The similarities of South Asian and SWANA (South West Asian and North African*) culture manifest themselves in a number of ways, including art, architecture, language and cultural rituals. There are a number of reasons for this, including geographical proximity, political relationship, migration and religion. The one fascinating cultural phenomenon is the tendency of contemporary Hindi songs to include Arabic music and/or language in them.
Hindi songs, overwhelmingly found in Bollywood movies, often include Urdu lyrics, a language heavily influenced by Arabic. The similarities of language, therefore, already imply a relationship between the regions and connote a borrowing that has existed since the 13th century, maybe even before. The spread of Islam, too, has allowed for a blending of the religious rituals of either region. The use of terms like “MashAllah,” “SubhanAllah” and “InshAllah” in Bollywood music brings Islam to the forefront of contemporary Hindi pop culture, a phenomenon that makes my Indian (but very traditionally religious, bless her heart) mother uncomfortable. In addition to pop cultural appreciation, shared religion became a constant in the purpose for making music, as seen in Qawwalis.
I will admit, as a Muslim South Asian, my own culture is hard to define. I can’t really say what “Muslim” culture is because Islam is a religion followed by ethnically varied people, but many of its rituals are derived from SWANA, where it originated. This dimension of my culture seeps its way into my life in Eid and at the masjid like my Indian culture does at weddings and in food (always adding mirch). But in Bollywood and Hindi music, I heard songs with Arabic tunes I recognized from nasheeds or terms I would only hear at the masjid, and that, to me, was an interesting blend of two dimensions of whatever culture I grew up with. While I hate the word fusion, there is really no better way to describe this odd pattern in Bollywood/Hindi music — but not always as a process of fair give-and-take. Keep in mind that Hindi is the only South Asian language I speak, so there might be music in other South Asian languages that also tend to do this. Here’s a list of some tunes and an attempt at examining their contexts:
“Tauba Tauba” from Kailash Kher
This one uses lyrics alluding to Indian folk music and the devotion to a loved One found in Sufi music, but follows a more contemporary beat and melody. Kailash Kher’s voice, deep with years of traditional training, is an odd match to the pop of this song, but it works. It’s the song to listen to when applying eyeshadow to go to the masjid.
Kailash Kher creates a lot of music influenced by Indian folk and qawwalis, a genre of music typically saturated with spirituality connected to Islam. Qawwalis originated in South Asia in the 13th century, when Sufi masters used Turkish, Persian, Arabic and Indian musical traditions to create a music form purely used to express one’s dedication to Allah. Variations of Sufi music can be found throughout SWANA too.
More examples of qawwalis:
“Khwaja Mere Khwaja” from Jodha Akbar
Jodhaa Akbar was a film following the marriage of Muslim Emperor Akbar of the Mughal Empire to Jodhabai, a Hindu princess. A. R. Rahman gives the vocals to this qawwali, which, in the film, is then performed in Akbar’s court. “Khwaja” is a word that was used to describe a Sufi teacher/master in South Asia, Central Asia and parts of SWANA. This song does, indeed, sound like a prayer, melody constant and lyrics reverential, but it’s the harmony of all the vocals that sounds holy.
“Kun Faya Kun” from Rockstar
The song above receives its name from a verse in the Qur’an, 2:117. The phrase itself means, in Arabic, “Be! And it is” symbolizing Allah’s power to will something into creation just by stating, “Be!” Another qawwali dedicated to the power of Allah, it is also found in a Bollywood movie, but one with a more contemporary relevance than Jodhaa Akbar. The mainstreaming of qawwalis in movies like Rockstar invites the genre into pop culture, opening a portal for more SWANA influences to appear in Bollywood or Hindi music. It also does away with the rigid traditionality of the qawwali. A. R. Rahman, again, composes another song revering Allah from the perspective of a man who “had nothing, nowhere else” to turn to.
