Suppose we sing or rap about dark themes (similar to modern American music from 1970-present day) in Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, or Malayalam over Indian classical music fused with Rock, Pop or Hip Hop. Could the lyrics sound similar in sound/delivery, flow/melody, and meaning compared to English lyrics; yet preserve its cultural values, (referring to Indian Texts, People, History, etc.)? Could it be as common (used in everyday conversation UNLIKE poetry in literature), yet complex (lyrical), explicit (uses swearing, slang), or controversial like English lyrics?

I say this because I'm an American from Indian Origin. Dark themes hardly exist in Indian music and if it does it's extremely poetic (closely related to literature) with references to nature (sun, flower, moon), dresses (veils, saris, fabric), organs (heart, liver) and gods. Their music remains very ancient and hardly modernized to this day.

Some songs with dark themes (I read English translations) exist in India:

keh ke lunga (Hindi) (Uses slang, Refers to Intimidation and Violence, Still Poetic)

Ganda hai (Hindi) (Intimidation, Conversational)

Beware (Punjabi) (Intimidation, Poetic)

Emotional Attyachar (Hindi) (Depression, Conversational)

Hikknaal (Punjabi) (Comical reference to violence, Poetic)

In Independent music there is a rise in darker themes rock (apocalyptic themes, depression) and rap (struggle, representing neighborhood, alcohol, sexual references to women):

Bandeh (Hindi) (Apocalyptic, Poetic)

Jimikki Kamal (Malayalam) (College Slang, Alchoholism, Poetic)

Iraiva (Tamil) (Suicide, Violence, Conversational)

Char Bottle Vodka (Punjabi) (Alcoholism, Sexual References to Women, Conversational)

Represent (Indus Vally Remix) (Urdu) (Representing Neighborhood, Violence, Swearing, Intimidation, Conversational). This is the closest resemblance to modern Indian music. There are no songs like this.

Mere Gully mein (Initimidation, Representing Neighborhood, Violence, Conversational)

Most of these songs use poetic lyricism but we see some songs (Represent, Mere Gully Mein) use more common everyday language. However, the most well-known rap songs (char bottle vodka) refer to alcohol and women but are not as lyrically sophisticated (dull compared to English). In fact, it seems more Indians are preferring English over Indian music.

Currently, the most popular Indian songs (songs with millions of followers) are about parties and romance which I don't mind but...

Could Indian Classical music modernize into new genres as successfully as American music?

  • Could you rephrase your question? I'm a little unclear as to what the answer is based on your question. Are you asking if the poetic lyrics of traditional Indian Songs can make the jump to Rock, Rap, and other American music forms that are emerging in the Indian Indie scene? Or are you asking if American music is capable of using more poetic and symbolic lyrics like Indian Music? Or is the question something else entirely. Also keep in mind that modern American Music has at times had strong influences from modern British Music, and is quite prone to mixing all kinds of elements.
    – hszmv
    Oct 18, 2019 at 17:02
  • @hszmv I changed my post. Is this more clear?
    – Arbuja
    Oct 18, 2019 at 18:11
  • @hszmv I'm trying to say if it's possible that Indian lyrics can be more "conversational" like American lyrics (instead of literature poetry) yet remain as deep and preserve its cultural values. Like some kind of street poetry. Bob Dylan, rock icons and several rappers have used this. As years progressed they have been more explicit with their intentions, using more indecent language, reflecting the dark side of reality.
    – Arbuja
    Oct 18, 2019 at 22:58
  • @Arbuja: What do you consider to be its specific cultural values? (Honest question; I speak neither of the languages, and I know next to nothing about Indian culture).
    – celtschk
    Oct 19, 2019 at 16:56
  • @celtschk Songs with cultural values should refer to Indian texts, people, sayings, slangs and history.
    – Arbuja
    Oct 19, 2019 at 17:08

3 Answers 3


This answer is without specific knowledge of Indian cultures or languages, but I can offer some perspective on rap compared with other poetic/oral poetry traditions that might help you.

In short, I think you can bring the essence of hip-hop/rap to India, but it will take on some characteristics of Indian tastes to become popular and to fulfill your criteria of classical content.

Background on rap vs. other poetic traditions

American rap music is only the latest manifestation of oral/spoken-word poetry: it's not sung, and it is rhythmic and follows metrical rules (though determined more by a beat than an established metrical scheme). Interestingly, what makes rap controversial is actually nothing new in world history-- just in recent English traditions.

Rap differs from recent-historical poetic traditions in English because it does four things:

  1. It tends to be set to a driving beat pattern (almost always in 4/4) with simple musical riffs.
  2. It eschews flowery, "poetic" lyrics in favor of contemporary speech patterns.
  3. It favors themes and content of a personal, immediate nature to the exclusion of philosophical and impersonal themes and literary references. (Obviously those are extremely broad generalizations with many counterexamples.)
  4. It often includes explicit language and taboo-breaking themes of sex, drugs, violence, and confrontation.

(I'll come back to #1 after I address the language and content.)

