Is There a Puzzle in Indian Culture?

By Anjum Altaf

The seeming disconnect between the aural and visual dimensions of popular Indian culture has left me in shock and struggling for an explanation. There are many things I don’t fathom but most of the time I can advance plausible hypotheses to work towards an understanding. Not so in this particular case.

I have come upon this puzzle late and in a peculiar manner. Being aurally-oriented to an extreme, I have had very limited exposure to the visual medium. I have watched some classical dance live, attended the occasional play, and consumed some sports on TV. But as far as visual expressions of popular art forms are concerned, I am largely ignorant. Movies, in particular, I haven’t watched for decades.

This changed recently when I found myself responsible for managing senior citizens whose daily routine included a number of hours before the television. Hoping to wean them away from StarPlus soap operas and gruesome news footage, I proposed what I thought would be an acceptable compromise – leveraging new technology to watch video clips of classic Indian film songs of the 1960s and 1970s that evoked pleasant memories for all.

The senior citizens took the experience in stride but for me it was a monumental disaster. What had retained an enormous emotional hold for decades was rendered unbearable when picture was added to sound. I have since found it very difficult to unburden myself of what I can only describe as a contamination of the pure with the profane.

For me, one of the most sophisticated aspects of Indian culture is its music represented at its apex by the classical forms. One cannot miss the influence of this sophistication on popular film music as well, at least that of the 1960s and 1970s. The most haunting and memorable film songs of that period bear the unmistakable stamp of the classical tradition. The same sophistication in the visual dimension is represented by classical dance. Yet, that seems to have virtually no relationship to the depiction of movement in the popular domain. Why might this be the case?

Clearly, one argument would pertain to the nature of the audience; classical forms have a limited audience while popular forms are aimed at the mass market. But this does not provide a complete explanation. If the mass audience can relate to adaptations of classical music, why presume they would be unable to adapt to classical movement?

It is not even as if the visual representations are derived from Indian folk traditions. The folk forms, music and dance both, are beautiful in their own right. After all, the classical is nothing but the extraction of the essence of the folk, a process of refinement that has been going on for centuries. What I saw on the screen was neither classical nor folk; nor was it a caricature of Western dance forms although that might be a possible source of inspiration.

Could it be that popular Indian movies aim to appeal to fantasy and there are many more liberties that can be taken with movement than with sound to serve that end? Would it be correct to conclude that, at least in the minds of movie-makers, the Indian audience cannot be visually entertained without being titillated? Can one assume that this is not a trend likely to be reversed any time soon? And is music now also belatedly being liberated of its sophistication?

If one adds to this another presumption that suggests itself from my recent limited exposure, that the mass Indian audience is amused only by watching something silly, there is the making of a truly surreal experience. From what I remember of the Charlie Chaplin I watched as a teenager, there is an entire tradition in Western movies of being silly in an amusing way which seems quite different from the Indian tradition of being amusing in a silly way. And it seems to me that this acculturation starts at a very early age. Last year, I tried to watch the StarPlus Chhote Ustad series, a music program for very young children from India and Pakistan. I gave up after the first episode because I found the MC unbearable. It seemed it was taken for granted that the children would only be amused, entertained and made happy by the most grotesque kind of silly actions and conversation.

I really have nothing to offer here except my puzzlement and would greatly welcome any enlightenment, even censure of what may possibly come across as elitism. The only comparable experience I recall was pondering over the Ragmala paintings that are supposed to illustrate various classical ragas. I was unable to comprehend the connection but that did not ruin my enjoyment of the music itself. This experience belongs to another category altogether. I am now unable to listen to the songs without the association of the accompanying visuals. Shutting the eyes tight is no help.

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  • Taimur Khan
    Posted at 08:29h, 25 July Reply

    1. A psychoanalyst, whose name I don’t remember, said that as we grow older, it is very common to feel that we knew a better world and now it is coming to pieces.

    2. Nietzsche had a ‘supra-monumental’ perspective on the rise and fall of culture in human history – a people, tradition ascends in one place at one time and then another elsewhere, and so on.

    3. Goethe said that “Beauty will never be clear about itself.” and so, we learn to doubt and refine our aesthetic judgments lest they reek of selfishness.

    Having said that, of course, the cinematography of Bollywood songs has nothing to do with the music. Even raagmala paintings don’t, but they appear to have some aesthetic merit of their own.

