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
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.
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.
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
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.
(additional notes by S R Ramakrishna)
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