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Handicrafts in India
Crafts are an extension of the culture of a society. A country's cultural progress and wealth can be measured by the history and variety of crafts flourishing in that country.
India is a land of enormous diversity. As varied as India's geographical terrains are the history and culture of her people and the traditions they follow. Hundreds of languages are spoken in the various regions of the country, many of them without a written form, passed on verbally through successive generations.
We have a recorded history of civilization dating back to more than 5,000 years. From the time of the early settlements, the geographic location, the climatic conditions, local vegetation and the availability of resources have determined the lifestyle of the communities, their cultural practices and the requirement of products they produced for their use. With natural ingenuity, man learned to make use of the available material to create the products required for daily use, and developed his skills to make tools to produce them, thus bringing about the birth of craftsmanship. Different communities specialised in learning different skills and became masters in their fields of craft activity, such as pottery, carpentry, weaving, sculpture, metal work, etc. The co-existence of different communities helped them cater to the needs of each other.
Migrations have helped the communities to absorb the culture of the new place and give expression through their existing craft practices. Foreign occupations, on their part, have had an influence in bringing new styles and expressions into the country.
The enormous diversity mentioned above finds its reflection in the crafts area too. India is home to innumerable crafts, more than 500 to say, from the very basic utility items to the most intricate works of art. These can be divided into the six important regions, West, North, East, North East, Central and South India. The major craft products of each region are listed below. It may be noted that these have a strong bearing on the landscape, availability of raw material, the social fabric consisting of the mix of religions and cultures and the general educational and technological advancement of the region.
The Crafts of West India consist of jewellery making, Ajrakh painting, embroidery, leather footwear, terra cotta pottery, clay relief work, bamboo craft, wood carving, stone work, gem work, stringed jewellery and wrought iron crafts.
The Crafts of North India consist mainly of knotted carpets, Phulkari and Bagh embroidery, rugs, wood work, baskets, copperware, paintings, woollen textiles, doll making, leather footwear, terra cotta pottery, tie-resist dyeing, block printing and stone work.
East India specialises in Madhubani paintings, sikki carpets, applique work, paintings, making of musical instruments, stone work, wood carving, metal castings, tribal jewellery, bell metal ware, straw and jute work.
The North East Indian crafts include bamboo furniture, reed mats, bamboo containers, cane bridges, wooden toys, gourd craft, pressed clay work, bamboo rain-shields, Eri silk spinning, loin loom weaving and bamboo carrying baskets.
The Crafts of Central India can be seen to consist of wood carving, marble stone work, metal inlay in wood, brass work, pottery, gold embroidery, black pottery, dhurries, enamel work, nettle fibre craft and lantana furniture. Down South, the following crafts are in vogue: Bidri work, wooden toys, tie-resist dyeing, stone carving, mat weaving, stucco work, bronze metal casting, silk textiles, coconut shell products, stone and metal sculpture, palm leaf products, Tanjore paintings, rosewood and sandalwood carving.
Until a few centuries back, India had been mainly an agrarian economy. Between harvests, people had enormous amount of time at their disposal. Crafts gave them multiple benefits such as spending their time usefully, making use of the materials available in plenty, getting additional income during non-harvest seasons and interacting with neighbouring communities. The patronage extended by the royalty and connoisseurs saw to it that certain crafts producing jewellery, furniture, religious and other products of exceptional quality developed very well in certain pockets of the country, and their skills were passed on through generations.
However, after the start of colonialization and the advent of industrialisation, the meagre income from crafts as compared to the lure of steady income from regular industrial work started to take people away from continuing their craft traditions. Many crafts were lost and much more were facing extinction. The Government and the craft NGOs had to step in to stop this trend and devise ways of getting people back into practicing their traditional crafts and also to find a market for such crafts, without which the craft practices could not be sustained.
The Government of India, through the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, under the Ministry of Textiles, with the help of NGOs such as the Crafts Council of India, has taken several measures to bring crafts back into the mainstream of life. Now, special training and skill inputs are given to the craftsmen to equip them to improve and bring out superior products which would be accepted well not only in local markets, but in export markets as well. Exhibitions and Sales events are organized by the Government and other bodies to promote awareness of the crafts and encourage community patronage to help sustain the crafts and the livelihood of the craftspeople. Efforts are on to bring crafts into the curriculum at school level, so that children are sensitized to crafts at a young age and get to appreciate the purpose, form and usefulness of crafts. This helps them to learn to respect the craft heritage of country and voluntarily get involved into either making or promoting crafts.