    I agree with you.

  • ysaeed.Saeed
    Posted at 08:45h, 25 July Reply

    Dear Anjum. Although your observations are interesting, but you do seem to have realised this disconnect between audio and visual in Indian cinema a bit late, which is surprising given your interest in music. Indian cinema, even of the period that you mention, is a HUGE phenomena. And for anyone to comment on any of its aspect, you need to have seen and heard a bulk of it to make any sense. The visual, especially in popular culture, cannot be disconnected from the aural. And to make any sense of it, you have to be a part of the popular culture. People who are the regular audience of Indian cinema, not only watch cinema, but also memorise songs, sing them, enact the scenes from cinema, remember and quote dialogues from movies, and even copy the actions. Even cinema billboards, posters and portraits of film stars become an integral part of the cinema audience. You will have to complete that experience. Only then will you be able to decode the puzzle. But I would also like to know some specific example of where you found the disconnect. And whether you are only watching the movie songs in their visual form or the entire movies?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 09:56h, 25 July

      ysaeed: Agreed – very, very late. I watched just the picturization of the songs, not entire movies.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 13:34h, 25 July

      There is absolutely nothing surprising about this disconnect. Film songs are not classical music, they are a necessary medium to fulfill a requirement of serious cinema. Songs convey a message with subtlity that mere dialogues cannot do. If you listen to a song which you have not seen on the screen then you will draw your own imagery on the basis of the message contained in the song. Most likely your own imagery will not match that of the Director for the simple reason that two individual may interpret a message differently besides your imagery does not back up context of the story.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:25h, 25 July

      Anil: I didn’t mean to suggest that film songs are classical music. But a lot of the memorable songs till at least the 1960s were very clearly inspired by the classical tradition. One could hear a song and determine the Raga in which it was composed. The melodic structure was not random but adhered to rules that derived from Indian classical music. There is an excellent book by SM Shahid called Immortal Film Songs Inspired by Ragas. It comes with a disk and also describes the derivation of the song from the classical roots. I have no quarrel with imagery or the Director’s choice; it is just my feeling that, in general, the level of sophistication of the imagery does not match that of the music. Of course, given my very limited exposure I could be completely off the mark.

  • Kulkarni
    Posted at 13:00h, 25 July Reply

    Well . It is now a Catch 22 situation for you 🙂
    You cannot unravel the puzzle unless you see more . And If you continue to see more , you will increasingly feel that it is a lost case .
    Song Picturisations in Hindi Movies do not have a parallel anywhere in the world . The music for the songs of the 60 s and 70s drew from Classical Streams in a very oblique way . Except for a handful of numbers , the vast majority of the songs were very clever adaptations .
    In fact most of the songs did not relate to dance at all . And by this I mean examples like the title song of Toofan Aur Diya Or Baharon phool Barsao or Ram Kahen ( Milan) /
    Many of these songs are beautifully shot on camera and that is why I would hesitate to paint with a broad brush with this little viewing.
    It is heartening to see that you have stopped with 70s .
    We have had the mortification of seeing Plain dirty stuff being dished out ever since Madhuri Dixits Heart went Dhak Dhak .

    And BTW I cannot think of any song of the 60s and 70s which could be called titillating – if we make a small allowance for the likes of Helen . They were outright funny sometimes -like when Joy Mukherji danced around a park with a guitar . But those lapses were compensated by some brilliant acting / dancing – like that of Dilip Kumar in Ganga Jamna or Sagina.
    The key to your problem is that the Ear is a more cultured antenna of our Body than the eyes . That is why you can listen to the same song a hundred times . But cannot see a movie , a second time without discomfort.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:52h, 25 July

      Kulkarni: I am really hoping that those who have already made the investment would help resolve some of my puzzlement. I really appreciated the insight about the ear and the eye in your concluding paragraph. There are things one knows instinctively but doesn’t think of consciously. It is very true of movies though there are paintings that one can look at repeatedly without the same effect and one can go very often to a performance of classical dance. Would you say that some paintings can be the equivalent of classical music or dance whereas most movies are just very pedestrian? At the same time, I note young people repeatedly seeing the same video-song which is a recent genre I am unfamiliar with.

      One thing I should have mentioned in the post. My sense is that in film music the balance over time is shifting from melody to rhythm and that just does not appeal to me. Of course, it is a personal preference.