On the language and themes of rap

Only in the past century has English experienced a sort of revolution against using deliberately beautiful, intricately crafted turns of phrase in favor of using simple, straightforward language. It's a stylistic phenomenon that has made writing more like common speech and also allowed common speech to become even plainer. Literary-- and even biblical-- allusions and symbolism are too florid and therefore have fallen out of favor. (This trend is also antithetical to the writing traditions of many other languages, including, I gather from your question, those spoken in India.) This style is ubiquitous. Even the more lyrical contemporary poets (Bob Dylan, e.g.) use simple structures paired with evocative imagery and irony rather than dense intertextuality and lush language. Pop music lyrics are usually extremely basic. Rap, too, follows the contemporary English plain-speaking aesthetic. So what makes for good* rap lyrics? Usually clever concepts and wordplay, but not oblique phrasing (or literary allusions).

*conventionally/generically popular

Rap tends to favor directness in content as well, probably because of both the English linguistic culture and the society whence it comes. You don't need an English degree to be a poet, but you might want one to be respected among the literary elite that dominate traditional poetic scholarship and criticism. By contrast rap music is rather egalitarian and deals with the here-and-now, usually with very personal concerns and visceral emotions. It is by and for an American culture (black Americans**) that traditionally has not been given equal access to the academic side of poetry. Of course there are many examples of rappers that do explore other themes and that do tap into literary and poetic traditions.

You describe rap as having as "dark" themes, and many of them are-- because rappers are exploring very real worries and tragedies in their own lives or those of their friends and neighbors. It also gets into frivolous or bon vivant themes-- having lots of money, going to amazing parties, getting with hot people-- that serve as a foil or antidote to the dark times.

Rap has been surrounded by controversy because it doesn't shy away from confrontation or taboo subjects and language. But you can look at the history of "great" (lauded) literature and poetry to find many parallels. Glorification of gory, explicitly described violence? Read the Iliad. Extremely foul insults to the poets you're beefing with? Catullus. Gushing odes to sex? (Also Catullus! Did you know he gets taught in all the fun Latin classes?) Also see the troubadours. Substance abuse? Lewis Carroll, Arthur Conan Doyle, and every musician from 1968-1978. Heck, Shakespeare was downright rude, but it doesn't come across so easily when all the expressions of nastiness have changed. So why is rap such a big deal? Mainly, US society still retains some Puritanical and Victorian hangups (less so in the age of the internet, and after 40-odd years of hip-hop in the mainstream) about what is polite and acceptable in public contexts. Sadly, I'm sure that racism also factors into making it a particularly divisive genre.

So, how to translate the style and content of rap to Indian languages and cultures?

I think there could be a version of rap that makes its way into Indian mainstream, but there will have to be some adjustments. You can't have your lyrical, ancient, safe stories and also your edgy, conversational, existential ones all in one bite. (But you could have a genre that does all of it piecemeal.) I think there's a separate question here of cultural conservatism, addressed in brief at the end.

Either the content will be at least as controversial and taboo-breaking as American rap has been, or its thematic potency will be diverted into more of the same safe content that is already popular in India. If songs about ancient history and religion are hits today, why not rap about them as well? Or if mindless partying is a popular topic, there is no reason it couldn't also be celebrated in rap. But if there are groups that are as marginalized as black people have been in the US (and I know there are), they might want to explore in music the immediate concerns and outrages in their lives rather than tackling sweet love songs or heroic themes. (They could be doing this already with a different style of music, I don't know, or perhaps they could adopt both the style and substance of rap.) What taboos would be broken in Indian rap to have an effect similar to the controversial elements of American rap?

Perhaps you can bring in the wordplay of rap into Indian languages, but it may not fit conventional tastes. We rhyme in English because our words don't already have meaningful suffixes that naturally rhyme; rhymes are clever. In romance languages rhyme schemes are disdained because they are so obvious. English goes through periodic phases of lauding or despising puns. What makes for clever wordplay in your target languages? Go for that rather than copying the method of wordplay from English rap.

Why not have extremely poetic, oblique language delivered in a new aesthetic as rap? If what you want is a conversational tone to the lyrics, you can introduce that in any genre-- but again, if there is no taste for it you won't get the popularity and mainstream appeal that you are hoping for. The important thing is that the new genre resonate with some segment of the population.

On Metrics

Poetry in any language is affected by the patterns of stress or length that predominate in the spoken language. Therefore some metrical schemes are a better natural fit to some languages than others. English poetry is dominated by iambic pentameter because we tend to alternate between stressed and unstressed syllables in our natural speech.

The advantage that lyrics to music have over unaccompanied poetry is that the beats define the structure and the writer is then free to play with the meter. Contemporary English music takes full advantage of this and often ends up with lyrical metrical schemes being defined by some combination of genre conventions, the time signature, the melody, and the intended meaning of the words themselves. You'll still find that the natural stresses in the lyrics must align well with the points of emphasis in the music.

Rap tends to operate strictly in 4/4 time, beats tend to receive heavily stressed syllables, and edgy patterns can be introduced with syncopation, deliberate delays, etc. Different artists tend to favor certain structures. You might try doing some metrical analysis: look at the lyrics of a rap song and figure out where all the beats fall, then think about them statistically. What rhythms predominate? Where do the stresses fall? (Now, look at the top 100 rap songs of 2018 and crunch numbers...)