The World Crafts Council, of which the Crafts Council of India is a member, is one such organization striving to sustain and promote the crafts of the different countries and get them recognized the world over.
(Usha Krishna is a social worker and promoter of Indian handicrafts. She is a memberof the Crafts Council of India and a former President of the World Crafts Council.)
Indian Textiles: Warp & Weft, Light & Shade
'Satya sat at the big wooden loom, throwing the shuttle through the shining silk threads stretched on its frame. As he wove the warp and weft together, the fabric that unfolded was a Kanjeevaram silk saree, purple and red, with gold tigers, elephants and peacocks dancing together on its resplendent surface. The thak-thak sound of the shuttle as it thudded to and fro had always been part of his life. His father, and his father’s father, and his father's father's father, had all woven sarees on the same family loom - as had their forefathers as long as memory could stretch.
Satya was 18. Everyone in his village was involved with weaving. The women spun the thread, and stretched the warp on the loom. The village dyers and washer-men dyed the yarn in wonderful colours, starched and sized the finished fabric. Traders came to the village from all over India to buy the sarees, while others traders from Surat brought the gold zari thread with which they were woven. The village economy depended on women continuing to wear these traditional sarees – for weddings, festivals, and special occasions. Satya's father had a picture cut out from a magazine, of Rekha, the famous film star, wearing one of his sarees. Sathya's grandfather was now too frail and blind to weave the intricate sarees. He told Sathya stories of the days, many hundred years ago, when South Indian weavers were one of the richest communities in India. Their wealth built the huge temples and funded royal armies. Whole communities were known for their weaving skills, and their surnames proudly denoted their trade – Vankars in Gujarat, Ansaris in UP, Mehers in Orissa; just as the Khatris were dyers and printers.
Textiles are a part of India's history. As the 17th century French traveler, Francois Pyrard de Laval, said: "Everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, is clothed from head to foot in the product of Indian Looms". Indian textiles were found in the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs, they were a sought-after export to ancient Greeks and Romans; they became part of the fashionable attire of both European and Mughal courts. Suppressing and replacing the Indian handloom cotton trade with mill-made alternatives was a lynchpin of the British Industrial Revolution, while Mahatma Gandhi made handspun Khadi a symbol of the Indian Independence movement.
Indian hand-crafted textiles are still unique today- not only for their variety and beauty. The hundreds of different techniques - woven, waxed, embroidered, appliqued, brocaded, block-printed, painted, tie-dyed, tinseled - are LIVING crafts, practiced by millions of craftspeople – many in their teens and twenties. No country in the world has a weaving tradition that goes back thousands of years and is still part of the mainstream economy. Sathya and other craftsmen and women like him, working in cotton, silk, wool, tussar and eri, from the finest translucent weaves to thick shawls and coverlets, and ornamenting their textiles with gold and silver, make India special and proud.
Some textile traditions came to us from other parts of the world – for example, silk came to India from China. According to legend, silkworms were smuggled into India by Chinese Buddhist monks in the hollow shafts of their canes. Indian craftspeople then took both spinning and weaving of silk to amazing new heights, with each area in India specializing in its own unique weaves and motifs.Incidentally, India is the only source of the lovely golden tussar, muga and eri silk, spun from worms that feed on Ashoka, oak, and castor leaves rather than mulberry.
The craftsman in India traditionally had the status of an artist, tracing his descent from Vishwakarma, "Lord of the Many Arts, Master of a 1000 handicrafts, Carpenter to the Gods, Architect of their Celestial Mansion, Designer of all Ornaments, the First of all Craftsmen." Products of his skill can be traced back 5000 years and the same skills endure today. The fine muslins used as shrouds for Royal Egyptian mummies draped Mughal Emperors 3000 years later, and were given poetic names like 'running water' (abrawan) 'evening dew' (shabnam), and 'woven air' (bafthava), by their court poets. Now they are commissioned as scarves by Yves St Laurent and Zandra Rhodes! Weavers in Bengal still tell the story of the Emperor Aurangzeb rebuking his daughter, Princess Zebunissa, for appearing in public wearing nothing. She showed him her muslin drapes that ware wound 7 times around her body! They had 1,800 threads to the warp.