      I could be mistaken about the association of titillation with the old songs. This must have been triggered by the scenes where hordes of people are gyrating back and forth without any ostensible reason.

      I do agree that my exposure is so limited that I can be completely wrong. But this is one Catch-22 I won’t be able to resolve. For people living in Pakistan there is a much bigger Catch-22 to contend with. “Oh, do not ask, What is it?”

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 18:18h, 25 July Reply

    In my view, the visual and the aural have both been of central importance since ancient Indian times. The Natyashastra is an instance of this but it goes back much further. That is also why there is such a plethora of visual depictions of Gods in Hinduism.

    The disconnect you are referring to may be purely personal because most people all over the world enjoy Bollywood films.

  • u
    Posted at 19:26h, 25 July Reply

    I have this diconnect too (though there are exceptions). I watch a lot of popular films and fast forward the songs. I really like Tamil film music (though I don’t know the language) and find myself avoiding the picturisation. I even did a brief series on my blog entitled “Tamil songs I love and don’t understand (with videos that sometimes make me cringe).”

    I think ysaeed’s explanation goes some way towards explaining this disconnect.

  • Moazzam Siddiqi
    Posted at 20:57h, 25 July Reply

    I agree with Arun Pillai on the vital connection between the visual and the aural in classical Indian tradition as stressed in the Natyashastra, but very few Bollywood movie songs meet those criteria. Two films come to mind right now (there may be several more) where the director has kept this connection in mind during the filming of the song(s). One is K. Asif’s Mughal-e Azam and the other is V.Shanta Ram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje. Anjum might be pleasantly surprised after watching the filming of songs in these movies.

    Moazzam Siddiqi
    July 25, 2011

  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:34h, 26 July Reply

    Anjum, I have the same experience as you. I prefer Indian film music without the visuals. I too am aghast by some of the picturization of the songs. This is not always the case though. There are a few that are very well done. But most are indeed a let down.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:05h, 26 July Reply

    I agree with Moazzam Siddiqi that most Bollywood films do not follow the Natyashastra but I never said this. My point was that the visual is very important in Indian culture whether in high art or low art. I personally detest most Bollywood films and have seen very few. But the whole world watches them and loves them. The dances are usually rather crude though they evolved from the Hollywood and Broadway musicals of the 1930s and 1940s which evolved from Greek drama. Of course, a lot of Hollywood is equally bad.

    Just as a side point, Preity Zinta was so sexy in this clip I completely forgot about the movie and the music!

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 04:52h, 26 July Reply

    A point of clarification. I made it clear that both the aural and the visual are very sophisticated in Indian culture as exemplified by classical music and dance. The puzzle is not that one is more sophisticated than the other. The puzzle for me is that their representation in popular culture, Bollywood movies in particular, seems imbalanced. I am trying to confirm if this observation is correct and if so why that might be the case. The fact that most people enjoy Bollywood movies does not address my questions.

    One thought does come to mind. While music and dance are both very sophisticated, India does not have as great a tradition of drama (or painting for that matter), a fact that might be reflected in the relative weakness of the picturization in films. These kinds of imbalances are quite common. Urdu, for example, has a much higher quality of poetry compared to prose. And in Europe, one can find excellence in art forms quite unevenly distributed.

  • Kabir
    Posted at 13:12h, 26 July Reply

    You are right that these kinds of imbalances are very common. For example, in opera, all other aspects are usually subordinate to the music. The music is often sublime, while the librettos often make very little sense. Performers were cast solely for their singing ability, so you had characters such as the 15 year-old Juliet being played by middle aged sopranos. Only recently have directors begun to view the theatrical aspect as being equally important as the singing and have made efforts to cast performers who physically resemble their characters.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:53h, 26 July

      Kabir: Re Europe, I did not mean imbalance within a particular art form although that too can be looked at. I meant that not all arts have achieved the same level of excellence in each country. For example, if you take music composition, that is not really an English forte; if you take painting, that is not a German forte, etc. I don’t know why that is but the point I was making was that if drama and painting in India have not reached the same level of sophistication as music and dance, it is just another reflection of such uneven distribution. But, if what I am saying is correct then it is also no surprise to see the imbalance reflected in a genre like film where music, dance and drama come together. What still puzzles me though is that when dance, or movement in general, is so good in India, why is that not reflected in its movies? Unlike operas, music is not the major element in Indian movies; it is there to support the action in the story. Yet, the music is so much better at least in my reckoning. And now the music too is deteriorating though that could just be a very personal judgement.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 13:47h, 26 July Reply


