Indian music is as varied as India itself, each region boasting its own form. The earliest musical forms served mostly religious and spiritual purposes by exalting a chosen deity. In fact, Indian music probably remained mostly devotional until the rise of cinema.
As someone who learned Carnatic vocal music for many years, the evolution of Indian music is something of particular interest to me. I think it’s fair to say that, in all likelihood, the prevailing musical style prior to the Mughal invasions was probably fairly homogeneous across the subcontinent, probably most resembling present-day Carnatic music. With the invasions came the melding of cultures and the genesis of Hindustani music. The British empire brought violins and harmoniums into the mix.
The last few decades have seen the unyielding march of Westernization into Indian music, with many straying away from more classical forms in favor of heavily Westernized music that seems to define Bollywood nowadays. Now I love Western music, though I have my issues with it as well. Most of it is absolute nonsense and an embarrassment, especially the ones that incorporate sad attempts at English lyrics (I can’t help but listen to “Pretty Woman” and cringe). Some songs, though, are good. These tend to be from films that are themselves critically acclaimed but do poorly at the box office. The majority of them, however, are terrible. Keep Indian music, well, Indian (or as Indian as possible). I’m glad to see there have been very successful attempts to fuse the best of both Indian and Western music.
While bhangra is probably the most obvious example, there have been other areas where Indian music and Western music have struck a healthy balance. I love Sufi music, and Kailash Kher has married that perfectly with Western instrumentation. He recently did an interview with NPR, where he and the rest of his band Kailasa, performed some of the songs off their new album “Yatra.” I strongly encourage you to listen to it. Hariharan, too, has mostly done well blending ghazals with Western instruments to create a new sound.
Another group with perhaps even more of a rustic sound are the musicians that produce music through Morchang Studios. They produce some of the best music I have heard in a while. Granted, my musical tastes (as far as Indian music goes) tends to err more on the conservative side, I’m not sure there’s anyone who can deny that this song, for example, is rendered extremely well by the vocalist (Munshi Khan) and the supporting instrumentalists. The use of the guitar and mandolin further help to set the mood of the song. It also showcases the beauty of classical Indian music, and keeps it alive.
There is beauty in modernization, and applying Western principles, but sometimes blending verges more on destruction of the native art form. Bollywood is a walking example of desecration of Indian music by foolhardy attempts to meld it with Western music, resulting in music that can only be termed as an abomination. It is imperative that classical music is preserved in its pure form (both Carnatic and Hindustani), but change can be good if done right.