Colour in India is ones most enduring impression and textiles are no exception. As Kamladevi Chattopadhya said, every colour has its tradition, emotional content and rich significance. "Red, the colour of marriage and love orange, saffron the colour of the ochre earth and the yogi who renounces that earth; yellow, the colour of spring, young mango blossoms, of swarms of bees, of mating birds. Blue….the colour of indigo also the colour of Krishna, the cowherd child god….he that is of the colour that is in the newly formed cloud, dormant with that darkness that is rain. Even the great gods had their colours – Brahman was red, Shiva was white and Vishnu was blue".
The Vishnudharmothara holy texts speaks of five shades of white – ivory, jasmine, the August moon, August clouds after rain, and mother-of-pearl. A tanchoi brocade from Banaras will play on the contrast of one delicately differing shade against another in shadow and sun, while a South Indian temple sari might have a body of shocking Indian pink and a border of parrot green with whole stylised garden of flora and fauna running riot in gold on its trailing edges. Running the whole gamut from simple to splendid a few rupees to a fortune, there is something for every season and ceremony – symbolic or merely spectacular- Indian silks and brocades, block-printed cottons and Saurastrian mirrorwork are all familiar sights, along with carpets, floor coverings, stoles and shawls of every variety. (The celebrated Kashmiri ‘ring shawl’ is made from the fleece the wild Himalayan ibex casts of on rocks and bushes and is so fine, a meter passes through a man’s signet ring - As many as 50 colours were used on one shawl).
Fascinating lesser-known techniques are the tie-and- dye bandini saris and scarves of Rajasthan and Gujarat in which fine cotton or silk is knotted into minute patterns with waxed string and dyed in successive deepening shades of different colours; the knots untied later to produce delicate spotted allover designs. In laheria bandini the cloth is tied to make fine diagonal stripes of contrasting colours.
Allied to the bandini tie-dye technique is ikat - the patola, pochampalli, telia rumal and mashru weaves of Gujarat, Andhra and Orissa, in which the warp and weft threads are separately tie-dyed before being woven into intricate, stylised designs of flowering shrubs, birds, elephants and fish set in geometric squares and stripes. Both bandini and patola are associated with marriage, and no bride's trousseau complete without one or the other.
Kalamkari, literally the 'art of the pen' a wax-resist technique taking its name from the steel nib attached to a wooden handle with which the melted beeswax is painted onto the cloth before it is dyed, is another beautiful and subtle textile, similar in technique to Indonesian batik, but with very different colouring and designs. There are two main centres in coastal South India. Machlipatnam specialising in the delicate, all over floral trellis designs that were the origin of Chintz (from Chhint), Kalahasti in bold, black-outlined, heavily stylised mythological panels where calligraphy and pageantry, gods and goddesses join in dramatic unison. Both styles use indigo and myrobalam vegetable dyes on handspun fabric.
The explorer, Marco Polo said in the 13th century about India, that "embroidery is here produced with more delicacy than anywhere in the world". Among a myriad techniques, two differing but equally exciting techniques are the phulkari (flower-craft) of Punjab and the chikan work of Uttar Pradesh; one reflecting in its bold surface satinstitch geometrics in vivid satin floss of oranges, pinks and flame the vigor and vibrant energy of the Punjabi peasant (An all-over embroidered spread, used as a bridal covering is called a Bagh, literally a garden of flowers); the other a delicate white-on-white chiaroscuro of relief and shadow-work, reflecting the subtlety and refinement of the Mughal court, where, legend has it, Noor Jehan, wife of the Emperor Jehangir, first devised it. Over 22 different stitches make up chikankari, and the stitches have wonderful descriptive names – ghas-ki-patti as delicate as a leafy grass, murri looks just like a grain of rice, and keel, the tip of a nail.
Delightful too are the kantha quilts of West Bengal. Made up of several layers of white cotton, the kantha literally means rag, and is done on old saris laid one on top of another and quilted in white asymetrical circles and swirls. Coloured threads are then extracted from the borders of the saris and used to embroider naif folk motifs of animals, humans, trees and pageantry all over the quilt, often in spiral formation starting with a central lotus. A kantha is a family enterprise and many women work together on each quilt or sari.