    I think your observations are far too sweeping, even about popular culture. When you say India does not have as great a tradition of drama or painting, with what are you comparing it? There were many dramatists in earlier times, most notably Kalidasa, and Ajanta and Ellora equal any work anywhere at any time. Classical dance is also highly elaborate and developed. Later miniature painting is also held in high esteem though perhaps not equal to corresponding developments in the West. And today modern art and modern film (not Bollywood) are thriving. They may not command the same level of attention as corresponding Western art and film do but this does not mean they are insignificant. Satyajit Ray’s work is known everywhere, for example.

    When you talk specifically about Bollywood, you have to take into account its history and circumstances. Where do the visual, the performative, the aural traditions of Bollywood come from and why are they the way they are? Your piece is titled “Is there a puzzle about Indian culture?” I think this is too broad.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:55h, 26 July

      Arun: I think your reactions are too literal.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 14:11h, 26 July Reply


    I still think what you are saying is too sweeping. It does not help to make such broad comparisons between music and dance on the one hand and painting and drama on the other. Any art critic with a modicum of knowledge about these things would shoot it down. How can you say, for example, that painting is not a German forte? German Expressionism of the 1920s was a very powerful movement and this has influenced some world renowned contemporary artists like Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. The Germans were probably the first to develop installation art.

    If your comments are primarily about Bollywood, then you should follow the method you have been following in politics: look at the history and structural forces and ideas that shaped Bollywood and then you will make some testable hypotheses. Otherwise it remains very much at the level of subjective opinion which is fine but not useful for understanding a phenomenon. Today, Bollywood is studied in many film departments all over the world. Maybe someone with that sort of background could opine.

    To give you an analogy, the kind of statement you are making is like saying that in some hypothetical country politics is more developed than law but is less developed than economics. Does this help? Perhaps it is because you know a lot more about history that you can make more detailed statements in that domain but not in this domain.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:54h, 26 July

      Arun: And I still think that your reading of texts is too literal. But let’s give this time. If most readers share your perceptions, I will come back and address them.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 15:17h, 26 July Reply

    Personally, I think it is better to write and read more literally than non-literally. What is a non-literal reading of your title according to you? Or your statement that German painting is not Germany’s forte?

    You seem to be using the kind of method some of the Romantics used in the 19th century where they identified the strengths and weaknesses of whole traditions in one single block. It is necessary to be more nuanced.

    Here is an illustration of a simple nuance. In visual art, the convention being used to represent something is very important. So the way cubism might represent a woman might be very different from the way Degas might. It is not possible to make an absolute remark that one is better than the other because both systems are trying to do different things and so their conventions of representation are different.

    Likewise, Bollywood films tend to have their own systems of representation as do Hollywood films – there are genres and sub-genres. One cannot simply say that one is good or bad in an absolute sense. Of course, everyone is free to hold their subjective opinions of what they like better just as everyone is free to say they like chocolate ice-cream more than vanilla ice-cream.

    Relative to certain systems of representation, one can make judgments about whether something has been well executed or poorly executed. For example, Sven Nyquist was a great cinematographer. But so are Govind Nihalani or Santosh Sivan in their own way though not of the same caliber as Nyquist because his execution was particularly brilliant.

    So the nuance is this: is one discussing a system of representation or is one discussing execution by particular cinematographers in Bollywood? One cannot simply talk about the visual as a single large undifferentiated block which is better or worse than music.

    You clearly know a lot more about music so you have come to appreciate it. You yourself say you have hardly seem any films but a cursory viewing of a song sequence or two has led to your opinion. Visual perception is at least as nuanced and requires at least as much learning as musical perception. Only then can one begin to form more solid judgments based on details rather than large blocks. That is why people spend hours upon hours in museums and cinema houses just as others spend hours listening.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:14h, 27 July

      Arun: I feel you are not making a distinction between a blog like The South Asian Idea and an on-line journal like EPW. Comments that are appropriate for one are not necessarily so for the other. I have put up this key section from the objectives of the blog a number of times to make this point:

      Note: The South Asian Idea is a resource for learning, not a source of expert opinion. The posts on the blog are intended as starting points for classroom discussions and the position at the end of the discussion could be completely at odds with the starting point. Thus the blog simulates a learning process and does not offer a final product. The reader is invited to join the process to help improve our understanding of important contemporary issues.

