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When westerners think Indian art, they immediately look towards AR Rahman, our poster boy with kooky hair, Amitabh Bachchan, the has-been who now sells B-grade toiletries on local TV channels and Aishwarya Rai, our toned down, family-friendly version of Paris Hilton. During the Sixties, according to the West, the Indian art scene comprised Ravi Shankar, men of yoga who got a free pass to Woodstock, half-assed spiritual gurus and any bearded dude who knew how to play the sitar. Forty years later, the misconception continues, only now we are subject to a remixed version of their ignorance.

See folks, we do more than make frighteningly dumb music for NRI discotheques to wax nostalgic over and magically transport our heroes and heroines to Switzerland for elaborate dance sequences. I mean, we still do that a lot but our homegrown artists have many a times been spectacularly original too. Our fixation with American pop culture and Broadway’s song-and-dance routines, as fucked up as it is, is reserved only for the glossiest of the mainstream; and with our media only throwing the spotlight on whatever/whoever is easily marketable, that’s all the rest of the world gets to see and brand as ambassadors of their mediums.

Just so you know, AR Rahman is not our finest musical talent; he can only  touch himself (or the Pussycat Dolls) to that notion while the maestro Ilaiyaraaja keeps creating some of the finest Indian music you could ever possibly hear. Silly primadonnas with Khans as second names are not amongst our most gifted actors; they are stylized puppets who cry on soap commercials, take off their shirts when there is a crowd of more than ten, play 25 year-olds in movies, dance with 22 year-olds in music videos and feed off the puppy love of 12 year-olds in real life – all at the ripe old age of fourty.

People like Raghuvaran, Sarita, Tabu, Cochin Haneefa, Boman Irani, Pratap Pothan, Nanditha Das, Atul Kulkarni, Nagesh, and Naseeruddin Shah are just some of the few who can act circles around the goddam Khans and Rais. And how movie critics like Roger Ebert and Peter Bradshaw are so convinced of their dedication to worldwide cinema when they have never watched a K Balachander or Balu Mahendra film is some sort of a sad mystery to me. I’m sure they have watched Sathyajit Ray’s entire collection but their relevance is outdated considering the wealth of cinema that came thereafter (Is Kurosawa the only Japanese director they speak of? No!).

The worst of all however is reserved for our musical inclinations…the grand misconception that either bhangra or Ustad Amjad’s meditative fiddling represents the average Indian’s sentiment towards what constitutes to good music.

Look, we are at ease with the fact that the West is enamoured by our Third World culture and if it helps us out with getting financial aid, screw it, continue thinking that there are little kids here in cities that need saving from Bengal tigers, King Cobras and erratic castrations. I certainly can’t deny that only a handful of countries are as socially backward in thought as India; however, for fuck’s sake and the sake of every Indian artist who didn’t look towards the West to find his/her muse, do not, for one second, think that our art is as insipid as your opinion of it.

Dappan Koothu is one of those largely ignored forms of South Indian art. Dappan Koothu is a percussion-based form of rural music that has its roots in South Indian folklore. While the more populist Carnatic music genre caters to classicist pop in the sense that it is based on precise rhythmic patterns, Dappan Koothu is more of freestyle jazz; mostly based around the wildfire rhythms of the tharai thappattai (a local drum). So intensely against the rules of a conventional melody, it puts both the musician and the audience in a trance-like state, with its mesmerizing mix of random beats.

In fact, a section of South Indians hires tharai thappattai drummers to play at their funerals; intoxicated, they wreak havoc on their percussion instruments and dance in front of the funeral procession to both signify the joyousness in the life once lived and to provide a memorable passage for the dead to move on.

I’d hoped that MIA’s fantastic Kala and Arular albums would be Dappan Koothu’s climb to prominence, considering that she uses many elements of it in tracks such Bird Flu, Sunshowers, Bucky Done Gun, Fire Fire and a few other gems. Despite collaborating with AR Rahman for that movie’s soundtrack, she is one of the few non-Indians who actually understands Indian art for what it is – diverse. Her track Bamboo Banga even has a brilliant sampling of a classic by India’s greatest musician – Ilaiyaraaja (the wonderful Kattu Kuyilu Manasukkulle track from Thalapathi).

Download

Ilaiyaraaja – Punnagi Mannan Theme

Ilaiyaraaja – Johnny Theme

Ilaiyaraaja – Paartha Vizhi (Guna)

Watch

MIA – Bamboo Banga

Ilaiyaraaja –  Kattu Kuyilu

Dappan Koothu freestylin 1

Dappan Koothu freestylin 2

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Mathangi “Maya” Arul Pragasam, daughter of Lankan-Tamilians Kala and Arular Pragasam, was born in 1977 at a nondescript hospital in Hounslow, London. But with her father motivated big-time by the Tamil militancy movement, her family moved to Sri Lanka and stayed there until the civil war escalated and made living conditions unsafe.

With the conflict getting progressively worse in Lanka and after years of relocating back and forth from Jaffna and Chennai, the Pragasam family finally moved to London for good, despite being “housed as refugees”. As a graduate of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Ms Pragasam nurtured a feverish interest in music and arts.

By 2002, she was an accomplished visual director, photographer, graphic designer, record producer and to a lesser extent, a rebel musician. By early 2005, she took up the alias M.I.A (Missing In Action) as a nod to the house that her dad co-built – the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS). With the Indie music scene burgeoning into the mainstream consciousness along with the file-sharing revolution whipping up a storm online, her first three tracks MIA, Galang and Lady Killa made her a household name in college radios and clubs. Her music was a cocktail of dancehall, electro hip-hop, British IDM and world fusion with lyrics that swayed between a call for militancy and a cry for reformism. MIA’s debut album Arular was made “off her demos with programmed beats” and despite this seemingly amateurish kick-off to her music career, it got her a Mercury Prize nomination, a gig at the Big Day Out festival and a cameo performance on Missy Elliot’s “Bad Man”. More importantly, it won her respect from Indie bands like LCD Soundsystem and The Cool Kids, as well as hip hop stalwarts like Nas and Kanye West.

By 2007, with word going around about her affinity for taking the IDM genre to largely unexplored places, the industry had a close eye on her sophomore album – Kala. Nearly two years later, they are still unable to take their eyes off this maverick. With diverse instrumentation that quite literally blew away her efforts in Arular, Kala was a collage of sounds with its soul neatly tucked away beneath varied conversations on terrorism and immigration politics. Songs such as “Bird Flu”, “Boyz” and “Jimmy” made it past censorship controversies and into the coffeehouse discussions of critics and fans alike.

On a personal note, I couldn’t stand “Boyz”…in fact, I hated it the first time I heard it in 2006. But after repeated listening, I discovered that it wasn’t the sound that I could not stand, but rather the tempo and joviality that it instantly seems to conjure up. Two years later, with most of my Bahaus and Birthday Party tracks deleted from the Recycle Bin, I have discovered the novelty of being moved to the dancefloor without too much provocation. Paying homage to Tamil Nadu’s Dappan Koothu style, it starts off like Kollywood music composer Deva’s wet dream; incorporating the talents of Urumee drummers from Chennai and Soca instrumentalists from Trinidad. About a minute into the song, she spits, “Hey now, let me go, hey know,” as the chorus kicks in…and now I am pretty dam sure. M.I.A. fucking rocks.

Download

M.I.A. – Boyz

Buy

M.I.A’s Kala

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