All over India, embroidery, unlike weaving, is a female occupation. Secluded by custom or religion from the public eye, women get together and sew either for pin money or their daughters' dowry chests. Designs and stitches are handed down from generation to generation. The exceptions in this female-ridden field are U.P. and Kashmir, two states whose crafts have traditionally been practiced by skilled professionals for patrons; originally the Imperial Court and local nobility, now for exporters and the tourist trade. The gold and silver sequin and zardozi embroidery of U.P. and the crewel, sozni and kashida of Kashmir, with their intricate detailing of flora and fauna deriving inspiration from the verdant, flowering beauty of the Kashmir valley, are generally done by men. Making the multi-coloured threads, coiled and twisted gold and silver wires, spangles, sequins and braid is a craft in itself. The opulent splendour of heavy gold embroidery on deep red is part of the pageantry and colour of an India wedding'; as essential as the white horse, marigolds, hennaed hands and incense. Its glitter and bling is now part of Bollywood as well.
In Kutch in Western India, the tribal women, whether Rabari, Ahir, Mochi, Meghwal, Darbar or Jat, learn to embroider from the time they are old enough to handle a needle. The pieces they embroider for their trousseau – skirts, cholis, veils, quilts, decorative pieces for their homes – are how they are judged by their mothers-in-law. Most Kutchi embroideries use wonderful colours – rani pink, emerald green, yellow, and purple. As bright as their desert landscape is bleak, their embroideries are exuberant, with designs of flowers, peacocks, elephants and parrots. Each village and community in Kutch has its own distinctive set of stitches and motifs: cross-stitch, satin and herringbone stitch, and a very fine chain stitch done with a hook. Shiny mirrors are stitched onto the fabric. These are to avert the evil eye, which is captured by its own image reflected in the mirror.
The Lambani, Lambada and Banjara gypsy tribes from Andhra and Karnataka in South India also create spectacular embroidery. Like the Kutchhis they too wear wonderful skirts, backless blouses and veils, covered with vibrant, colourful mirrored designs, silver or metal coins, and ornaments at the edges. Their designs are geometric rather than naturalistic flowers, birds and animals.
Patchwork is another textile skill practiced by women all over India, cutting and stitching together small pieces of cloth, or – as in appliqué, cutting the cloth into patterns and stitching it onto the surface of a contrasting fabric. They range from the tiny geometric patchwork gota-pathi done in Rampur and Lucknow, to the bold, vividly patterned pictorial quilts of Rajasthan and Gujarat – each bride was expected to have at least a dozen in her dowry chest
Today, rural women embroiderers are finding new empowerment and earning an income from their embroidery skills in the market. All over India, be it Bihar or Barmer, Kutch or Karnataka, women who never thought their creative arts had a value, now embroider for a living. As Ramba Ben, an Ahir embroidery crafts-woman from Vauva, Banaskantha, once movingly told me, "The lives of my family hang on the thread I embroider".
With so many Indian costumes made of unstitched draped fabric, there are dozens of ways of embellishing cloth. Block-printing is one: practiced all over Western and Central India. Each design is printed with different intricately cut wooden blocks. One block block for the outline, one for the background, and one block for each of the other colours. Some designs need as many as 6-8 different blocks. Carving the blocks is itself an art.
Like weaves and embroideries, block print designs and colours have the special stamp of the places from where they originate: Those from Sanganer in Rajasthan have designs that include delicate floral butis in pastel colours, Farrukhabad in U.P has allover paisley motifs. Bagh prints from Madhya Pradesh are in dramatic red and black. Kutch is famous for its double-sided ajrak interlocked hexagonal motifs in shades of indigo, crimson and black, which required 15 different processes to achieve. Each area uses its own techniques – direct, resist, batik, discharge, or gold and silver stamped khari chhaap printing. In some the dye is applied directly to the cloth, in others areas are prevented from getting coloured by the use of wax, mud, or chemicals.
Each Indian craft technique has its own look, as distinctive as the alphabets of Indian languages, once you learn to recognize them. And they are as much a part of society and culture as they are of the marketplace.