      On the blog, someone who knows next to nothing about a topic can initiate a conversation in the hope of learning from those in the community who know more. On an on-line journal, an expert is sharing research to be critiqued by a peer group of experts. These are two very different worlds and comments have to take the difference into account. If you are telling a blog participant that he/she has to be an expert before venturing forth an opinion you are failing to make a distinction between the two worlds.

  • Dipankar Gupta
    Posted at 04:53h, 27 July Reply

    Dear Anjum,

    Advice number 1. Watch more Hindi movies. You have to make up for lost time.
    Advice number 2. Do not be disappointed if they cannot dance or gyrate, let alone sing their own songs. Our stars of yesteryears were unfit, ugly and made it to the top because there is a god above.
    Advice number 3. You will feel good if you notice that there is a difference between the way men and women dance in films. Some talented heroines go to great lengths to show off.
    Advice number 4. Unless you are a professional low to middle brow do not watch Hindi films. Only rarely will you catch a fun film, but serious films or comedy? Forget it.
    Advice number 5. Stay away from retro movies. Old timers long for them for it reminds them of their silly youth. This has nothing to do with aesthetics. As you stayed out of them in those heady years, keep off old films.
    Advice number 6. See soaps like Jhansi ki Rani or Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi. You will feel superior in your senior years.
    Final Advice. Do not try to do Hrithik or Salman numbers at this age and stage. Here you will find a clear influence of western disco dancing, but it is too late for you.



    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 16:38h, 27 July

      There are many films you should watch. Not every actor was ugly or lacked aesthetics. Some actresses really had the grace and aura to make bad songs look good on screen.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 13:13h, 27 July Reply

    Fair enough. I hope the discussion continues.

  • gaddeswarup
    Posted at 04:22h, 28 July Reply

    I do not know classical music or dance and my knowledge of Indian films is mainly confined those films from 50s in Telugu and Hindi ( I do not know Hindi but get translations from friends). To me, in some of the dance songs below, there seem to coherance between song and dance and I still watch them:
    There are dozens more that I enjoy from those days, sometimes with younger friends in their fifties and sixties.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:13h, 28 July

      gaddeswarup: I recall some parts of Pakeezah from a long time back. The music was excellent and at least my memory is not one of disappointment. It does seem though that satisfying experiences are few and far between. One has to think hard of the exceptions. I do know some people who watch movies regularly and about 95 percent of the time conclude it was a waste of time. I am always intrigued why they keep repeating the experience. Is it like buying a lottery ticket in the hope that one would strike it rich sometimes? Is the investment of three hours equivalent to the ten dollars worth of lottery tickets? I know this is personal and people can spend their time any way they want to but I am just curious. Someone who likes music would rarely replicate the same behavior, i.e., listening to things that turn out to be bad 95 percent of the time. Instead, they would pick things with a 95 percent chance of turning out to be good.

    • Kabir
      Posted at 18:48h, 28 July

      Pakeezah is an example of a film where the picturization doesn’t detract from the music, but adds to it. Another example is Mughal-e-Azam.

  • gaddeswarup
    Posted at 21:19h, 28 July Reply

    I too found that watching indian movies is generally painful and watched very few after the 50’s and only some even then. One mostly picked up songs from AIR or Radio Ceylon. And more recently from youTube. But Indian movies have been popular in various places and Brian Larkin has some hints for their popularity in his articles and the book “Signal and Noise”. I think that some sort of separation between music and dance might have happened in classical music too (at least in South India) as Amanda Weidman hints in her book “Songing the Classical and Voicing the Moder”.

  • Kabir
    Posted at 13:32h, 29 July Reply

    Here is a more recent example of a Bollywood number where the music and the visuals go well together. They are few and far-between but they do exist.

  • gaddeswarup
    Posted at 21:51h, 29 July Reply

    Slightly off topic. Recently a telugu relative aged about 65 came down with acute leukemia during a trip to USA. She is given about an year to live and it is not clear whether she can travel back to India. She wanted to listen to some old hindi songs and I was asked to send a list of sites. I know sites in telugu but for hindi/urdu I usually use YouTube and snd go on from there. So I sent her a list of about 15 songs similar to the above ones. Apparently she has been using an IPad and listening to those songs and others using the search feauture.

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