“Mar Jawan” from Fashion
Some Arabic at the beginning of the song, no other appearance of it again, but this decision is actually more interesting that it seems. Fashion is a movie whose themes are urbanity and the degradations of the fashion industry in India — themes that have almost nothing to do with those found in qawwalis. Thus, maybe the Arabic is random, maybe unnecessary, but it depicts how Arabic and strands of Arabic music can find themselves in even the most contemporary and urban Bollywood songs.
“Mashallah” from Ek Tha Tiger
This song, though, is painful to watch. So much so, in fact, that if it has any artistic merit, I wouldn’t know because of how much I was cringing while watching it. Just because we’re brown and have similarities with the culture we’re trying to portray doesn’t mean we get off the hook for totally parodying Arab and other SWANA cultures. In this video, for example, Katrina Kaif’s belly dancing moves and crowd of white backup dancers in some random desert-town that is supposed to allude “aRaBiA” (I suppose) is completely offensive. It’s a caricature of what people think of when they think of the “Middle East.”
Videos like “Mashallah” should warrant the kind of outrage we have when North Indian actresses play South Indian characters, or when white people play Indian characters in Indian movies (like Amy Jackson in Ek Tha Deewana). Bollywood doesn’t always do a good job of celebrating the cultural relationships between the two regions without echoing the ways Western film and media parodies SWANA cultures. I do understand that the power dynamic is different, that the role of Western cultures in global colonization and overall subjugation of South Asia and SWANA has made their appropriating of our cultures more painful — but we merely copy them in videos like “Mashallah.” There is a difference between appropriation and collaboration.
It is hard to define the problematic songs because, the truth is, there exists a genuine relationship between the cultures of the two regions. South Asians and citizens of SWANA do have an interest in and a sharing/borrowing of each others’ cultures for centuries, but how do we balance sharing as a give-and-take act of respect while avoiding the exotification of each others’ cultures?
“Zariya” by A.R. Rahman
In the song above, however, there is Arabic because Farah Siraj, a Jordanian singer, is actually featured on the track. The inclusion of her in this song, a sharing of her words and voice — her language — works well in A. R. Rahman’s “Zariya.” This song flickers, from different languages, to tempos, to feels — like a multicultural rhapsody.
“Bure Bure (Boro Boro)” from Bluffmaster
A mix with Iranian-Swedish singer Arash, whose original (Boro Boro) also has “Bollywood” elements in its video. This song will never. Stop. Being. Amazing. It’s such a great party song from before all of Bollywood’s party songs became the same thing over and over again.
“Suraj Hua Madham” from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham
Then, there are instances where the relationship between South Asian music and SWANA also extends to background choice in Bollywood songs. This song, so typically Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, was shot in Egypt. Granted, songs like this have also been shot in various parts of Europe (like this one from Dilwale, a movie that almost ruined our fave jodi), but the motif of sand and sand dunes in particular in music videos shot in various parts of SWANA include Bollywood actors passionately waving their arms about while their billowing outfits ruffle about in the wind. That image has practically become an institution in itself, constantly replaying itself over and over again:
“Jiya” from Gunday
“Satrangi Re” from Dil Se
“Bandagi” from Drona
Sometimes, the Arabic alludes to Islam rather than SWANA cultures, particularly in movies with Muslim characters or tackling issues faced by Muslim communities:
“Shukran Allah” from Kurbaan
“Allah Hi Reham” from My Name is Khan
While the relationship between South Asia and SWANA countries has existed for centuries and remains evident even today, the influence of the region in Hindi pop culture, Bollywood in particular, depicts an involvement of SWANA cultures in the mainstream media of South Asia. But, when examining the “Arabization” of Hindi and/or Bollywood songs, their contexts must also be examined. Bollywood and Hindi music can also echo orientalist ideas of SWANA and Arabic-speaking cultures that we easily accuse Western entertainment of doing to our own music — and part of that irony is that Bollywood does sometimes does emulate Western pop culture. That being said, there are real similarities between SWANA and South Asian cultures, and a big way they come through is in music. The spread of Sufi music, and the sharing of Islam, too, contributes to those parallels. Parallels that exist as a conversation between the two regions.
* “Middle East” has colonial and orientalist connotations so we try and steer away from that term