An 80 year-old Manipuri woman wearing a worn handloom wrapping was once asked whether she wasn't cold. Why did she not buy anyone of the warm synthetic mill woolies available on the market? Her reply reminds us of so many intangible things we disregard: "I've spun this out of my own hands; my mother and sisters have woven it. The warmth of so many fingers has gone into this. How can a machine make anything warmer?" It is these intangible strands woven into our Indian textiles as well as their beauty that make them so special – a part of our present and future as well as our past.
(Laila Tyabji is a social worker, craft revivalist, art designer and the founder of Dastkar an NGO working for the revival of traditional crafts in India. She has been awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian government and is the first Asian to receive the Aid to Artisans’ Preservation of Craft award in New York.)
Music Scene in India
Whenever Indian music is discussed at any fora outside India, the first and foremost name that comes to anyone’s mind is that of the late sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, who was perhaps the first Indian musician to propel Indian music onto the world stage. He collaborated extensively with the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and received widespread acclaim in the West; many feel that one of the reasons for his tremendous popularity and acceptance in the West could be due to the fact that he counted the Beatles amongst his disciples, but I think that it is an uncharitable viewpoint! The sitar is a stringed instrument, essentially a modification of the veena during the time of the Mughals.
You might also have heard of M.S. Subbulakshmi, who was invited by the then UN Secretary General U Thant to sing before the General Assembly in June 1966. Other names familiar to foreigners interested in Indian music are Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, whose brilliant vocal recitals used to electrify audiences, or the sultan of shehnai Ustad Bismillah Khan who could literally make his instrument sing, or the great Zakir Hussain, the jet setting tabla wizard who has managed to give an entirely new dimension to percussion! The shehnai is a wind instrument which resembles an oboe. It is considered to be an auspicious instrument, and therefore much in demand for marriages and other important ceremonies. The tabla is a percussion instrument which keeps the rhythm of a classical Hindustani music recital.
All the above personalities are Indian classical musicians, and we will consider the classical music heritage of India for the larger part of this essay. After the Oscar awards were announced in 2008, the Tamil and Hindi film composer A.R. Rahman became an international name to reckon with. Rahman is a person whose songs are enjoyed throughout the country – if anyone broke the North-South film music divide in the country, it was him!
Indian classical music has two main styles – the Carnatic and the Hindustani. Although Indian classical music has been around for more than a thousand years, the current forms of both styles of music evolved in the southern and northern parts of the country respectively about six centuries ago. The concepts of the raga and tala are central to both systems. Attempting to define a raga is like attempting to define a point in geometry – it is a primitive notion, small wonder that Euclid cleverly avoided it. I will therefore attempt an admittedly simplistic definition of the raga – it is a collection of musical notes which when correctly sung or played creates a certain atmosphere; a raga has a soul and personality of its own.
Attempting to understand a raga without listening to a classical recital is like learning to swim by watching the Olympics! In addition to vocal music, Indian classical musicians use the flute, violin, veena, sitar and sarod. The last three are stringed instruments which are plucked, instead of the violin which is bowed.
The concept of the raga is not limited to Indian music. For example, the raga Mohanam in Carnatic music, which is called Bhoop or Bhopali in Hindustani music, is very popular in the musical systems of China and Japan. During my days in Libya, I was struck by the melodiousness of the azaan floating from a mosque in the marketplace in Misurata – it was a pristine version of the raga Kiravani in Carnatic music. Kiravani incidentally is the Harmonic Minor scale in Western music.
The concept of tala on the other hand is more easily comprehensible – it is the Indian equivalent of rhythm. The tala keeps time, and it is the percussionists’ job to do this. To sum up, raga is the basis of melody, while tala is the basis of rhythm. The important percussion instruments in India are the mridangam, tabla, ghatam, kanjira, maddalam, pakhawaj and the chenda.
Perhaps the most important event in the Indian music scene is the Margazhi Isai Vizha aka the December Season in the south Indian city of Chennai. The entire city comes alive in a burst of music and dance. Music lovers from all over the country, rather from all over the world congregate here for about 4 weeks. You will suffer from an embarrassment of riches; I guarantee you that! On any given day from the first week of December to the first week of January, you will find that you have to choose between 150-200 music recitals hosted by 30 odd music associations (called Sabha-s), not to mention an equal number of dance programs! People keep raving about Woodstock, the four-day musical extravaganza which happened in New York in July 1969, and never happened again! I think we could say that Woodstock was the Chennai of Western popular music.
