Saturday, September 13, 2014


I have always idly entertained the implausible theory that Cypriots have some manner of connection with the subcontinent. I base this absurd hypothesis on the generally darker hue of the Cypriot skin and the undulating lilting tone of their accent, which reminds on of spoken Gujarati. Yet I believe I have of late, discovered the final, incontrovertible piece of evidence that backs my claim for evermore. Watching the 1975 Indian film classic 'Sholay,' recently, I stumbled upon a music/dance number entitled "Mehbooba," supposedly composed by the great Rahul Dev Burman. With only minute adaptations, this song basically is identical to the Cypriot folk song: «Τα ριάλια,» the only difference being that while Mehbooba talks of roses blooming in the desert, «Τα ριάλια is a love song whose chorus mysteriously fixates upon the search for riyals (a Middle Eastern form of currency) deposited in the bank by a malcontent. Given that Sholay is both a love story and a story about robbers, the two sets of lyrics are not as disparate as they may first appear.
The successful reception of a Cypriot song within the complex constructions of the Indian musical tradition raises the question as to whether other songs of this nature have been subsumed this most prolific of Indian industries. While the wading through the multitude of songs composed in India every year is a weighty task, rather than demand damages for breach of the copyright held for «Τα ριάλια,»and other possible musical borrowings, it is worthwhile to consider that the Greek purloining of Indian songs has deep roots and in fact, has had a significant effect on the development of Greek popular music.
The modern connection between Greece and Indian music surprisingly lies through 1930's Australia, when an Australian of Greek and Scottish origin became one of the biggest stars of Indian cinema. Fearless Nadia Hunterwali, resplendent in in a mask and hat and with whip in hand, became one of India's most successful female actors and stuntwomen.
Early bondage footage notwithstanding, it was the bleak economic condition of Greece in the early 1950s that facilitated the influence of Indian music via film in the country. Post-war Greece had been devastated by the occupation and civil war. An atmosphere of depression and mourning prevailed as people tried to rebuild their lives. Social dislocation as people fled the countryside for cities or foreign lands, often living in unhealthy and oppressive circumstances, caused a climate of desperation in which Indian movies made an indelible impression.
The plots of the overly emotive Indian films resonated with the wounded Greek psyche. Suffering women, street children who had to drop out of school, jealous sisters-in-law, vengeful mothers-in-law, interdependencies, betrayals, and frequent unhappy ends were all circumstances one could easily identify with. Maidservants and factory workers saw themselves depicted on the movie screen, hoping for deliverance via a transcendence of class and other barriers via marriage to a rich young man they worked for.
The exoticism and exuberance of Indian film sets and costumes was matched by the musical score underlying them. Actresses such as Madhublala have featured in songs by no less a personage as Kazantzidis, while such is the enduring presence of Mangala (from the Angelopoulos hit: "Mangala, the daughter of the maharaja" borrowed from the song "Gao tarane man ke") in the Greek psyche that she even features in a recent Indian-themed childrens' song performed by the bizarrely named 'Mazoo and the Zoo."
Indian film tunes pervade Greek music of the fifties and sixties. Kazantizidis classic «Καρδιά μου καημένη,» is directly derived from "Dunia me ham aaye" from the film Mother India, whereas the equally classic «Αυτή η νύχτα μένει» is taken from "Ulfat ka saaz chhedo" from the 1953 hit movie "Aurat". Angelopoulos' famous song «΄Οσο αξίζεις εσύ is also an Indian adaptation, from the song "Duniawalon se duur," featured in the movie Ujaala. Similarly, Petros Anagnostakis song «Κάποιο τρένο» is adapted from the Indian "Pyar hua ikrar hua." Voula Pala and Apostolos Kaldaras were also prominent exponents of the art of Indian adaptation.
Apart from their emphasis of the soulful themes of the films, the songs were popular with the Greek people because they were rendered in an oriental style that was popular with Asia Minor refugees and with residents of remote villages, where older musical traditions were remembered. Original Greek songs with Indian motifs began to be created. In order to hellenize the music, composers often speeded them up, simplified sections where they could not reproduce the trained voices of the Indians, and changed instruments, using the bouzouki.
Not all Greek musicians appreciated this craze. In his autobiography, the great Vasilis Tsitsanis, had this to say about the exploitation of Indian music:
"Indian rule (Ινδοκρατία) started to prevail in the field of popular music in the first few years of the 1950s. Those irresponsible so-called composers, without a trace of shame, took music from Indian records and, after changing the lyrics into Greek, presented them to the public as their own creations and genuine Greek songs. An unprecedented wave of Indian songs swept over our country.
'Everything we [rembetika and popular music] composers had created with sweat and blood was swept away by Indian rule. And yet nobody ever spoke out against these criminals. nobody denounced them so that the entire world could learn who, in cold blood, had killed genuine popular music.
'One of these criminals would go with his tape recorder to cinemas playing Indian films and record the tunes. After, he would write new lyrics, make the record and have a big hit. And when I say "hit", I'm talking at least 100,000 records. With each record they put out, they were able to buy themselves a new flat.'
It remains that while Tsitsanis was steadfastly opposed to Indian music, he was not above orientalising his compositions, often using Arabic rather than Indian themes. Yet it is a testament to the popularity and pervasiveness of Indian music during his time, that it entered one of his most renowned songs: «ΖΑΪΡΑ.» While the chorus is a pastiche of Turkish and Arabic words, the song concerns a young lady who apparently is about to be abducted from the embrace of a who else, Indian maharaja.
The craze for Indian music was not restricted to Greece alone. During the period of Greek mass migration to Australia, Melbourne Greek community stalwart Peter Yiannoudes imported films from Greece for the emerging Greek including Indian films, mainly Bollywood features which played to packed houses of mainly Greek migrants, further popularizing Indian based Greek music.
Ultimately, as the bourgeoisification of Greek society became more marked and the economic and social standing of Greek people improved so that they adopted 'European' aspirations, Indian inspired music was considered quaint and retrograde, an embarrassing interregnum in the development of 'proper' Greek music and quietly fell out of fashion. Given the enduring popularity of many of the Greek artists who dabbled in Greek-Indian fusion however, it appears that this cross-cultural, hybrid genre will be played and enjoyed by the Greek people for decades to come, as will its modern day antecedents, if the unprecedented popularity of deep dark and mysterious Greek chanteuse Despina Vandi's «Ανάβεις Φωτιές,» among the inhabitants of Udaipur, is anything to go by.
First published in NKEE on 13 September 2014