Sunday, July 23, 2006

The unspoken and the unspeakable

Indians have a morbid fear of the body.

(Oh, everyone else does too. All cultures, in their own way, are afraid of the human body. Afraid with an irrational, inexplicable, unshakeable fear). However, I’m not going to rant about the human body or global morality. I'm talking about Indians and the way in which the fear and shame associated with the body is transmitted through popular culture - at the very first stop one makes on the popular culture highway, i.e., at the doorstep of music and movies, both of which have long been happily married in India.

To understand popular sentiment or prevailing morality, to grasp the recent wave of common (and I don't use the word in a negative way) tastes, we have to turn to Bollywood. It tells us a lot about what the masses are thinking, what they want, and also what they shy away from.

Hindi songs continue to be filled with the same old references to the body that have been used so long, that they've become quite respectable through familiarity. For instance, the eyes, the lips, the cheeks (aankhein, honth gaal, naina, lab, rukhsaar) hair (zulfein/ lat/ baal) is okay. Oblique references to the feet and hands, slim waists (patli kamar) and wrists (kalaayi/kalaiyya) are okay too. This, of course, is about the women. For men, all references are limited to the eyes and sometimes, almost metaphorically, to the arms (baahein/baazu).

Nobody writes songs about legs, about necks, about hips, about backs and stomachs and shoulders. Which is a small part of a larger problem.

Our songs try out all the new sounds that are popular in the western world. Hip-hop, Indie, Fusion-rock - we've absorbed the music. But when it comes to the words and the images created through those words, we continue to brush the body under the carpet, with one sweeping carpet-word: 'ang'.

What we do have are several references to sringaar. A woman's allure is referred to through the wardrobe or the trinket box. 'Bindiya' 'kangan' 'paayal' 'jhumka' 'jhanjhar' 'chunri' 'kaajal' 'gajra' 'lehnga'... and more recently - leading to great infamy and scandalous delight - the 'choli'.

I can't help but wonder - what makes us, as a mass culture, so hung up on a woman's wardrobe?

It stands to reason that the reference is not to the object but to what it encases. The arms that bear the bangles, the earlobes that bear the earrings, the hair and the nape of the neck behind the gajraa, the ankles encircled by the paayal; behind the choli, there is, of course, only the 'dil' (heart). Or, if you prefer, 'tabaahi' (destruction).


Objects obscuring the real object of affection, and thereby taking on a life of their own; in doing so, they force our songs into narrow patterns of imagery and rhyme. Because 'lehnga' so obviously rhymes with 'mehnga', the two find themselves being coupled again and again. And there, without any deliberate attempt at stereotyping, you have a message being sent out - woman --> clothes --> expense!

But apart from lyrical objections, my main issue with these songs is because songs are a significant tool of association of ideas. For instance, whenever I think of 'seasons in the sun', I grow sad. 'We had joy, we had fun...' leaves me with no sense of joy or fun. The words have taken on meanings that extend beyond their own immediate meaning. Like 'Blowing in the wind'. All you have to do is sing that phrase 'blowing in the wind' and the images that come to mind do not have anything to do with either wind or blowing. Now consider the potential for damage that is inherent in stereotypes perpetuated through an overwhelming emphasis on 'chunri' and 'chehra'.

In India, in many ways, we've been regressing, morality-wise. Our songs tend to either reflect that truth, or ensure the continuity of that truth, or accomplish both agendas simultaneously.

You heard a song like 'Sar pe topi laal, haath mein resham ka rumaal…' (red cap on your head, a silk kerchief in your hand) a generation ago. Can you think of one song in recent times where the woman's voice is so boldly praising the man's appearance, if not his body? I can't think of even one.

Think of - 'apni ada hai tera apna hi dhang hai; dheela-dheela kurta hai, pajama tang-tang hai' (you have your own style, your own ways; your kurta is loose and your pajama is tight). Think of - 'badan pe sitaare lapete hue' (stars wrapped all around your body).

Now, think of the current crop of popular songs. The very popular title song of Dhoom has two versions . The English version has lyrics like 'dhoom dhoom gonna make you sweat now; dhoom dhoom let's get all wet now...'. The Hindi one has lyrics like 'ishq ishq karna hai kar le; ishq ishq mein jee le mar le' (love if you want to love; live in love and die in love).