The Music Academy is the most venerable institution in Chennai, having been around for nearly 90 years. They have a fantastic hall with state-of-the-art audio systems. The afternoon concerts are free, and you can get to hear great talent before they become superstars. They also have a lot of lecture demonstrations and scholarly panel discussions on the various aspects of not only Carnatic music, but music from all over the country. The other important establishments are the Narada Gana Sabha, Parthasarathy Swami Sabha and the Mylapore Fine Arts Society, all located within a 2 km radius of the Academy. Season tickets are generally sold out a month before the action starts, but you can always try your luck on the day of the concert!
The greatest thing about the December Season is that it is completely self-sustaining. There is no single organization or establishment that promotes or controls the Season! In the 1920s, there were about half a dozen music organizations to start with. This slowly grew over the decades, until it really took off in a big way in the early 1980s. Make sure you book your flight tickets and hotel six months in advance. Many people let out their homes for a consideration, and serviced apartments are also available. You have to come to the city to experience it – trust me, you’ll thank me for it. Carnatic music is the main focus during the Season, but over the last decade there has been a lot of focus on Indian dance forms such as Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Odissi, Kathak and Mohiniattam.
The city of Trivandrum also has its own music festival during the auspicious period of the Navaratri, the nine holy days during the Sep-Oct period. The music programs are held in the royal palace Kuthira Malika aka the Horse Palace, so named after the 122 horses that are carved on the wall brackets. The atmosphere here is ethereal – there are no electric lights, the only illumination is provided by oil lamps, and the music slowly clasps artistes and the audience in a tight embrace! Like Chennai, the focus here is on Carnatic music.
The oldest classical music conference in India is the Hariballabh Sangeet Sammelan, which has been celebrated every year in Jalandhar, Punjab since 1875. This program is held in the last week of December every year, and still continues to attract thousands of music lovers. The Dover Lane Music Conference which is held in the third week of January each year, started in the East Indian city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) way back in 1952. This has now become a very important Hindustani music conference, and an invitation to perform here means that you have arrived on the scene. Another important conference worth attending is the Tansen Samaroh, which was first held in 1952. This is conducted by the government of Madhya Pradesh in Gwalior every year in the second week of December. The venue of the conference is the tomb of the legendary singer Tansen, who was one of the nine jewels of the Mughal emperor Akbar’s court. The focus is on Hindustani music at all these venues.
The major difference between the two styles of Indian classical music is the medium of expression of the raga. Carnatic music uses the kriti, which is a song generally devotional in nature. The songs have high literary merit as well. The colors and contours of the raga are interwoven into the kriti, and it is possible to understand a raga well if you listen to the kriti carefully. After the song is completed, a line or two is taken up by the singer for improvisation, and this is followed by singing the permitted sol-fa syllables of the raga in two speeds, keeping in mind the rhythm. This is an area where the artiste can display his knowledge of the musical idiom, as well as his mastery of the technique. The other extremely creative form of musical expression in Carnatic music is the ragam-tanam-pallavi, which perhaps represents the apotheosis! Other types of musical expression are the varnam, the padam and the tillana.
In Hindustani music, the main vehicle of expression of the raga is the "khayal", which means "thought or imagination". The lyrics are very simple, and mainly describe the change of seasons, the pain of separation, stories of kings and emperors of bygone eras, devotion to God etc. The khayal is the result of the intermingling of the Hindu and Persian cultures. The khayal starts at a slow pace, called vilambit, and then picks up great speed in the drut (fast) section. The khayal is brought to its completion with a torrent of taans – these are fast paced musical ideas expressed using the "aa" syllable. The taans when properly rendered elevate the listeners to a different plane of consciousness and ecstasy. Other forms of musical expression are the dhrupad, the tappa, the thumri and the taraana.
A word about the percussion tradition would be in order now. The mridangam and tabla are the main percussion instruments in the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions respectively. The percussion artistes get their rightful share of the limelight in any recital where they can demonstrate their proficiency in rhythmic patterns. However, there is a percussion tradition peculiar to Kerala, and that is the thayambaka. The main instrument is the chenda (treble), supported by bass chenda and cymbals. The main artiste starts the proceedings with a very slow beat, and gradually builds it up to a thrilling crescendo. The thayambaka is essentially a temple art, but has over the last few decades been performed at marriages and other functions. For those of you who are interested in rhythm and drums, a thayambaka must never be missed. A similar art is the panchavadyam, also a Kerala temple art.
