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Filmi: Indian Music Unique Element

Music is a form of art created via the medium of sound and comprised of an variety of components which include pitch (harmony, melody), rhythm (meter, tempo) and sonic qualities such as texture and timber. Culture and social context are the essentials that determine or constitute how music is defined, created, performed and valued. According to French musi-cologist /semiotician Jean-Jacques Nattiez:

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the border between music and noise is always culturally defined-which implies that, even within a single society, this border does not always pass through the same place; in short, there is rarely a consensus…By all accounts there is no single or intercultural universal concept defining what music might be, except that it is ‘sound through time’ (Nattiez).”

No matter how it is defined or interpreted, music plays vital role in the lives of people throughout the world. Like all forms of art, its importance and value lies in the fact that is encompasses a holistic experience – physically, mentally, and spiritually.

The Republic of India is the second most populated country in the world and the seventh largest geographical area. A multitude of ethnic groups with distinct cultural traditions, languages, and dialects comprise the South Asia subcontinent and such a factor is reflective in the music. Rabindranath Tagore, profound Indian-Bengali polymath of the late19th/early 20th centuries and credited with having transformed/reshaped Indian literature as well as music, described music as the “purest form of art” that arises from the inner soul and is based on life experiences (Indie-Music). Indian music – an infusion of traditional/classical genres as well as popular, folk, and R& B genres – was and continues to be a vital source cultural expression, religious inspiration, and pure entertainment in the lives of the Indian people. Carnatic and Hindustani music primarily comprise classical/ traditional Indian music. Divinely orientated and mirroring Persian as well as Islamic influences, both genres emphasize instrumentation but is vocal centric. Carnatic is primarily associated with southern India while Hindustani the northern part of the country. Bhavageete, Lavani, Bhangra, Dandiya, Rajasthani, , Kolata, and a host of other forms constitute Indian folk music which unlike the classical forms is dance orientated and usually performed on non-crafted instruments made from readily available material (bamboo, coconut shells, pots, etc.). Rich and diverse, Indian folk music is utilized for special occasions and educational purposes (Courtney).

The trends of modern Indian music include Indi-pop, dance music, and Rock & Metal emblematic of Western influences. Rooted in Indian traditional/classical and folk music, a music genre indicative of Indian music changing with the times is Filmi – popular Indian music specifically written and performed for Indian cinema. Cinema/film industry has become a very conspicuous form of mass entertainment since the inception of the 20th century. The Golden Age of Indian cinema (1940’s-60’s) commenced with India’s independence (Gokulsing). “It is through Film music that Modern Indian music finds its most popular expression” stated acclaimed Hindi, Malayalam, and Bengali composer/playwright/poet – Salil Chowdhury (Chowdhury). Chowdhury was a master multi-instrumentalist and one of India’s most prodigious composers ever. Indian cinema covers a broad/vast spectrum: however, it is often incorrectly associated solely with one element of the film industry – Bollywood. An informal expression used to describe the Hindi-language film industry in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), Bollywood is a linguistic mixture/portmanteau of the words Bombay and the pinnacle city of the American film industry, Hollywood (Corliss). Suffice to say, music/Filmi music is the common thread throughout diverse Indian cinema. Accompanied by plush costumes and scenery, numerous melodramatic plotlines, and extraordinary choreography, Filmi music helps accentuate the rich and lavish nature/context of Indian cinema. The lyrics are beautiful, poetic, and contribute to Filmi music’s appeal throughout the Indian Diaspora and the world at large.

Generally composed by the film’s musical director, Filmi music is performed by playback singers. Film musical directorship reached its pinnacle in the 1940’s due notable music directors such as Pankaj Mullick, Naushad, and S. Rajeswara. In the 50’s and 60’s, the elevation continued with composer such as Shankar Jaikishan, S.D. Burman, Madan Mohan, Roshan, Vasant Desai and a host of others. A greater infusion of Western flavor in Filmi music came about in the 1960’s and 70’s, a key transitional period in Indian film. The duos Nadeem-Shravan and Jatin-Lalit along with R.D. Burman were the progenitors of this infusion followed by Ilaiyaraaja and Raveendran – prominent composers/directors in the 70’s and 80’s. From the 1990’s to the present the major musical innovators include Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, A.R. Rahman, Vishal-Shekhar, Yuvan Shankar Raja, and Harria Jayaraj. A unique and essential element of Indian cinema, playback singers pre-records the songs for the actors/actresses to lip-sync. Playback singers receive wide public admiration and garner fame/popularity equal to actors, directors, and musical directors. In most cases they are classically trained but their repertoire can be versatile (Radhika). Kundan Lal Saigal, Pankaj Mullick, Parul Ghosh, and Geeta Dutta are just a few among a cadre acclaimed singers that have brought notoriety to the profession.

Music serves as a form of individual as well as communal creative expression and mirrors the soul of a person and the multi-faced aspects of a people/culture. Filmi and other diverse genres of Indian music are indicative of this aspect. Chowdhury accurately summarized and prophesied the impact of Indian music when he stated:

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The sources of Indian music are endless and its potentials are without limit. In the past Indian music obtained its inspiration and its ingredients from generations of inherited popular and classical music, as well as from western music. Today, as nations have achieved a much greater degree of closeness and cultural exchange has become so much easier, the opportunity for Indian music to disseminate widely and to expand its vision presents itself (Chowdhury).

As Indian music evolves it will continue to have an indelible and profound influence on its people in the country, throughout the Diaspora and the international community for years to come.


“Carnatic music.” In Encyclopedia Britannica (2007), from Encyclopedia Britannica Online Chowdhury, Salil. “Evolution in Modern Indian Music.” Published in “Sangeetika” magazine, 1st Year Puja Issue (1959). Translated from the Bengali original. Web.

Corliss, Richard. “Horray for Bollywood!” Time Magazine: 1996. Web.

Courtney, David. “Indian Folk Music.” Web.

Gokulsing, Moti K., K. Gokulsing, Wimal Dissanayake (2004), Indian Popular Cinema: A Narrative of Cultural Change, Trentham Books, p. 17.

Indie-Music. Web.

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McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 63–69. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, Translated by Carol Abate. (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987 (1990), 47-48, 55.

Rajamani, Radhika. “Realising a dream.” The Hindu: (2003). Web.

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StudyCorgi. "Filmi: Indian Music Unique Element." November 3, 2021.


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