Sunday, 27 January 2013

My India Soundtrack

I'm back from India! I'd almost adjusted to the minus-ten degrees here in Berlin, but thankfully it just got a bit warmer. To start with, here's a list of the music we heard on our travels.

1. Inka Parei and I were welcomed to Mumbai* International Airport by a muzak version of Don't Cry for Me Argentina. It was night, hot, and it smelled of India. There was a great deal of queuing and pink carpeting.

2. In Kolkata, we took part in the Apeejay Literary Festival, which was great. We attended part of an open-air session asking "Is Kolkata still the literary capital of India?" - at which, for some reason, a teenage boy played the Cranberries' Zombie on the electric guitar. A very friendly, relaxed and creative afternoon.

3. Still in Kolkata, we went to an amazing performance in Sasha Waltz's Dialoge series. Mainly German and some Indian dancers took over a crumbling palace and re-enlivened it, along with the Mahler Chamber Soloists. Dance is not something that's usually on my radar and I found it difficult to interpret the stories the artists were telling. But I was still spellbound by the unique atmosphere and the chance to explore the palace, and the music was breathtaking. You can watch a short report on the event (in German but watch it anyway for the atmosphere) at 3Sat. During the two-hour performance the "real-world" Kolkata kept butting in, with processions and fireworks and hooting horns, etc, while there were light projections on the opposite building from within the palace.

4. We travelled around most of the cities by car, with hired drivers. India is not the place for non-residents to try driving. So we got a sample of taxi-drivers' musical taste, often Hindi love songs from Bollywood movies. Dorothee Elmiger told us she often recognises the backdrops in Hindi films as the song passages are commonly shot on location in the Swiss Alps. In fact there's a whole branch of tourism taking Bollywood fans to Swiss resorts, complete with canteen-style eateries serving genuine Indian food. Yes, cooked by Indians.

5. There was a lot of eighties pop, most notably Stars on 45 in one hotel bar, which reminded me of my local ice-rink in Berlin, rather a marked contrast.

6. Still in Kolkata, we hung out in the Seagull Books office, which is a beautiful space full of beautiful people. You should probably go to India just to pay them a visit. The after-hours music there was Johnny Hodges. Imagine the world outside is stressful and strange and crowded with people and poverty, advertising on every free space - even on the police road blocks - and inside there's great food and wine and company and conversation, calm lighting, books lining every inch of wall, and jazz.

7. In New-Delhi we had the experience that will probably leave the most lasting impression out of many. We were invited to the home of the Nizami Brothers, a group of Sufi qawwali musicians. You can see them playing here - and you can see more of the setting in the movie Rock Star. Watch both. First of all they played what felt like an hour of love songs to Allah, weaving in references to Hindu gods and beauty and just love in general. Sufism is a "people's religion" that works - in my crude understanding - by putting worshippers into a trance so they can better convene with their god. The music worked so well like that on all of us. We were all bedazzled and I was reminded of the ecstatic feeling of dancing myself into a similar state. Giant smiles on all our faces, conjured up by harmonium, percussion, vocals, shouting and clapping, performed by total dudes who we all fell a little bit in love with. There was also the world's cutest boy snuggled in between them, playing air guitar. Watch the Rock Star clip to understand why. After that we were shown around the shrine to the Sufi saint Nizamuddin, and to the poet Amir Khusro, who founded the qawwali tradition. It was a very strange feeling, especially as our party was mainly female and we women weren't allowed inside the actual shrines. Luckily I was reading Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists at the time, which helped me to understand what was going on in my head and to retain my cynicism. But everything had been explained to us beforehand, and afterwards I learned that Khusro's work had clear homoerotic elements and this particular shrine had, up until the rise of fundamentalism about ten years ago, blessed homosexual couples.

8. In another car, there were video screens for the back seat. Unfortunately, I was sitting next to the driver, so I heard rather than saw what was presumably a low point for both Rutger Hauer and Omar Sharif: Beyond Justice. Unaware of the screens, I took it for an EFL audiobook with very simple dialogue - with an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

9. At the Hyderabad Literary Festival, we saw clips from India's first silent film, Raja Harishchandra, made by Dadasaheb Phalke in 1913. There was actually music to accompany most of it in the background but I can't find a video with music, sorry. It was great fun, very confusing, and the audience loved the slapstick humour.

10. Another bizarre moment: driving through bustling, modern, overrun Hyderabad with Clarence Carter's Slip Away playing in the taxi. I smiled.

11. The last song we heard in India was more muzak at the airport, this time ABBA's Dancing Queen. Nobody said the whole trip could be deep and meaningful.

*My conscience as a Brit dictates that I use the official names of India's cities. Most of the Indians we spoke to didn't, as they felt they'd been imposed by Hindu nationalists using the issue of colonialism as a Trojan horse, or perhaps they just preferred the old names out of habit.