Within the past year, I think I have written about half a dozen posts that I didn’t ever finish. One problem I have had, as I see it, is that I have gotten too stuck on the idea that I have to write a comprehensive – or at least cohesive – post on one thing that is somehow related to the area where this blog has been most concentrated over the past few years. But, at the same time, I guess I have gotten a little restless. I post a lot of different things on Facebook (in addition to the things related to the stuff people are so used to here), but Facebook posts are by nature very fleeting. The answer to this problem, I think, is either to start a new blog (in addition to this one, that is) or to change the direction of this blog somewhat. Well, actually, I already have started changing it again; the question is how far to go.
For this month, I have decided to write a post that is a little more scattered and eclectic than usual, which may signal a direction for other posts to come. I also decided that I don’t have to work around one coherent theme, but it seems that I actually did end up with a theme (which I hope you also will see) . . .
For a long time, I have wanted to write a post about Tanya Wells. Ms. Wells is a British woman who has become somewhat renowned for her performance of ghazals and other music from the traditions of India and Pakistan. She is a great singer and deserves recognition just for that. But, of course, some people also make a big deal about the fact that a “white” woman has become so knowledgeable and accomplished in these styles. I have read interviews with Tanya in which she talked about how she has ghazals and other Indian or Pakistani music playing through her headphones all the time and doesn’t even want to listen to anything else. And I know exactly what that is like, because I was close to being that way for a while, myself. The big difference between us, of course, is that I can’t sing to save my life. (And that is kind of ironic, considering that my last name is Singer!) But one big thing that I do have in common with Tanya is that I also have this special kind of musical appreciation that some people have told me is “amazing” (though what they really might have meant was “freaky”), considering my own nationality and origins. I don’t really know why it should strike anybody as amazing, because it is very easy to find ghazals and old Indian and Pakistani film music – especially these days – even if you live in the U.S. or U.K. or in any of a whole lot of other countries far away from India. But anyway…
Here is Tanya Wells singing “Gulon Mein Rang Bhare” by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (and Mehdi Hassan).
By the way, if this makes you think about a North American qawwali group that I have written about previously called Fanna-Fi-Allah Sufi Qawwali, I believe they and Tanya have actually shared some of the same promotion and/or booking agents. So, they actually have more in common than their seemingly unusual musical affinities.
Of course, there are also a few contemporary “white” dancers who became famous for their accomplishments in Indian classical dance, and I might write about them or include them in another post sometime. But for now, I wanted to mention a phenomenon that is almost a converse of that (if not exactly): There are quite a few people of Indian origin who have been doing Indian classical dances to modern Western pop music. If you go to YouTube, you can probably find hundreds of examples of that.
More than a few people can be found on YouTube doing Bharatanatyam dances to Sia, who happens to be one of my favorite contemporary pop singers (at least among those who are very popular right now). I guess part of the reason for that is that Sia is an obvious choice for someone who wants to try out dance moves in general. Sia’s hits are intended to be dance music, and her videos and live performances are focused on dance. In fact, they feature excellent modern dancers, and they almost always star the highly talented – and now world-famous – American prodigy named Maddie Ziegler. (I can’t quite picture Maddie doing Bharatanatyam, but she still is very young, so I wouldn’t rule out the possibility – if she were given the right training.)
The Sia-based Bharatanatyam dance performances that I have seen cover a pretty wide range, too. I can think of one that I saw that combines Bharatanatyam with a very modern kind of dance and modern clothing, and another one in which the dancer is dressed in very full Indian dance attire. The one below falls somewhere in between, and it is my favorite. I like the way it combines a traditional Bharatanatyam approach (including very well performed storytelling elements) with a nice, gritty urban backdrop. I also like the fact that this dancer (identified on YouTube as Tanvi Karekar) keeps the focus on her dance, not depending on props, costuming, etc. And there is something very sweet about her performance, too; in fact, she’s damn near adorable.
I have recently read another book on dance and dance history (thanks again to the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center), but this one isn’t about Indian dance or modern dance; it’s about Arab dance. Arab dance, of course, is another style that I have become very fond of, thanks in great part to my viewing of Golden Age films from Egypt. (As you may know, I always refer to this style as “belly dance” – which seems OK in most circles, though I understand that it is basically a Western and “colonialist” term.)
