The unconventional music of the Nobel Laureate might have nothing connecting Indians to it. But there is a reason he has a following here, notes T C A Srinivasa Raghavan.
Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, turned 80 on May 24.
Both events unleashed a veritable flood of writing on him and about his music.
So it's not necessary to visit those aspects of the man because there's nothing left to be said. Suffice it to say that he is a genius who, like most geniuses, produced his best work before he turned 30.
But why did his music become so popular in India, albeit only amongst a certain class of people, namely, those born between 1945 and 1955?
It was, as someone said long ago, a case of begaani shaadi mein Abdullah diwana. It was vicarious all the way.
Dylan's best music captured the essence of the dilemmas of the post-war generation in the US. What did the Indian elite have in common with them?
After all, the stuff Dylan wrote and sang in the 1960s and until around 1975 was the product of circumstances that were peculiar to America then.
The most important of these was the nuclear threat to it during the Cold War -- A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall -- and the Vietnam War -- Masters of War. The first affected all Americans and the second all those between 18 and 22 years of age as they could be drafted and sent off to Vietnam to die or be maimed.
So the song writers and balladeers protested and led the protesting as they had hit a rich seam. The younger generation lapped it up.
Dylan was the best of the lot. His music was pure genius.
Protest music and Indians
But what did that have to do with India and Indians? Why did American protest music appeal to the children of the 1960s' elite here?
When you start to think about it, you quickly realise that barring the protest music of the Communists in the 1950s -- IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association, for the uninitiated) and the like -- there is hardly any music in that genre in India in the mainstream.
Sumangala Damodaran, an economics teacher, has written extensively about that stuff; and, being a singer, she has also sung some of the songs. But all that was pretty much on the fringe.
There were exceptions like that song in Pyaasa -- Jala do, jala do yeh duniya. But by and large the mainstream was happy with romantic stuff, of which there was a surfeit.
And this is the odd thing because there was so much to protest about -- mainly unemployment, from which the children of the elite were not exempt. But hardly any songs were written to express those deep anxieties except that classic from Mere Apne where the song goes BA kiya, MA kiya, lagata hai vo bhi aivein kiya, meaning it was all a damned waste.
One important reason for this, of course, as a friend pointed out, was that India didn't have many singers outside the film world. Films were the main vehicle for popular music and they preferred the Bol Radha Bol type.
So all things considered, begaani shaadi mein Abdullah diwana was not such an irrelevant comment at all.
Cutting the clutter
Dylan's lyrics also needed a good American vocabulary and a knowledge of American conditions.
Remember, in the 1960s 24x7 TV news was still 30 years away. The Internet was 40 years away.
The only source of information were the newspapers and some periodicals like the Shankar's Weekly.
So how did what was happening in America, and especially what Dylan was singing about, make such an impact on so many Indian minds?
It wasn't the rhythm that attracted people because a lot of Dylan's music had only the most rudimentary 4x4 beat. It is the staple of rock, pop and blues but doesn't always set your foot tapping.
It wasn't the melody, either, because a lot of it was not melodious at all. He just sang by going up and down the scale. That's why not many of his songs were hummable.
And the lyrics were about things Indians knew nothing about -- and cared even less for.
Who was John Wesley Hardin, an American criminal of the late 1850s, for Indians? But Dylan's song about him is very nice.
Thus, there is something about the totality of his music that attracted a lot of young people. Very soon Dylan became a cult figure, and his lines began to be quoted amongst the cognoscenti, like 'sweet Melinda ... leaves you howling at the moon'.
But when you look at his songs closely, so many of them were no more than some random words strung together. Dylan once said that he just made it all up, for the imagery.
One only has to listen to the 1966 song Visions of Johanna, which is arguably amongst his top ten, to see what he meant. It is absolutely brilliant.
He could also point sharply to the ludicrous things in American society, not to mention the ironies. Above all, his lyrics had no ideology. His irony was, if you will, similar to what's there in that classic Kishore Kumar song from Half Ticket, Cheel Cheel Chilla Ke.
It's hard to say for how long his music will live on. Most likely it will go orchestral and semi-classical. It's been known to happen.