How well would those patterns align with Indian languages and poetry? I'd guess that it's not a perfect fit. If you want to bring rap metrical structure to a new language you can probably make the percussive 4/4 work, and it would certainly signal the genre. However, you would probably find that different rhythmic patterns are more successful in the new language, the metrical trends would shift, and you would end up with a somewhat different (perhaps very subtly different) aesthetic to the music.

On whether Classical music will evolve

I can't speculate much on Indian musical traditions, but generally if your music is "classical" it is deliberately preserving older traditions and is very conservative. You can take the content or form out of the classical and put it into a new genre, but you probably won't have much success going the other direction. That's ok! We have many different styles of music for a reason. But if the culture as a whole is very conservative you won't get as much buy-in for new musical influences and genre experimentation. American music was influenced by many different cultures and the deliberate exploration of new material and instrumentation, and new styles emerge all the time because there is support in the culture for it (though there are some people who listen exclusively to classical music).

**As @ChrisSunami points out in the comment below, some of the most influential and innovative music of the past century has come out of black communities in the U.S., who are largely the descendants of people from all over West Africa who were enslaved and separated from their communities. I would be interested to have a better understanding of how having access and close ties to one's cultural traditions, or being separated from them, might drive groups of people to be more culturally conservative or to develop innovations. Does musical innovation happen as a product of syncretism (the blending of cultures that occurs when populations mix), or to fill a loss when people leave a place where their culture is concentrated and firmly established, or both? In India, where religious and cultural traditions date back millennia (and where there can be conflict along some religious lines), I am not surprised that there is such support for traditional music.

  • 2
    This is a great answer, which I upvoted. But since you're going into the history, I'd mention that a lot of the musical innovation in American popular music has been driven specifically by people of the African diaspora --hip-hop, jazz, doo-wop, barbershop, rock, blues, ragtime, gospel, soul and funk all originated within the black American communities. Oct 22, 2019 at 17:08
  • @ChrisSunami, absolutely.
    – wordsworth
    Oct 23, 2019 at 2:55
  • 1
    @ChrisSunami, I updated it (see final paragraph)!
    – wordsworth
    Oct 23, 2019 at 3:20

Classical music traditions, whether European, Asian, South Asian or African, are generally oriented towards a wealthy elite. Often requiring sizeable orchestras of highly trained musicians, they are inherently conservative (opposed to change), and carry with them an aura of privilege and refinement. In contrast, hip-hop music originated within a triply-disenfranchised community of minority youth, who were outsiders because of their age, their poverty, and their race. It accordingly has a strong tradition of social protest and commentary, and typically stands in direct opposition to the status quo.

The transgressive, anti-middle-class-values elements of hip-hop --the up-to-the-minute youth slang, the cursewords, and the gritty storytelling --all stem directly from these origins. Additionally, the reliance on spoken vocals and sampled backing tracks lowers the barriers to entry, and elevates direct, unfiltered expression, the more raw, the better.

You seem to be assuming a certain continuity between the Western classical tradition and hip-hop. This largely does not exist. They are socially, culturally and economically opposed traditions. It's possible to unite these opposites, but it isn't the easiest or most natural fit. The local adoption of hip-hop around the globe has largely been driven by the fact that it speaks to the impoverished and disenfranchised masses in many different places. Thus, I'd more easily imagine an Indian hip-hop being born in union with the music of the lower caste populations, than in connection with the classical tradition. (I'd actually be quite surprised if it doesn't already exist --just perhaps with low visibility outside its own communities.)


The short answer is yes. The long answer would run to several volumes.

Whatever the language popular music has its genres. Within the MOBO sphere there is gospel and blues and blues and one end of the scale and jungle at the other. Lyrics, styles and topics range from blues: "My baby left me" to funk: "Happy Birthday" to Hip-Hop: "I shot two nggrs and I fcked your btch. (Nggr, nggr, ngger - pull that trigger)"

With India and Pakistan coming late to commercial party tempo, tone and message are often derived from western music by using samples. The UK has a genre which is a marriage of UK Garage and Bhangra. Probably the most successful song from this genre was "Panjabi MC - Mundian To Bach Ke". The track uses a sample from Knightrider (a popular US TV series) together with UK Garage rhythms and beats flavoured with youthful Asian culture. (I admit I have no idea as to what he's singing about).

There is a pattern with the majority of emerging (dance) genres. When a genre becomes popular the youth hijack that genre to convey their message of frustration and anger. e.g. The UK Garage genre broke with choons such as "Closer than close" (Romance) and "Gabriel" (One of God's angels). Eventually gun violence became a regular topic.

  • 3
    "When a genre becomes popular the youth hijack that genre to convey their message of frustration and anger." - I'm not sure this is entirely correct. Most genres tend to be invented by the youth - I certainly can't think of any genres, off the top of my head that were invented (or at least popularised) by anyone over the age of about 30. They can't really be "hijacked" by the youth if the youth made them popular to start with.
    – F1Krazy
    Oct 21, 2019 at 14:47

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