Attraction - depicted through sizzling, sweating visuals of crowded discos - is covered up by the verbal veneer of 'love'. Two strangers are dancing in a disco and the words are all about 'mohabbat' and 'ishq'. A club dancer, in 'No Entry', is being offered to a reluctant married man with the words 'ishq di gali vich kar entry'. What, pray, has ishq got to do with it?

The curious result is that between all this talk of tera jalwa and meri dhadkan, we insert english phrases like 'I want your body'.

It is strange, is it not, that with our tiresome trunkloads of songs, for all our wet sari rain dance sequences, we still do not have an appropriate word for attraction? Think about it. Can you think of one popular Hindi song that speaks of attraction as attraction, and not as 'pyaar'.

Meanwhile, our videos or the movie picturization of songs, get obsessively physical. They are completely focussed on the female body, for which our songmakers seem to have no appropriate words. The songs themselves remain paralysed, trapped in a maze of trinket-boxes, and remixed metaphors.

The real danger, of course, is that this obsession with the outer - not just outer, but outermost - layers of personality, reduces our collective, public ability to deal with the body itself. Our perception of beauty does not even go skin-deep. We don't go so far as the skin; we're too wrapped up in the aanchal. And while India is a very long way from words like 'let me lick you up and down...' (except when we're writing songs describing the girl as a ice-cream that's never been taken out of the fridge) we're also a very long way from something like 'Where do you go to my lovely, when you're alone in your bed.'

In fact, none of our popular songs even mention 'bed'. The closest we came to it was 'sarkaye liyo khatiya', in the last decade, but that only led to people suggesting that the khatiya is contrary to our 'sanskriti'.

The nineties, to be fair, tried to break the mould. Honesty was peeking out through innuendo-laced curtains. 'Saiyyan ke saath madiya mein; bada maja aaya rajiyya mein' - is rather upfront. Another song mentioned pigeons, but all of India knew what the gutar-gutar was really about.

Double meanings come from double standards.

Unfortunately, public outrage forced songwriters to change lyrics. In the song, LML, 'Let's make love' was changed to 'Love me, love'. 'Meri pant bhi sexy' (please note, it is probably the only song we have that mentions the male wardrobe, barring topi and rumaal), the word sexy was briefly replaced by 'fancy' . 'Sexy sexy sexy mujhe log bolein' was changed to 'Baby, baby, baby...' (and I personally find 'baby' far more ridiculous, condescending and rather annoying, compared to 'sexy')

[I have a soft spot for David Dhawan films' songs, because, for all their faults, they unfailingly capture the hopes, aspirations and struggles of the movie-going junta. Lyrics like 'main to ice-cream kha rahee thi; main to chakkar chala rahi thi... teri naani mari to main kya karoon.' Crass? That's open to interpretation. Honest. Yes! Other lyrics, like 'ek garam chai ki pyaali ho, koi usko pilaane wali ho...' (all I want is a hot cup of tea, and someone who makes it for me) 'oonchi hai building, lift teri band hai... ' (your building's so high and the elevator isn't working) '...chalti hai kya nau se barah' (coming with me to the nine-to-twleve show?) or 'main tujhko bhagaa laya hoon tere ghar se; tere baap ke darr se...' (I've got you to run away from home, because I'm scared of your daddy) 'madhuri dixit mili raste meing; khaye chane humne saste mein' (I found Madhuri Dixit when walking down the street and we ate cheap chick-peas together). None of these are classics, but you have to give them full marks for honesty.]

To get back to the point I was trying to make, our popular songs are often brash, but when it comes to speaking of the body itself, the songwriters baulk. Because, as a culture, we baulk.

Remember the song from Murder, 'bheege honth tere...'? In Delhi, I'd often see young girls begin to hum the song, but when they came to the line 'kabhi mere saath koi raat guzaar' (spend a night with me sometime) , they would just hum the tune, ashamed to sing the words out loud. As a culture, we are ashamed to admit that we spend nights with each other.

In stark contrast, think of Hindi poets, such as Shamsher Bahadur Singh. He writes of the memory of a blade of grass caught in the teeth of his lover. He talks of being able to connect with a lover only through her body. Despite an openness in our literature, this acceptance of the body has not filtered into the public consciousness of culture, and I'm not surprised. The majority does not read. The majority does listen to filmi songs.

We have a culture of songs. What we also have is a culture that masks body and desire through vague references to objects, or by singing breathlessly about 'love' when the emotion is simply lust. We have a culture is equally adept at clamping down on real-world love, when confronted with it. ‘Ishq’ and ‘pyaar’ all over the radio, but somewhere in Meerut, couples get beaten up for hanging out in parks. Is there a connection there? I think so.

