In the classical music tradition in both North and South India, primary importance is given to spontaneous creativity. The outline and grammar of a raga exists, but it is expanded and embellished by the musician. There is a profusion of compositions and a musician is expected to master several in each raga. Many compositions are of unknown provenance as they have existed for hundreds of years and passed down orally. Practically speaking, all practising musicians add to the wealth of available compositions by adding their own creations. Of course, none of these is ever copyrighted.
Folk songs, too, have existed since living memory and passed down generations. None of these has ever been copyrighted. However, with an increasing number of films being churned out in Hindi as well as regional languages, things have changed. Since every film has background music as well as several songs, lifting tunes from the classical and folk repertoire and using these without due credit has become common. A recent Hindi film, ‘Jug Jug Jiyo’, featured the song ‘Rang Sari Gulabi’. Its composers were listed as Kanishk Seth and Kavita Seth, whereas the thumri actually predates us all and was immortalised by the great Shobha Gurtu. But again, due to its antiquity, no one really knows who the original composer was.
Appropriating tunes is nothing new. In the 1949 film ‘Barsaat’, popular folk tune ‘Hawa mein udta jaye, mera laal dupatta’ was used by Shankar-Jaikishen, the duo claiming to be its composer.
Ismail Darbar, music director of ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’, used in the film ‘Nimboda nimboda’, a well-known composition of the folk singing Manganiars of Rajasthan, but never claimed the tune to be his. The song has been sung in different ways by exponents from several families.
The recent piece of music to be caught in the crosshairs is by music director AR Rahman. He used the main body of the Dagar Bandhu’s ‘Shiva Shiva Shiva’ in Raga Adana in his recent blockbuster ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’, as ‘Veera Raja Veera’ (‘Yodha yudh pe chale hain’ in Hindi). The Dagar composition has been in the public domain for decades and has been variously sung over the years by the Dagars, their disciples the Gundecha brothers, and others.
Rahman did not give due credit, far less seek permission or share royalties until challenged by Dagar Bandhu’s nephew, Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar. Belatedly, a line — “the composition is based on a Dargarvani tradition dhrupad” — was added to the video of the song; the name Dagarvani wrongly spelt. In the absence of copyright, Wasifuddin’s legal position against the music director is weak. While some singers of the same composition feel the film has brought visibility, it does not help the issue of giving credit where it is due.
The issue of copyright in the world of Carnatic classical music, too, echoes this perspective. Of course, traditional compositions, especially by the trinity of Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri, are all too well-known for anyone to ever attempt to ‘lift’ a line. More modern compositions exist, but as Padma Bhushan awardee Sudha Raghunathan, who is also the president of the South Indian Music Companies Association, puts it: “Composers want other musicians to use their songs and interpret them. They are just looking for credit for the composition. The idea has never been to stop anyone. The copyright law inverts this system and needs a rethink in the context of all Indian classical music.”
A few classical musicians who sing and play for movies are reluctant to openly censure music directors of films; perhaps the stakes are too high and the issue too contentious. Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar’s helpless resignation perhaps says it all: “Kya khudi hai, bekhudi ke saath, bas main main hoon, bebasi ke saath (What control do I have in this state of senselessness and lack of control. I am just there, with my helplessness).”
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