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When I was a student at the Ali Akbar College of Music in Northern California, we were told that Indian film music was a cultural curse that prevented the majority of Indians from appreciating their country’s great classical music.

We western students were told to ignore it, and some of Ali Akbar Khansahib’s best students were proud of the fact that they had given up lucrative careers as film studio musicians. Of course, we westerners couldn’t ignore the fact that our Indian friends were always listening to this music in their homes and cars. But because the recording quality was thin and tinny, most of us paid no attention to it.

All that began to change when A.R. Rahman appeared.

For me, at least, Bollywood music went from being a crude curiosity to slick entertainment, and I began to experience it as a guilty pleasure. This was unquestionably pop music, but it was more tuneful and original than anything coming out of America or England. I began to try to play Rahman’s tunes simply because I liked them, and soon discovered that they were subtler and more complex than I had first thought. Even more importantly, I began to see connections to the Hindustani classical music I had studied, and I wanted my Indian friends to see those connections as well.

This inspired me to create the style I call Bollywood Gharana—an oxymoron rather like “Rock and Roll Symphony” designed to express my desire to be both classical and popular at the same time. If Art Tatum and John Coltrane could create serious chamber music by improvising on Broadway tunes, why couldn’t I do the same thing by improvising on Bollywood tunes? I could never have imagined doing this with old Bollywood tunes, but with Rahman’s music it seemed a natural, even inevitable, transition.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that those old film songs are now being called “The Golden Age of Bollywood.” Not by everyone, of course. Those who grew up with Rahman’s style of Bollywood will often politely protest that they prefer the contemporary songs.

I will attempt to give a fair hearing to both sides of this controversy, and hope that my relatively new entry into the debate will give me something resembling objectivity.

Recently, I have been learning and enjoying a few of the older Bollywood songs that my clients and friends have recommended to me. Perhaps I can explain what I like about both styles without having to insist that one must be absolutely better than the other.

There is no denying that the engineering and the arrangement in new Bollywood music is technically superior to that of the old Bollywood.

Rahman studied orchestration at Oxford, and has access to high quality recording equipment that was not available to the old Bollywood composers. That is no guarantee of artistic excellence, however. It’s very easy for technical excellence to congeal into predictable commercial formula. This occasionally happens with Rahman’s music, and frequently happens with his many imitators. Conversely, lack of training can actually be a virtue if the artist is disciplined enough to develop their own techniques in isolation from the mainstream. In painting, such artists are misleadingly called primitives, but it is often easier for these so-called primitives to be original, and originality is the thing that differentiates good art from great art.

The Burmans are now getting their music performed and recorded by the avant garde Chronos Quartette because they possess this kind of originality.

Nevertheless, in my opinion old Bollywood relies too heavily on a combination of styles that don’t blend together very well: European classical and Indian classical. Jazz musicians said that European classical music was “square”’  because it was always played square on the beat. This was largely because musicians trained in the European style never improvised, and it is very difficult to write syncopations in sheet music. A typical old Bollywood arrangement would often rely too heavily on a plodding  symphonic string arrangement that flattened out the rhythmic nuances of the Indian-trained singers it accompanied.

There are exceptions to this, of course. Many songs have elements of salsa, jazz, and big band music, as well as the wonderful sliding string sections first developed by Tamil movie orchestras. C. Ramchandra’s “Eena Meena Deeka” seamlessly combines Rockabilly and New Orleans Jazz in ways that would never have occurred to any American musician. I think it was because he never thought of the two styles as being separate—a good example of how being untrained can lead to artful originality. Because of the rhythmic similarities between Indian and American music, the Bollywood studio horn players captured more of the jazz phrasing than did their Anglo-American contemporaries.

However, these were first steps on a road that Rahman now navigates like a master. The old Bollywood composers could evoke western styles. Rahman can write songs in those styles as good or better than the originals. He also adds elements from other non-western styles, including Latin American, Arabic, Persian, African etc. whose rhythms combine with Indian music much more effectively than did the symphonic styles.

Rahman’s eclecticism, however, is what probably bothers the fans of old Bollywood.

Because old Bollywood composers had a relatively shallow understanding of symphonic theory, it was inevitable that their music would sound unmistakably Indian, with only a few western elements added. Rahman has such a command of so many different styles that he is now writing music for western movies. If this trend continued, Indian film music could vanish as a distinct art form, which would indeed require us to think of the old days as the Golden Age of Bollywood.

The only thing I can say to this is: If Rahman stopped composing music based on ragas and talas, I would stop playing his music. If old Bollywood fans would listen only to Rahman’s raga-inspired songs, I think they would be able to see him as the fulfillment of what they call the Golden Age.

Teed Rockwell studied with Ali Akbar Khan for many years, and is the only person in the world to play Indian classical and popular music on his customized touchstyle veena. You can see and hear videos of his musical performances