Because if something is not spoken of, it becomes unspeakable, in every sense of the word.


Vijayeta said...

You are right! But the blame can be squarely placed on super-commercial music companies like T-series. While they have made CD's and audio cassettes absolutely affordable by the masses, they've also taken the onus of mass-producing crappy music. I am yet to meet someone like you and me who would honestly appreciate Himesh Reshammiya's music in the same way we do say, Sonu Nigam or Shankar Mahadevan. To supplement the audio, and to promote it widely, obviously they will have to churn out videos with sexy girls in very skimpy clothes, lip-syncing to raunchy lyrics. And since it makes HUGE money, its an industry with HUMONGOUS profits so it can sustain itself.
However, I know what you mean when you say women can't sing kabhi mere saath ek raat guzar... Women have always been commodified. Be it films, TV or advertising. But there's always been a difference in degree and attitudes. Aishwarya Rai in Kajra Re or Shilpa Shetty in Main aayi hoon UP Bihar lootne... looked as raunchy and hot as traditional nautanki dancers are supposed to look, and not just downright vulgar like some of the current music video girls look like. But i guess, everyone wants a share of the pie when its a good time and its safer to play to the gallery instead of experimenting!

*Now going back to reminiscing about the good, old college days when we all were so in love with David Dhawan and Govinda and all those songs!*

gaddeswarup said...

This was not always the case in India. Both men and women have written fairly explicit erotic poetry (See, for example, Women's Wiring in India; 600 BC to the Present, Edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, particularly Muddupalani). There might have been changes in the power structures and imposition of some Victorian values during the British time. See the introduction to the above book about banning of some classics by the British. Nicholas Dirkes in "Castes of Mind" says, on page 73 "... legislated that no temple in the land could be used for marriage ceremonies involving widows and divorcees , in direct contravention to some of the practices of castes who had previously had full control over the constituent temples". The following links are two a recent poetess Mahe Jabeen in Telugu. Though not explicitly erotic, she does not shy away from sexual matters.
Of course these have not made way in to films.

Nikhil Pahwa said...

A song on the pancreas please, Annie. Go on. :D

Anonymous said...

*amiles, winks & leaves*

Anonymous said...

stupid typos!!! spoiled my style!!

*smiles, winks & leaves*


Charukesi said...

great post, as always, Annie... the most refreshing and romantic reference to bed I have heard is 'geela mann shayad bistar ke paas pada ho' - all that longing, all those memories... gulzar. sighs... winks and leaves*

BridalBeer said...

Interesting. I'm trying to think of songs about other body parts of males...
Udee jab-jab zulfeen teeree, kawariyon ke dil... comes to mind. But it stops there.
A lot of guys will find it creepy if male hair is referred to as zulf. It's almost as though it's a female-noun.

wise donkey said...

hmmm and i was wondering about reference to every part of the women's body and not just the breasts and thighs in adi shankar's soundaryalahiri.

the only song i can think of where there is a ref to lust in movies. mani's ayutha ezhuthu..dont know if the Yuva in hindi, had similar lyrics..

and the hypocrisy is sickenin..valid point re the meerut..

annie said...

vijayeta: sigh! why can't they mass-produce and mass-market good folk music? and do you remember the chhichhora khandaan?
gaddeswarup: that's exactly what I'm saying. in literature and poetry, we still find interesting new ways of discussing both love and lust. but what about popular culture, which is a way of addressing popular consciousness?
fadereu: you have resurfaced?!
charu: yes, sigh! gulzar. if it weren't for him, i'd have stopped believing in hindi film music over this past decade.
bridalbeer: i love 'ude jab jab zulfein..." and esp the line 'us gaon ki kawariyon ke sadqe, ke jahaan mera yaar basda, jund meriye'. such a refreshing thought.
wisedonkey: i've heard yuva's songs in hindi and none of them are remotely lustful.

unrest cure: challenge, kya? okay, i will rise to the pancreatic challenge. wait and see.

annie said...

unrest cure: there you go -

Crazyfinger said...

I think it was Georg Lukacs who thought that realism in arts takes its roots in the culture particularly when the society's middle-class consciousness is on the rise, i.e., coinciding with the social change. Somehow in our case our middle-class consciousness is surely on the rise, but the social change is nowhere to be found and realism in our arts is going to dogs. Though there is that "morbid fear of the body," as you say, it seems to me that that is only a manifestation of a once-rich emblematic realism degenerating into a symbolic realism, or even worse, degenerating into just a loose collection of symbols stuck in the sloshing tinbox of our movie-arts. Well, when truth degenerates into mere correctness (and to a "correctness of an assertion") this is where we end up. Sorry state. Not a whit of transcendence.