The book is Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World, by Wendy Buonaventura. And it is quite informative about the history of that subject, though I wish it discussed the technique(s) a little more (like some of the books I’ve read on Indian dance). The writing also is not quite as intellectually intriguing to me as in some of the books that I’ve read on Indian dance, but it does make very interesting points, with highly quotable passages. Sometime in the future, I might write a more full review of this book and provide a few quotes. (I’ll do that right after I write the other longer reviews that I said I would write.) But right now I would like to include just one quote, because this is where Ms. Buonaventura makes a good point about the intermingling of Arab and Western cultures over the centuries. This quote makes for a very good answer to those who want to spend all their time talking about Western “colonialist” “appropriation” and the evils of Orientalism. Contradicting this sort of orthodoxy – which I have heard a lot of, myself, in recent times – Ms. Buonaventura says:
The current, widely held view of Orientalism derives from Edward Said’s thesis that the West has exploited, misunderstood and even invented the East for its own sinister purposes. From the wealth of material available, it is easy to select examples to suit this theory and ignore those which do not. However, Orientalist attitudes to the Middle East are as varied as human beings. An obsession with European colonialism has unfortunately blinded many critics to the complex interrelationship which has existed between Europe and the Arab-Islamic world for hundreds of years. This obsession has merely served to prolong the misunderstanding which exists between them. Many Europeans who went to the Arab world compared the life they found there favorably with that of Europe.
It is not that I would deny a lot of the evils of colonialism (nor imperialism or capitalism – your blogger here happens to be a leftist), but I am strongly opposed to those who are always protesting against artists in the West who adapt forms or genres that do not belong to their “own” (perceived or supposed) heritage. Unfortunately, some of those protesters are especially eager to target artists who are motivated (often by a love of multiple cultures) to attempt some kind of fusion.
Contemporary fusion actually contributed a lot to my own discovery of older, Eastern genres. Of course, Bollywood is, itself, a constant experiment in fusion. But I might not have gotten so much of a taste for old Indian film music had I not heard it being emulated and sampled so much in rock music and dance music originating in the U.S. and U.K. And I might never have grown up with a taste for Indian music in general if I had not heard George Harrison bringing it to the U.S. and U.K. when I was a small child.
When I first started a blog at this URL – all the way back in the summer of 2007 – my main intention was to blog about fusion music, especially the kind of fusion that mixes very contemporary pop (usually electronica) with the classical and folk music found in different parts of South Asia. (As some people know, this blog’s URL and original title were named after a line in an M.I.A. song. And there was actually a direct connection between M.I.A. and some of the Indian film music that I discovered. Never mind “Jimmy Aaja”; I would not have discovered Ilaiyaraaja in the summer of 2007 had I not traced a sample of his music from M.I.A.’s “Bamboo Banga.”) But then I became so enamored with old Indian films and film music – and also so caught up in talking about these things with other bloggers – that within six months, this became an Indian film blog. And by 2009, it became a blog devoted very much to Indian films from the Vintage Era and the Golden Age.
More recently, though (as I was saying above), I’ve gotten the urge to diversify again – at least somewhat. But unlike with some of my fellow “Bolly” bloggers, that doesn’t mean writing more about contemporary films or Hollywood films. I guess that’s because my primary interest was never cinema as much as it was music and dance. So, I might delve a little more into contemporary music, with a more eclectic range. That might mean taking this blog full circle, more or less (though in a much more informed way this time around). Or, it might mean avoiding so much disruption to the present blog by creating a new one that picks up where this one left off nine years ago. I haven’t predicted which way I’ll go in the long run because I have no idea yet, myself. If anyone out there has any opinions regarding how I should proceed, I’ll be happy to see them, whether in comments here or in private e-mail. But I’m not guaranteeing that I will follow anyone’s ideas because, ultimately, I do all of this blogging for one person – namely, me. And when other people get interested, too, that’s more or less a coincidence – though it has generally been happy one.