The language of music
Angela Mathew | Friday, September 9, 2022
I started college in the fall of 2020, attending socially distanced classes and football games. As I ate dining hall meals out of disposable containers in my room while it got colder outside, I was determined to swallow my homesickness. One day that semester, I walked by Au Bon Pain in the library and was stopped in my tracks when I heard a vaguely familiar sound in the cafe. I realized that it was a Hindi song, which I later found out was the wistful, bossa nova sound of the song “Kyon” (Why) from “Barfi,” a whimsical Hindi film.
Though I grew up in India, I never used to listen to much Indian music on my own. In Mumbai, the city I grew up in, popular Indian music is often Hindi songs from Bollywood films. I grew up learning Hindi as a second language in school but my family is South Indian, so we didn’t speak it at home and watched very few Bollywood movies. I had a narrow idea of Bollywood films as having implausible storylines and incessant musical numbers ranging from maudlin ballads to ‘item’ songs with cringeworthy lyrics.
This disinterest in Bollywood music was probably also a symptom of living my life poised towards the West. As a teenager I listened to Ariana Grande, Beyoncé and indie musicians like dodie. When I was in sixth grade, my sister and I discovered Andrew Lloyd Webber and Barbra Streisand and would listen to CDs of their Broadway hits with a strange kind of devotion. We would even listen to songs by the Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga that my sister had downloaded on her Nokia brick phone.
Despite this, when I heard Hindi music on campus, I almost felt like my homesickness was making me imagine the tune. As it turns out, one of the employees working at ABP was Indian and had put on one of her playlists during a shift, but I was surprised by how much it struck me.
That year I spent the 10 week long winter break with relatives in New Jersey rather than going home. I barely left the house and filled the swathes of time watching all the Bollywood films I hadn’t seen, from the classic 2003 film “Kal Ho Naa Ho” set in New York City to the more contemporary “Kapoor and Sons.” My conception of South Asian music broadened — I discovered indie bands, Indian electro-pop and even Pakistan’s Coke Studio. But even the stereotypical Hindi music grew on me being away from home — the maudlin ballads seemed heartfelt and the upbeat songs felt invigorating.
Now Hindi music is the soundtrack that accompanies my life. I walk to class immersed in Arijit Singh’s plaintive vocals on cloudy days and listen to soundtracks from Bollywood sports dramas as I run on the treadmill. One of my best friends here is Indian-American and some of our best memories together have been singing along to Hindi songs while driving to Warren Dunes State Park or playing Bollywood music at parties where it’s too loud for people to tell the difference.
Rather than gradually losing my grip on Hindi, I can now appreciate the metaphors hidden in romantic songs. When my friend asks me the meaning of certain words she hears in a song, I try to explain the subtle differences in usage. By sheer osmosis, my vocabulary has expanded to include traditionally Urdu or Persian-influenced words that Bollywood often uses to make their songs more poetic. Through different majors, friendships, clubs and seasons in my life at Notre Dame, exploring new Hindi music has been the most strange of constants.
As I was thinking of ideas for this column, I felt hesitant to write on this topic, thinking it was far too self-indulgent and perhaps unrelatable to a lot of other students. Even if you’re not an international student or the type to analyze changes in your music taste, you’ve likely felt the tension between being your authentic self and wanting to fit in at college.
But the most remarkable thing about our tri-campus community is the spectrum of beliefs I’ve encountered here. I’ve learned so much about the world beyond the narrow silos of identity politics by listening to people’s authentic stories.
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The views expressed in the Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.