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Manuel brings liberal humanist sympathies to his study. He is unimpressed by the spread of the multinational music business in India, and estimates that sales of international titles constitute only 5 per cent of the total music sold in India

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 Book review

How Rasiya turned lascivious  

Cassette Culture
Popular Culture and Technology in North India
Oxford University Press, New Delhi

2001 edition (first published 1993)

Cassette Culture  takes a sharp, definitive look at the changes cassettes have wrought on the north Indian music scene. Peter Manuel's style is lively and totally jargon-free

From the business point of view, the audio cassette is just a medium, and captains of industry often lament that India hasn't grown up to the CD yet. From the cultural perspective, the cassette is so much more: it has wrought unprecedented changes on India's musical landscape, challenged and displaced monopolies and oligopolies of the music trade, and helped the evolution of new forms of musical expression.

Peter Manuel is a meticulous, distinguished scholar who looks at what he calls the cassette culture of north India. In this brilliant book, he looks at many sides of the phenomenon, and comes up with observations that are sensitive, insightful and politically acute.

As the blurb on the jacket puts it, "a new mass medium -- the portable cassette player -- caused a major transformation in popular culture in India".

The humble cassette quietly replaced the gramophone record and made recorded music affordable to millions more. The virtual monopoly of a single multinational LP manufacturer gave way to "a free-for-all among hundreds of local cassette producers" and resulted in a "revolution in the quantity, quality and variety of Indian popular music and its patterns of dissemination and consumption".

Manuel shows how the medium (cheaper than the gramophone record it replaced, and also the CD that came after it) helped the spread of feminist ideas in the villages of north India. But lest we prematurely celebrate the democratisation of the music industry and the glories of the medium, he points out how cassettes in the early '90s gave wide circulation to the instigatory voices that fuelled the Ayodhya dispute and led to largescale violence.

Cassette technology has changed the history of Indian music in such a big way that it richly deserves sociological attention. Manuel traces its history from the late 1970s, when cassette players started becoming popular in India, to the mid-'90s when MTV aesthetics began influencing Indian popular music.

Manuel's in-depth study covers a wide spectrum of subjects, from action-oriented films ("which often featured liberated, leather-clad Amazons who are as realistic in the Indian context as Santa Claus") to the modern ghazal (and what invites the "purist's scorn"). His understanding of Indian cultural issues thoroughly researched and invite instant acknowledgment, as when he talks of why Pankaj Udhas and Anup Jalota come across as overtly populist and commercialised when compared to Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali, who bring improvisational finesse to their rendering of Urdu poetry. He also analyses poetry in languages like Braj, and shows how commercialisation is affecting them. His translations capture the subtelty of the songs and the transformations they go through, and his English renderings and the prose explanations that accompany them are a delight.

Manuel is professor of music at John Jay College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and brings to his work liberal humanist sympathies. He is unimpressed by the spread of the multinational music business in India, and estimates that sales of international titles constitute only 5 per cent of the total music sold in India. What does impress him is the grassroots power that cassettes have brought to musicians and song writers. He writes of at least one subversive song writer from a small town who managed to set up and run a successful cassette business.

Manuel has also written a book on Caribbean music, and Cassette Culture is the first scholarly account of popular pusic in India. The documentary and analytical depth of Cassette Culture is breathtakingly impressive. Manuel writes in a lively, jargon-free style, and presumes no previous knowledge of sociology or music on the part of the reader.

Issues like piracy and version recordings also exercise his scholarly attention. Talking about the use of songs and cassettes in political and religious propaganda, Manuel overwhelms the reader with facts that speak for themselves. Many secrets of recording companies and what they did to survive hard times come out in a quiet and hardly sensational way.

Manuel includes a case study of rasiya, originally just a reference to a playfully seductive Krishna, which has with the advent of cassette culture become a word to describe a music genre of a lascivious nature. Manuel says rasiya's development illustrates how technology can alter cultural perspectives at a popular level.

The book is a useful resource for those interested in public communication and popular culture, and also for lay readers interested in understanding the cassette world.

Gayatri Kumaraswamy
(additional notes by S R Ramakrishna)

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