but across a bar of difference. The bhangra music scene in the UK and its ability to integrate a broader South Asian diasporic identity, is not just because it recalled a vaguely familiar past, but because it renewed those traditions to reflect the people’s lifestyles in that specific environment. Like linguistic translation, this process is a form of cultural translation that bears the traces of one culture’s feelings and practices that inform it alongside other meanings and discourses that contextualises it in the host country.

Cultural Reduction?

While the concept of cultural translation radiates a utopian dream of a fraternised world, the next stage of this chronology cautions that this space can also be hijacked to separate cultural objects rather than to integrate them. The simulation of India found in 2000’s hip-hop in America is an example of how the third space can Other, corrupting the in-betweenness by distancing the cultures in context.

The post-bhangra genres aided the creation of the booming “indo-chic” aesthetic in 2000s USA by providing popular artists easily digestible symbols of “India” as it had already been moderated to Western senses. Dominant musical traditions in the USA like hip-hop, R&B, and rap, used even the most electronically produced Bhangra-beats could be sampled to denote “imaginings of India’s ancient tradition” or evoke a “tribal sound”. You can hear these samples in Indian Flute, Get Your Freak On, Hood Scriptures, and many others from the top 100 most famous musicians of the time. They created a new and “exotic” soundscape that sparked an ambivalent fear and curiosity of the Orient after the historical 9/11 moment that radicalised American society’s opinions. African American women in Timbaland’s music-videos adorned in what was meant to look like Indian clothing and Jewellery or Madonna sporting Henna and dancing pseudo-Bharatanatyam was not a collaboration of Indian and American cultures of the time, but a reiteration of the two as primordial polarities.

Indian Flute Sample

The most telling metaphor on the construction of ‘Indo-chic’ India is seen in the distinct use of samples instead of collaborations marked in the post-Bhangra genres. The Other voice is never credited or consulted, but just recorded and made to perform a “sample” of their novel and exotic culture, to be ogled at in wonder, imitated in an act of mockery or to make an exhibition of spectacle. Indo-chic reflected America’s fascination with the notion of “India” as well as the built-in post-colonial aversion that had only been exacerbated by 9/11.

The South Asian Diaspora & Collaborations

The role of 2000s popular culture in constructing fictional racial and cultural identities is demonstrated in this current generation of diasporic South Asian artists who cite the “Indo-chic” musicians like Timbaland, Missy Elliot, Nas, Ne-Yo, as big contributors to their sound. Looking at the current hip-hop, rap and RnB era, some musicologists are convinced it’s the “brown artist renaissance”. There is a perceivable community of American/Canadian/British “brown artists”, Raja Kumari, Shan Vincent De Paul, Navz-47, M.I.A, YanChan who are distinguishable by their frequent collaboration with one another and some underlying similarities in their content. A plethora of trajectories can be drawn from the preferred objects used to represent ‘India’ in the Indo-chic era which are reworked into the aesthetic worlds of the “brown artists” that points to the influence of Indo-chic in the identity formation of these Indian American artists. 

For example, Madonna’s unconventional use of Bindis, bangles and henna in some of her music videos in the early 2000s become more elaborate concepts in Raja Kumari’s world. Kumari dedicates her album to “Bindis and Bangles” along with the use of Henna designs in her album covers, photos and other merchandise. This is not to say that bindis, bangles and henna are seen as Indian because of Madonna, but that her use of these objects to illustrate ‘India’ makes those objects more readily available as a preferred form of articulating ‘India’. Raja Kumari cites Madonna as one her big musical influencers, saying that Madonna’s musical world among her other favourite 2000s pop artists, played a role in her dream world that she has created through their manifestations (Raja Kumari). Madonna’s ‘India’ objects shines through in what it means for Raja Kumari to be ‘Indian’. The use of bindis or bangles in Raja Kumari’s case doesn’t present her audience with a novel new aesthetic as much as it a means to talk about her identity, her family and upbringing.