Of course, let us be honest and admit that it is film music which still holds sway over the masses. Hindi films continue to dominate the film musical discourse in the country, closely followed by Tamil which has emerged in its own right, especially after the runaway success of A.R. Rahman. People refer to him as the Mozart of Madras. You can hear film music everywhere – on the streets, in restaurants and bars, in sundry and high class auditoriums, and of course on the silver screen. Singers such as Sonu Nigam and Shreya Ghoshal are very popular, and give performances very frequently in the major cities, and now even in Tier-II towns.
Western classical music does have a presence in India especially in Mumbai and Calcutta, and to some extent in Chennai. Someone or the other is always visiting, and you can get to listen to good Western classical music on weekends.
Western popular music has always had a very strong hold on the educated English speaking classes in India. A little known fact is that one of the biggest names in British rock Freddie Mercury (of the legendary band Queen) was of Indian descent – he was born Farrokh Balsara in Tanzania, and grew up in Mumbai before migrating to the UK. Even as recently as 35-40 years ago, demand for Indian rock was limited to high class bars and five-star restaurants which had a Westernized upwardly mobile clientele drawn from the upper strata of society. However, the advent of free media such as YouTube and SoundCloud, which in turn was powered by the proliferation of the Internet, has contributed greatly to the intermingling of the Western and Indian cultures. This spawned a new genre – Indian fusion – which incorporates elements of Indian music with that of mainstream rock and pop. No reference to fusion music would be complete without mentioning the Hindustani classical musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt who plays the guitar – he calls it the Mohan veena. Bhatt won a Grammy way back in 1993.
In more recent times, bands like Agam and Indian Ocean are examples of this particular kind of music. This can also be found liberally in Bollywood music, in the works of music directors like A R Rahman, Amit Trivedi, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Vishal-Sekhar. MTV Coke Studio, Kappa TV and several channels on YouTube also present and promote this particular genre and variants thereof.
The rock and roll scene in India is mainly in Bangalore and Mumbai, but there is good music to be found in Kolkata, New Delhi, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kochi. The garage band genre, and also genres such as alternative, Indie folk, djent, heavy metal and grunge-rock are catching on fast, competing with the age old traditions of rock and jazz. The younger generations specially are keenly interested in these fields. Several Indian bands have successfully broken into the international arena, a few examples being Skrat, Parikrama, Junkyard Groove, Motherjane and Skyharbor.
The Strawberry Fields Rock Festival, held every year in December in the grounds of NLSIU, Bangalore is the largest congregation of rock musicians, fans and performers in India. The Bangalore Open Air Festival, NH7 Weekender etc are other such events that promote Indian rock bands. World renowned artists like Metallica, Poets of the Fall, Slash, Porcupine Tree, Skrillex, Hardwell, Karnivool and several others regularly perform in India.
Indian music is therefore truly eclectic in nature. It has drawn from a wide variety of sources, and has enriched the world stage. Come and savour it whenever you can.
(Ramdas Menon writes on science, mathematics, music and current affairs on social and print media. He runs his own Lean Six Sigma and Applied Statistics consulting practice in Chennai.)
The Written Word: Publishing in India
A reader leads many lives, each page turned paves the way into a labyrinthine maze of a world that is contained in that book. This world is peopled by those the author speaks through, in many voices with different tenor and pitches. So each time you pick up a book you inhabit a different world, lead a parallel existence that either hurtles you forward or makes you meander gently through the course of the tale. In any case this parallel existence makes you grow, question, revel, articulate feelings, ideas, reactions. The experience varies from world to world, book to book.
