by David Courtney, Ph.D.

India has a very rich and varied tradition of folk music. The extreme diversity in rural culture spawns endless varieties of folk styles. Each region has its own particular approach and repertoire.

There is a tendency to lump folk music along with tribal music, but strictly speaking this is not correct. Where folk music is a rustic reflection of Indian society at large, tribal music often reflects cultures that are very different. Some of these tribal cultures are throwbacks to society as it was thousands of years ago.

Folk and tribal music is not taught in the same way that Indian classical music is taught. There are no formal periods of apprenticeship where the student is able to devote their entire time to learning music; the economic realities of rural life do not permit this. Folk musicians must still attend to their normal duties of farming, hunting, or whatever their chosen occupation is.

Folk music is learned almost as if by osmosis. From childhood, the music is heard and imbibed as a simple matter of life.

There are many public activities that allow the villagers to practice their musical skills. Folk music is an indispensable part of functions such as weddings, births and engagements. There is a vast body of songs for each occasion. There are also songs associated with harvesting and planting. In these activities, the villagers routinely sing of their fears, hopes and aspirations.

Folk music is also used for education. For example, sex education has traditionally been taught in Andhra Pradesh by song. There is a ceremony when a girl has her first period. In this function, the elderly women in the village gather at the house (men are excluded), the girl is given her first langa and woni (the half sari which is worn by unmarried women), rich food and other presents. At this time, the women sing songs that are extremely bawdy. To an outsider, this would seem out of character for obviously respectable community members. However, the purpose of such songs is to provide the girl's first instructions on her emerging womanhood and what her future duties as a wife will be.


The musical instruments that folk musicians use are often different from those found in classical music. Although common instruments like the tabla may sometimes be used, it is more likely that cruder drums such as dholak, daf, or nal will be used. The sitar and sarod, which are so common in the classical music, are absent in the folk genres. One often finds instruments such as the dotar, ektar, saringda, rabab and santur. Many times they will not be called these names, but may be named according to their local language. There are also instruments which are used only in particular folk styles in particular regions. These musical instruments are innumerable.

The folk musical instruments are usually not as refined as those of the classical musicians. The instruments used by classical musicians are crafted by artisans whose only job is the manufacture of musical instruments. In contrast, the folk instruments are commonly made by the musicians themselves.

It is very common to find folk instruments that have been made of commonly available materials. Skin, bamboo, peritoneum, coconut shells and pots are but a few commonly available materials used to make these instruments.


by David Courtney, Ph.D.

The popular music of India is the commercial music of the subcontinent. Up until a few years ago, this music was entirely dominated by the film music, also known as 'filmi sangeet'. However, over the past two decades alternative distribution channels have opened up on satellite and radio. Still, the film music is the major representative of popular music and will consume the major portion of this discussion.

There may be doubts concerning the artistic quality of the film song but there is no questioning its mass appeal. It is heard from every loudspeaker in India, any time there is a marriage, birth or aother function. Its greatest appeal is to the youth and lower classes.


The birth of the Indian film song may be traced to India's first sound motion picture in 1931. This film, "Alam Ara" heralded a new era in Indian motion pictures and, at the same time it created the framework for a new musical genre.

In the 1930s, there were three major film centres. These were based in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay. Of these centres, Bombay was known for the films geared for national distribution, while Madras and Calcutta made regional films.

The early years of the film industry were very fruitful. From 1931 to 1940, India produced 931 Hindi feature films with an average of 10 songs per film. The number of regional films made in Madras and Calcutta, were much lower, but the orientation towards music was similar.

A number of major artists emerged in this period. Music directors such as Keshavrao Bhole, Pankaj Mullick and Anil Biswas are a few who spring to mind. It is interesting to note that this early period did not favor "Playback" singers. Many of the original actors and actresses performed their own songs. It was normal for actors to be chosen specifically for their singing abilities; Baburao Pendharkar and Bal Gandharva were two examples.

The 1940s and 1950s saw the business shift away from the big motion picture studios to the indipendent producers. Although this opened the doors to many new music directors and musicians, the influence on the whole was not positive. The distribution networks began to rely heavily on the "formulas" (i.e., "x" number of big name actors, "y" numbers of songs and "z" number of dances etc.). These formula films are known in Hindi as "masaala films". These formulas were determined by commercial and not artistic considerations. The music too was constructed by formula. From that time on, formula music became the norm. The number and variety of the film songs were solidly locked into place. The artistic results of making music by formula rather than artistic inspiration is obvious.

This period is also significant for the development of the "playback" singer. Where, the earlier artists acted and sang, the movies of this period introduced the custom of having actors who did not sing their own songs but instead had others sing for them; these are the playback singers.

Many notable artists are from this period. Most notable of the playback singers are Hemant Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Geeta Dutt and Asha Bhosle. Major music directors from this period were Naushad, S.D. Burman, C. Ramachandra, Salil Choudhary, Shankar Jaikishen and Madan Mohan.

The 1960s and 1970s represented a time of relative stability. It is true that there were improvements in the recording quality. It is also true that a few artists would come and go. But, for the most part, the playback singers such as Lata, Asha, Hemant and others of the previuos decades had positioned themselves into such a secure place that there was very little room for others to enter.

However, there were a few new music directors to make it big. Kalyanji Anandji, Lakshmikant Pyarelal and R.D. Burman are a few who would make their way into the business in a big way during this period.


The film industry was again shaken in the 1980s and 1990s. Many new developments would both adversely affect traditional businesses, yet present new opportunities for others.

The television has had a tremendous effect on popular music. In the 1970s, the Indian government began to introduce the TV throughout India. Unlike most countries, Indian TV (known as "Doordarshan"), was owned by the Government. The widespread introduction of TV was originally for "educational purposes" (i.e., propaganda) and was not very inspiring. The original music programming was not a commercial threat to the Indian film industry. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, under political and economic pressure, the government-run television began to open up to private productions. Such independent productions proved to be very popular and began to adversely affect cinema attendance. It also gave the music producers an alternative outlet for their musical productions.

Other factors affecting Indian film songs were the problems within the Bombay film world. For many decades, Bombay monopolized the Hindi film industry and, therefore, controlled the majority of India's film music. However, increased cost of production, rising trade unionism and organized extortion rackets working under the ruling Shiv Sena party decimated this industry. (Although, Shi Sena Party is not longer in power, the effects of racketeering still remain). Today, a large number of Hindi film songs are being produced in Madras, where the conditions are more favorable. This shift has given a major boost to Madras-based music directors such as A.R. Rahman and playback singers such as S.P. Balasubrahmanyam.

The introduction of the VCR and the satellite/cable networks has also affected the film industry. Unlike the TV, the satellite/cable networks are all private sector undertakings. Curiously enough, the introduction of the satellite has had the effect of internationalising both the production and consumption of film style music.

There are other factory to impact the industry. Over-production of cinema houses in the 1970s and 1980s, coupled with ever-increasing entertainment taxes have made it difficult for many theatre owners to survive. This has shaken the distribution networks.

The result is that the nature of popular music is not as well defined as it once was. It is no longer confined to the film industry. The creation of alternative media, along with the decimation of the traditional Indian film industry has produced an interesting business and artistic environment.


It is impossible to make any statement about the technical aspects of current Indian film music or any of the other popular genres. Traditional and classical elements may be found, yet, it is more likely to be dominated by Western jazz, disco, rap or whatever styles that may be in vogue. It is common to mix all of the various elements together, as well.