Bedroom Soiree

As the moderation of Indian sounds in the West falls back on artists who more closely identify with India, there is a shift in the use of ‘India’ from being a style merely in the domain of sounds to a style in the realm of fashion, politics, persona and ultimately identity. Extreme enthusiasm marks these artists’ worlds for popular concepts and trends that imply a level of intimacy with India. They use materials and terms that are far more specific and concerning everyday life. In the process, they enrich tropes of hypnotised snakes, roaming tigers and belly dancing by providing it more context. Instead, these worlds intend to blur the differentiation between the imagined ‘India’ and the geographical place. Maggi noodles, malli poo, mehendi and bangles are all details that become important cultural commodities in making an image of India that is indistinguishable from India to the casual viewer. So when Shan Vincent De Paul, raps, “I rode up in a Trojan horse inside of this industry to let them motherfuckers know what a Tamil is” certain factors of what a “Tamil” is, are submerged: what class and which caste? Which region and religion? These elements that form the rubric of being a Tamil Indian are just intricacies. The term “Tamil” already enables him to take a position in the politics of racial identity within his music.

This means that it may not seem contradictory when Raja Kumari raps for the justice that the Dalit residents in Indian “City Slums” (song name) deserve (and America) in one song, but, may forget about it in another when she glorifies her Indian “Roots” (song name) showing off her upper caste status when she remarks that she is “untouchable with the Brahmin flow”. Both topics are located as markers of Indian society in the West. Poverty is a well-known trait of India but Brahmanical culture since it is essentially the source of most of India’s widely known symbols. Thus, Hindu identity’s Brahmanical symbols are made neutral within a homogenous aestheticised version of ‘Indian’ identity.

A Constructed India

But even between Raja Kumari and Shan Vincent De Paul there are variations in how they pick and choose what they want of “Indian” culture to articulate their preferred form of hybrid identity. This demonstrates the agency the act of cultural translation can imbue in successive and modified generations to move away from certain stereotypes and critically judge which aspects of culture are moral or beneficial to them. Such is the world of MI.A who builds a grim but intricate constellation saturated with her impressions of migration, borders, identity, violence, war and cultural survival in her travels from the East to the West. She marks the route she takes by incorporating indigenous aesthetics from Sri Lanka through India, travelling through Ghana, Angola, Trinidad, and Britain. Her attempt to refer back to Bhangra as it was conceptualised in Punjab rather than the several translations that came from it can be clearly heard when comparing the Bhangra voice note with the one by this paragraph. She adopts the sounds of Bhangra and juxtaposes it with other folk music that she’s encountered through her travels and thereby models a conception of identity that lives in and through, not despite difference. She expresses the heterogeneity and diversity in diasporic identities and recognises that diasporic experiences need not be validated by a dedication to the culture of the homeland.

Bird Flu

In this case, the Indianisation of music no longer refers to the sound of music or easy tokens of an imagined India, but the artists’ experiences with nationality. This is also in part motivated through the medium of rap, which traditionally brings to the forefront dissent against socially normalised biases to address topics of racism, discrimination and class struggles. The “brown” rappers focus on the struggles of their Indian compatriots and localise it to an American/Canadian/British context. Thus, since the era of the production of Bhangra and its travel to the UK there has been a return to the recognition of tradition to shape identification. For these artists, India’s performance not only moves them towards the performance of a culture, but also their personhood.

These points of departure from India to the constructed India, emphasises that for those in the minority, the social articulation of difference through the recognition of tradition partially confers a form of identification. This representation of difference does not just revert back to a “pre-given ethnic trait” but is defined through complex on-going negotiations between the minority cultures and a dominant tradition. This process moulds the cultural objects of negotiation of both the minority and dominant tradition. These objects then bear the marks of historicity and cultural narratives. These India formations’ trajectory are motivated by that continued ability of these symbols to manifest singular and communal expressions of identity. Thus, each point of cultural reconfiguration in this chronology also pronounced a transformed relationship between India and the host land, for the individuals as well as geopolitical discourses. These cultural objects then form parts of an excessively ornamented image of ‘India’ abroad.

Experience Further

This song makes me feel like a character in a video game with a collage of several different Indian aesthetics – 60’s Bollywood disco, Indian classical, mysterious tropical jungle. Me, the modest woman from an Amar Chitra Katha story with shrill laughs runs through a jungle with flora and fauna that’s never before been possible within one mere terrain. The trees and animals look as if we’ve all just played Holi together and the hunter chasing me is dressed in a safari cap and a twirling moustache. Perhaps, also throw a disapproving father figure into the mix, and it feels as though this image has the potential to evolve into a plethora of campy Indian story plots.

About Us

Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.


All views and opinions expressed in the articles, videos are personal to the Author/Editor(s) and don’t mean to offend any individuals, organisations, institutions or communities.

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