Here's a parthian shot. Take most of what you wrote here, and apply the "template" to Indian press, I think you'd arrive at interesting parallels and perhaps similar conclusions. The unchanging language we find there, the same stock words, the same boilerplate approach to news and views. It's the same boilerplate framing of the issues over and over again, isn't it? WTO "talks", Bindra "cliches", someone "divested" of duties, "crisis"...on and on. But let's not digress. Terrific post.


Rajesh said...

"...why can't they mass-produce and mass-market good folk music?"

Shefali is trying to do interesting stuff:

Rabin said...

nice to know the cultural happenings north of the Vindhyas :)

kuffir said...

what is this post about? that lust should be acknowledged in popular culture?
i remember a song that goes 'lag jaa gale ke phir yeh..' and recall front-benchers greeting it with catcalls..there was another song..stimulating lust 'husn ke lakhon rang..' and i ask you 'kaunsa ..ang dekhoge'?
muddled post annie.

there used to be another popular culture (still there, i suppose)..of women singing in fields and at work..and you'd call that bawdy, i suppose..

maybe popular culture in india isn't actually popular, i suppose..because i do agree with you that it is kind of prudish..but then the post should have been about defining 'popular' culture. maybe you're talking about the culture popular among the middle class.. unsatisfying. maybe you should try this again.

Matt said...

Check your own post, Annie. "Nobody writes songs about legs, about necks, about hips, about backs and stomachs and shoulders. Which is a small part of a larger problem." The way you reached this point, I thought you would talk about breasts, bottoms, vagina, penis... I am not saying you should or shouldn't. just pointing that discomfort with the body extends to all of us.

annie said...

crazyfinger: you're right there.
rabin: :)
rajesh: thanks for the link
kuffir: Not a muddled post. I did say we were regressing - both morally and lyrically - and both the examples you quote come from a generation past. Incidentally, both songs are rather nice. We should have more like them.
Your reference to women in fields and bawdiness is entirely lost on me. It doesn't make any sense.
And yes, I do want an acknowledgment of lust in popular culture.
As far as the objective of the post is concerned, I made it clear at the outset that I was talking about hindi films and songs - which are the single largest manifestation of popular culture in most parts of the country. There may be a need to change that, but that's a whole different debate.

dancewithshadows: I wasn't referring to the body only in terms of sex, which is why I deliberately did not focus on that argument. I was also pointing towards the sheer monotony of the few references to bodies that do exist. Even if you're determined to keep sex out of the picture... why just refer to the hands and not to the nose, why the wrists and not the ankles?

Vivified Visage said...

I am feeling ambivalent: In the US, I've grown up listening to lyrics that talks about a woman's breasts, her private parts almost always in a lewd way. Pick up any contemporary rap or hip hop song and really listen to what they're saying, and the videos that are juxtaposed--it's all (and excuse my language) tits and ass. I am not sure if any lyrics can just mention the sex and not push further into cultural expectations and stereotypes. Frankly, a little modesty (and decency) can be appreciated once in a while. I do understand the double standard you are talking about, though, and I agree.

Vivified Visage said...

Also: Your post reminded me of one my all-time favorite quotes:

Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language
--this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.
--Adrienne Rich

roswitha said...

Coming in late: Great post, Annie.

As for Kuffir's comment, I'd like to nitpick and claim that women singing work songs in the fields are not popular culture in any shape or form, because they are nto mass-produced and marketed for commercial purposes. They are part of folk culture, which is the sort that springs up indigenously when any group of people get together. I believe, Annie, that your post highlighted the very difference between what might be called the ground realities and the sort of stuff that we're made to believe we aspire to.

Abhishek said...

Brilliant stuff....mythmaking!

gaddeswarup said...

Check this:

varali said...

Kashish is attraction isn't it? So there is a Hindi/Urdu word for it.

Remember Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo, from Pyaasa? Understood literally, the lyrics mean take my body, fulfill me. Of course, as you rightly point out, that was a few generations ago.

Also, whenever there is any direct reference to the body or sex these days in Hindi lyrics, it is in English. Much potential for analysis there - distancing the thought by putting it in a 'phoren' language, English='western' culture, which is of course immoral, etc. And so on.

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