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The Psychedelic Orient – The Story of How India Became The West’s Drug-Culture Capital

Written by Atri Mukherjee,

October 17th 2020,

Even at the forty-ninth anniversary of the spectacle that had unfolded in Madison Square Garden on 20th December 1971, veteran New Yorkers, residual hippies from the time, and braggadocios music fanatics from all over the world can perhaps still hear the furore after a particular performance in the famous Concert for Bangladesh. Opening the night for George Harrison and his ‘friends’, as it was once courteous to be called in showbiz, Pt. Ravi Shankar’s tuning of his sitar elicited the crowd of over forty thousand to erupt in applause. Still alien to most of the Western ear, the human-size instrument’s tuning sounds were innocently perceived by the audience as an elaborate demonstration of Indian classical music. Pt. Ravi Shankar smiled, and bending a little forward into the microphone in a manner to not topple over his sitar, said, “Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more”.

Ravi Shankar tuning his sitar at The Concert for Bangladesh in New York, when it is mistaken by the crowd as a performance of the sitar

The reaction of the Madison Square Garden crowd is a bookmark in the history of Indian classical music’s journey in the West. Much past their rock and roll heydays, which witnessed a tumultuous popular culture of bowl cuts and young teenagers shaking their heads to the Fab Four, the Beatles were, among other musical stalwarts at the time, instrumental in harbouring a keen interest in Indian culture. Harrison in particular took to learning the sitar under Pt. Ravi Shankar. Like any other culture endorsed by a celebrity, the frenzy around the ‘Orient‘ developed overwhelmingly. Western records began to feature more sounds of the sitar, tablas and mridangam in tandem with Western style harmonisation of instrument and vocals.

Fast forward to today, the same culture has mutated— drug scenes of a rave party in art films are accompanied with the bizarre sound of the twangs of sitar strings, alongside DMT hallucinations fashioned and commercialised with Indian deities and kaleidoscopic designs. Contemporary music videos that represent India such as Hymn For The Weekend, Lean On, or Bounce are themed around Indian festivals, a stock colour palette, the suburban class that witnesses the artists lost in song on the Indian streets, as well as the occasional holi celebrations, token elephants, and glamorised weddings. The characteristic features of the Indian classical sound seem to have been westernized, and any other residual semblance of the socio-politics of a country have been displaced for an aesthetic that has suited the European entertainment bandwagon. 

Is this misrepresentation of India in the West’s popular culture entirely an example of the ‘butterfly effect’ from artists who came before and took to interest in the then undiscovered music of the East? The dynamic of the East in European culture is understood best when reflected along a postcolonial lens, especially as furthered through the studies of Orientalism by Palestinian-American lecturer and theorist, Edward Said. The movement of an Orientalist culture in the West, according to Said, was overwhelmingly dependent on the European’s perception of the Orient – an opportune land of a momentary and philosophical respite from the materialistic shackles of the European bourgeoisie. The Beatles music was reflective of a society that was highly influenced by the ordinary British dictation of the time towards their former colonies. In such a time, a mystical and psychedelia-infused image of the Orient was popular among the masses, especially fuelled by the furtherance of music by composers such as Cyril Scott and literature such as The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary. 

There was, and is, a tendency of making essentializing definitions towards the Orient — ‘Indian culture’, ‘Indian spirituality’, ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ and the like. In such a definition, Said argues, most of Europe was first introduced to the cultures of the Orient through the perception of a select few individuals who had sought refuge in the resident ‘Oriental-ist’ lifestyle. It is these definitions that are contemporarily available in the mainstream media’s representation of the East. Said points out that the discovery of the East is from an investigative outlook from that of the Westerner, who regards the Oriental geographic to be a culture that is demanding of Westernisation. The Orient is hence considered to be in a subordinate position to the white man’s burden. Trent Cunningham, a fellow from the University of Pittsburgh, recalls the illustrations of the East in Cyril Scott’s seminal works such as Snake Charmer (1922), Dancing Girls (1922), and Lotus Land (1905). These represent the East as per Scott’s idea of the ‘languorousness’ of the Orient, characterised by mystical belly dancers, snake charmers, and lotus eaters. Commenting on the inherent historic and native cultures of the Orient, particularly India, Scott had taken to a similar judgement as that of Lord Dalhousie — that it was the duty and role of the Westerner to civilise, appropriate and make sense of Oriental culture in a manner that was understood by the West. 

Edward Said regards this as a theory of basic binary oppositions, where the West is the harbinger of civilisation, society and culture. The role of the East in this equation was reduced to being inert. When artists elaborated and developed on their version of the Orient, they considered it to be primarily raw and inexpressive. It demanded a final Westernization so it could be accepted and rejoiced for by a larger society. The idea of an Orient was then regarded along the likenesses of a resort for escapism, similar to the likenesses of David Bowie’s fascinations of outer space or The Eagles’ Hotel California. The Orient began to be adjudged as a land of licentious sexual and psychological freedom – a narrative which made people view it primarily as a land of exoticism, alienating a significant part of Indian culture in the process. Songs such as Within Or Without You or Tomorrow Never Knows, which may now be celebrated as an exemplary instance of a cultural export, were actually by-products of a system that viewed the Orient through a manner of commodity fetishism. However imperfectly understood, the first publicists of Oriental culture were musical groups such as Led Zeppelin, The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. The artists’ periodic fascination with ‘wonder drugs’ such as LSD furthered the notion that the Oriental culture is correlated and best enjoyed in a drug-induced state 

— a culture that is still very rampant in urban psychedelic circles and diaspora communities. 

Pt. Ravi Shankar on The Dick Cavett Show, explaining the West’s fascination of psychedelia with Oriental music

However, is that to say that the West’s interest in Eastern or Oriental culture was based purely off of self-interest or commercial selfishness? Not particularly, and especially not when we read about Harrison’s tutelage under Pt. Ravi Shankar or Dave Brubeck’s intimate connections with the country that led to compositions such as Indian Summer. These artists sought to understand the differences between the West’s harmonic musical style in contrast to the East’s microtonal arrangements. In the process, they had managed to inadvertently create a culture of cultural middlebrowism. In fields of art, a high-brow and a low-brow were considered to be informal qualitative divisions of people based on their thoroughness with the various arts. The cultural middlebrow comprised a section of people who pledged allegiance to neither of these divisions, but enjoyed the occasional enjoyment of the marvels of the arts in manner to feel elated against their contemporaries. It became a knee-jerk non-conformist snobbery of people to consider themselves avant garde, but not quite. The middlebrow often received criticism for appropriation by prominent critics of the Arts, including once a strongly-worded column by Richard Chase in The Columbia Daily. The middlebrow’s viewing of the Oriental culture further strengthened into the society’s fabric the one-dimensional psychedelic and fantastical rendition of the Orient. Examples of the representation of India in contemporary music videos that were exemplified at the beginning parts of this article fall prey to this culture. The only probable difference is that the middlebrow is now the highbrow, which explains Europe’s fascination with the East as a land of touristy entertainment, ushering crowds of hippies and backpackers who can be seen rolling a smoke in dingy run-down Indian streets. 

Experience Further: From their 1967 self-titled album, the Eastern influence on The Doors’ ‘The End’ can be heard throughout the course of the song. Although it features no Indian instrument of its own, the plucking style employed by Krieger on this record is distinctly reminiscent of an Indian raga.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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