The world of books in India has had a similar trajectory in the past decade. One may argue that this is constant and not a variable and I will agree so let's just say that we've been torpedoed with changes, some good, some not so encouraging. Publishers have a larger vision, experimenting with publishing genres which didn’t find their way into Indian publishing a few years back. I see crime, thriller, and detective books. I see popular commercial fiction, graphic novels, science and speculative fiction, mythological fiction and non-fiction filling up shelves in book stores. A remarkable increase in the percentage sales of non-fiction books is a very encouraging trend. It speaks of a populace that is conscious, seeking and exploring the socio-cultural and political narrative of contemporary times. Biographies, memoirs, travelogues, self-help, and business books are the top selling genres. Brilliant translations like Baluta by Jerry Pinto and Ghachar Ghochar by Srinath Perur have added to the rich repertoire of translations from our languages this year.
If the Neilson report can be considered as some measure of surveying the complex sales and distribution network in India, then we have supposedly recorded a growth rate of 20.4% in 2014-2015. 55% of trade sales are of books in English. Books in Hindi are 35% of Indian language sales but the largest share is taken by 'Others', despite what the report identifies as a "highly disorganised" local publishing sector. Indian publishing, for the lack of a contained statistical data collection system remains an unsolved mystery. Consumer data survey shows that, on average, people read books 2.1 times a week, while nearly two-thirds read a book occasionally. Interestingly, 56% of the respondents bought at least one e-book a year and nearly half of these bought at least three or four, indicating a growing demand here. India’s e-book sales figures, in spite of having a burgeoning increase in numbers that use smart devices, remain rather abysmal.
This is also the decade that witnessed the merger of two publishing giants – Penguin Books and Random House. Fortunately, the smooth transition has silenced all questions on how the various imprints under both houses will continue to build and expand their publishing programmes. The other major buy in which gave encouraging signals was that of HarperCollins taking over Harlequin.
We have gone through the pain of watching book stores fold up and close shop because of constant decline in the revenue generation from sales of books. We have also seen Flipkart and Amazon and other e-commerce portals take over book sales and create much concern amongst purists who still like to leaf through a few pages, feel the paper, smell the fresh, crisp print, admire book jackets before they select the book they want to pick up. It's also about a sense of discovery which isn’t the same in the virtual world. Yet convenience and good discounts have taken over and a lot of us have turned to ordering books online.
What has seen a tremendous burst is the explosion of literary festivals in India. At last count, there were over 75 festivals and still newer ones are cropping up each day. Festivals are a useful tool to bring readers in close contact with authors. They also lead to an exposure to different genres and a spawning of a new readership as a result. Book sales are impacted, business does get a new push and some book deals are also inked. Content management remains a concern – whether a festival of a particular region is giving enough representation to the writers of the area or not? Are the languages getting their due? The Jaipur Literature festival has had record breaking audiences this year and some phenomenal writers speaking, igniting a sound exchange of ideas and firing imaginations. Other festivals like The Hindu Lit for Life, Bangalore Literature Festival, Apeejay Kolkata literary festival, Times Literary Carnival in Bombay, Chandigarh Literature Festival, Bookaroo Children's literature festival in Delhi are invigorating experiences and are gathering a pulsating momentum of their own.
Siyahi as a literary agency reflects the spirit of India's growing publishing scene in its true essence. We work with mostly all genres of non-fiction and fiction, translations and coffee table books and uphold our belief, our love for books. To promote reading, to stand by our authors whom we represent, we have incorporated in our professional range of work, a series of book reading events in various cities in India. The Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Bhutan and the Crime Writers Festival in New Delhi add to our literary repertoire. To ensure our authors voices reach the world, we work actively in the international arena and simultaneously work towards translations in our regional languages.
These are interesting times to be in – the world is going digital. YouTube films, television and cinema are picking up on adapting books into screenplays and rather successfully so. Devlok on Epic TV is being presented by Devdutt Pattanaik, our acclaimed mythologist. Devdutt is also the chief story consultant for Star TV's popular show, Siya ke Ram. Anuja Chauhan's book, Those Pricey Thakur Girls was made into a successful TV serial on &TV.
There are positive trends and then there are flip sides to the whole story. As an agent I am constantly riding on hope that the next manuscript I open will be that one spectacular piece of writing that we need to bring to the world. As an agent I also turn cynical when I see that some already spectacular writing is not being given due credit. This is the time when the industry really needs to come together to plan and execute a larger vision to give the publishing industry the focus it requires.
(Mita Kapur is the founder and CEO of Siyahi, India's leading literary consultancy, a published writer and freelance journalist. She also creates and produces literary festivals and book reading events.)