2016 has been an interesting year, from a rasa and rasika (appreciator of rasa) point of view. The Grammy awards, with which I begin my research into music columns for the year, are a recognition of musical creativity and artistry. However, I like to believe that the most popular award, Record and Producer of the Year is in recognition of the hold a specific record has on the masses, it’s ability to transport listeners. This year there was a desi connection to the Record and Producer of the Year, for Uptown Funk, the Bruno Mars song that everybody was tapping their feet to! It was so popular that my ten year old and his friends danced to it at their school’s talent show.
It being this-kind-of-election year, I could not help give Jeff Bhasker, who did win the Grammys for both Record and Producer of the Year, more thought than perhaps I might have otherwise. He was born to an Indian-born father. Did he learn Indian music? Had his parents argued about which after-school classes he would go to when he was a boy? Did his ex-mayor father want him to be politically active? Does he now acknowledge that his son has more power over more people than his Mayoral office ever did? Growing up and now, did/ does Bhasker accept his Indianness as a “so-what” or did it bother him and people around him?
The next month I discovered Ryan (aka Narayan) Sijan, who came from the outside to immerse in Indianness. “When I was in India I learned quite a few traditional songs from gypsies in Rajasthan,” Sijan recalls. “I spent two weeks with them at a festival in the Thar desert. A few years later when I was in Turkey I heard someone singing a piece with almost the same melody, it had just been changed a little by the culture. That was a real inspiration to me, I realized how music can bridge time and distance.” Sijan had been wonder struck by the common weave in music around the world and created an album harnessing those sounds.
May was even more impactful, the story of a Pakistani group from Sachal Studios making music underground, in the face of Taliban oppression. What gives these musicians the courage to do this? What is it in the human spirit that makes us communicate to and seek Oneness in the many worlds we inhabit? The Sachal Studios music had, in effect, elevated moral consciousness and eliminated boundaries.
I interviewed Mahesh Vinayakram, a Carnatic trained artist touring currently with Cirque du Soleil; not just rendering his music, but also learning techniques such as “head voice” used mainly by Western vocalists.
It struck me that artists in general, are never satisfied with the status quo, theirs is not the world that needs mere upkeep and maintenance, for they constantly break built-up associations and create afresh to seek a different kind of communion, appeal to a different audience each time.
However, a thought-provoking perspective on Oneness was brought to light during my research on the column “When a Song Becomes an Anthem,” Nation-building. Music and musicians have been harnessed to elect Governments, rally support, or just keep the political machine going, true. But when and how is a Nation built, what keeps its people together?
My research led me to conclude that at various times, national symbols, candidates, and leaders become representative of a collective spirit; but that the “collective spirit” gets re-configured periodically. Oneness is mistakenly defined by skin color and/ or beliefs, but that these buckets appear necessary when incumbents feel an ethnic/ economic loss, new-comers or some communities don’t feel included: Nobody knows how to belong, because there is apparently no common weave that can hold the community fabric together.
Serendipitously, I heard Bruce Springsteen interviewed on radio late one night. He said that while he was out one day during a politically/ economically uncertain time in our country, somebody while driving by, shouted out “We need you, Bruce!”
As to why somebody called out to him, that’s not important. What is poignant is that somebody called out to Springsteen as a musician. This year of writing has driven home the fact to me that the only pursuit and profession whose established goal is to create Oneness, is the Arts. Music is a powerful tool not just to elevate the individual but also to raise collective consciousness all over the world. I am hoping to explore further and produce examples of how the Arts shape(d) a community’s consciousness through my 2017 columns.
This much is a surety: The Arts imparts its creators with power, literally and by association. If more people appreciate your art, the more influential you are. The more your art is in tune with your audience, the more they feel they belong.
The end of 2016 has brought us face to face with a rather grim reflection of our fractured nation. Today, I find myself believing—utterly—that artists are singularly equipped with the power to tear down negative associations and infuse their communities with the rasa of Belonging, one audience at a time.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music, and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.