Rock to Raga: The Many Lives of the
What roles does the guitar play, and what meanings does it convey in India? 1 These are not easy questions to answer, because the instrument has spread into many different musical genres, in various geographical regions of the subcontinent. This chapter is nonetheless an attempt, in response to those questions, to sketch out the main features of guitar culture in India. I see it as a kind of snapshot: partial, blurred and lacking fine definition perhaps, but offering a perspective that more focused and tightly framed studies could not.
My account is based on a few weeks’ travel in India, 2 concentrating on the main metropolitan cities of Chennai, Mumbai, Calcutta and Delhi - although it also draws on the reports of many inhabitants of these cities who have migrated from other regions, particularly those rich in guitar culture such as Goa and the north-eastern states. In other respects it draws on as balanced a sample of accounts as could be achieved in a short time: those of players from professional virtuosi to rank amateurs, of repertoires from Indian classical to rock and jazz, as well as those of makers, retailers and repairers. Finally, this account draws on many years studying the music of India - albeit most of those years studiously ignoring the very genres to which, in the winter of 1998–99,1 turned my attention.
What I knew of the Indian guitar before my research began included Brij Bhushan Kabra's excellent recordings of North Indian classical music on slide guitar, the first of which date from the 1960s 3 and those of his successors including Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who had recently made an international name for himself by recording a well-received album with Ry Cooder. (That album, A Meeting by the River,4 had won the pair a Grammy Award in 1994, a fact of which I was reminded in India on many occasions.) I also knew that the guitar was one of many instruments used in Indian film music, where the Hawaiian style of playing had once been prominent, and that imported recordings of guitar-based rock music are easily found in metropolitan record shops.