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.