Navigating Music

Cultural appropriation is a really popular phrase to use these days. It serves as a common criticism of individuals who adopt aspects of a different culture in a somewhat disrespectful way, without understanding their underlying rich histories and contexts. The term seems to be ever-present in pop culture, with many questioning the “exoticizing” of Indian culture as it serves as the backdrop for American pop stars in odd, mismatched ways.



Given the context that I usually associate this term with, it was odd to me that one day I wondered if I too was participating in a form of cultural appropriation. To backtrack a little bit, I am an Indian-American kid. I was born in Chennai, but I’ve lived in America my whole life. My parents immigrated to this country in their 30’s, and they embraced American culture but still retained aspects of the culture they knew, by enrolling us in Sunday school, Indian (Carnatic) music and dance classes. As I spent more time singing, I started going to competitions all over the US, and realized that there was an entire community of Indian- American kids like me who dedicated their time to this traditional art form.

It’s nice to watch the parents- so proud and smiling so hard that their faces could crack. “We succeeded,” their faces say. “We got our kids to appreciate our culture and its values, and even with everything else, SAT classes, band practice, volleyball, and the millions of other activities we’ve signed them up for, they still practice everyday and keep the tradition alive.” It’s honestly a beautiful thing.


But when I talk to my cousins and other kids from India, they’re confused.  “Why do you guys do that? I mean some of our parents are into that stuff, but hardly any kids actually go into it, unless their parents are musicians.” Another friend had an even more thought provoking reaction. “I think your parents are stuck in time,” he said. “They brought back this music that they thought was a way of promoting Indian culture, but the truth is India has changed. Sure, people are still into this stuff but it’s in no way a representation of popular music in India.” My cousins made me feel especially enthusiastic when they candidly pointed out, “It’s not really considered a ‘cool’ thing to do here.”


I was initially thrown off by these comments, but I soon likened it to Western classical music here. It’s a subgenre, not necessarily mainstream- but there is a substantial audience for it.


But what I couldn’t understand was why my friends and cousins in India were so amused. Then I thought about it this way. Imagine if an Indian student came to America and said, I play western classical violin, and participate in competitions, and compose music, and I’m obsessed with Bach. This is what I do to learn more about and get in touch with American culture!


So it wasn’t strange to them that I was singing Carnatic music. It was strange to them that Carnatic music was largely forming my Indian identity, in many ways making me feel culturally competent.


What’s interesting to me, though, is that cultural confusion goes both ways, even within the Carnatic music community in Chennai. On one hand, musicians praise American kids for working so hard, and continuing this art even though they are so far removed from it. They spend a lot of time teaching kids over Skype, and even invite them to India to perform. On the other hand, local up-and-coming musicians don’t necessarily always see it the same way. To some of them, these American kids are just participating in a drive-by: flying in, performing, and leaving, but at the same time taking away valuable time from local teachers and booking primetime concert slots at the expense of local talent.  


There is validity to these arguments- and I do feel uncomfortable infringing on a cultural space that isn’t completely mine. But at the same time I watch my Indian-American peers work incredibly hard to pursue this art form, sacrificing time to perfect the words to a 100-year old composition, or making sure that they don’t lose the integrity of the ragas (scales) that they are improvising in, and can’t help but feel impressed by their dedication to carving out a space for themselves in this field.


At the end of the day I think that as a student of Carnatic music in the US, I need to be careful about the way I approach the art. I personally hope to spend more time understanding the history, language, and context of the pieces I perform. I want to strive towards finding my voice as a musician, while never forgetting to respect the tradition.


As children of immigrants we’re always going to wonder if the Indian cultural identity is truly ours.  But even amidst this confusion, I hope we can take pride in the sincerity of our efforts.