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India contributed immensely to British culture, requires documentation


By Bhabani Shankar Nayak*
“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
– Bertolt Brecht

These historic lines are prophetically relevant today as we witness the forward march of the right wing in India and United Kingdom. These forces are destroying the multicultural mosaic of our society and all other progressive achievements of the century.
The British colonialism not only siphoned out $45 trillion from the undivided India but also continue to benefit from the contemporary India. Indian diaspora and Indian companies contribute nearly £87 billion pounds to the British economy in 2020. Politically speaking, the anti-colonial struggles for independent India have made enormous contributions for the deepening of democracy and in the making of welfare state in the United Kingdom.
The boiled British food tastes better with Indian spices. Indian contribution to British economy, politics, society, and culture in past and present is well established. From the Crown Jewel, Chicken Tikka Masala to Musical Chutney; the undivided India’s contributions to British economy, culture and society continue to be significant.
The people from the Indian sub-continent have contributed immensely to British music culture. It needs to be documented, and popularised at a time when British masses are misled by conservative politics of narrow nationalism.
The working class ideals are becoming anathema in British politics. The corporate media demonises class politics and undermines working class contributions to culture and music. There is continuous attack on working class culture and heritage. So, it is essential to define class both in economic and cultural terms while articulating the class foundation of British music and Indian working class contributions to its growth and development.
The idea of pure British music was a myth. It was primarily romantic and opposed to mechanistic lifestyle promoted by industrial economy. It was represented in Matthew Arnold’s “Sweetness and Light”. The British folk songs and music halls were the products of working class cultural lives before the ‘Rock and Roll’ music, which took over the industrial and post-industrial Britain. It led to the growth of mass culture, Americanisation, and commercialisation of music with the help of the BBC radio.
The Rock and Roll also created a sense of music community, progressive subcultures, and counter-cultures among youth in Britain. Lonnie Donegan’s magical guitar, and banjo in the Chris Barber Jazz Band led to the growth of the ‘Skiffle craze’, which introduced African and American music culture in Britain.
The Elvis, Bing Crosby and Beatles have transformed the music and entertainment industry in Britain. David Simonelli’s book brings back the focus on the working class foundation of British music. It provides wonderful narratives on the ‘Working Class Heroes: Rock Music and British Society in the 1960s and 1970s’.
The Beatles were influenced by Indian music and exponent of Indian sitar. George Harrison has added sitar to John Lennon’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ (1965) for the first time. He later used north Indian ragas, sitar and tabla in songs like, ‘Love You To’ and ‘Within You Without You’. Jess Beck has simulated India sitar to give a psychedelic feeling to songs like; ‘Heart Full of Soul’ (1965) and ‘Shapes of Things’ (1966). Brian Jones has borrowed the droning effects in the songs like; ‘Paint It Black’ (1966), ‘See My Friends’ (1965) and ‘Fancy’ (1966) from Indian sitar.
The Kinks, the Rolling Stones and other music bands were not only influenced by Indian folk and classical music but also used it creatively to add exotic romantic feelings to their songs. John Lennon’s stunning song, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ reflects Indian religious philosophy as outlined in the Bhagavad Gita (songs of god). The legacies continued in Robin Williamson’s romantic hippie masterpiece like ‘The 5000 Spirits or the ‘Layers of the Onion’ (1967) and ‘The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’ (1968) were also influenced by Indian and African musical traditions.
His albums like ‘In Search of the Lost Chord’ (1968), ‘Om’, and ‘On the Threshold of Dream’ (1969) absorbed by the mystic religious culture and its philosophy in India. Jonathan Bellman’s chapter on “Indian Resonances in the British Invasion, 1965-1968” documents Indian influence on British music in his edited volume on ‘The Exotic in Western Music’.
During this period, Freddie Mercury destroyed the cultural boundaries. He was central in the establishment of the famous British rock band called the ‘Queen’. The band’s most popular song; ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is considered as one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Channi Singh’s ‘Alaap’ (1977), Sheila Chandra (1982)’s ‘Ever So Lonely’, Joi Bangla (1991)’s ‘Desert Storm’, Apache Indian (1993)’s ‘Boom Shack-A-Lak’, Cornershop (1997)’s rendition of Asha Bhosle in ‘Brimful of Asha’ and ‘The Fat Boy’ are some of the classics of English music influenced by Indian musical traditions.
The drum, tabla and bass beats in Talvin Singh (1999)’s ‘OK’ and Nitin Sawhney’s ‘Beyond Skin’ by Outcaste Record (1999) are fine examples of musical journeying of two music traditions together. The Panjabi MC (2002)’s ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’, MIA (2005)’s ‘Arular’, Jay Sean (2009)’s ‘Dawn’, Naughty Boy (2013)’s ‘La La La’, Zayn Malik (2016)’s ‘Pillowtalk’ are some of the pioneering contributions to British music.
Thankfully BBC acknowledges the creative journeying of the Asian sound from Alaap to Zayn and their contribution in shaping the British music. All these musicians and brands paved the way for cultural integration in Britain by breaking social and cultural stereotypes and prejudices.
Their contribution in the making of modern Britain cannot be measured in economic terms. The contemporary Indian musicians from Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, and Bengali music industries continue to collaborate with the British music industry and produced some of the most memorable tunes and songs.
However, the history of undivided India’s impacts on British music goes beyond 19th and 20th century. Sir William Jones’s essay ‘On the Musical Modes of the Hindoos’ has documented the impact of Indian music on British musical traditions during 18th century. ‘The Study of Primitive Music’ by Charles S. Myers has identified the unique influence of south Indian music on British music during early 19th century.
AH Fox Strangways was a leading member of the Folk Song Society, which was founded by Cecil Sharp. His book, ‘The Music of Hindostan’ argued that Indian music deserves more analytical attention from the mainstream English music. ‘Thirty Songs from the Punjab and Kashmir’ by Alice Coomaraswamy and Ananda Coomaraswamy archived the apprenticeship between English musicians under the guidance of Indian music teachers like Abdul Rahim.
The Hindu and Sikh Kirtans (shared musical recitations), the songs of the Bhakti (devotion) movements, Tawaifs (courtesan) and Ustads (Muslim masters) in undivided north India had also significant impact on British music culture. Ernest Clements’s book (1913) attempts to reconcile the different musical traditions in India and England. In this way, the Islamic and Hindu mysticism, liturgies, and Vedic hymns influenced Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp, who were three leading figures of folklore movement in British music.
Music originates in one place especially by people of working-class background with different social, cultural, and religious orientations but it transcends the boundaries of nation states. Therefore, it is limiting to analyse music by taking geographical location as a referent point.
The English and Indian aristocrats undermine the working-class contributions to different fields of everyday life including to the field of music. Like Chicken Tikka Masala, musical Chutney in British music is a product of its interactions with African, Asian, American and Caribbean music traditions.
Free movement of people helps in forging musical and social bonds, but both in UK and India, attempts to destroy all achievements over the years. Transcendental working class and their internationalism is the only alternative for a sustainable future for India and Britain today, if these two countries bother to learn from their own folklore of mystic musical traditions.

*Coventry University, UK

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