Porus, king of the Pauravas confronted the invading Sikandar – Alexander, King of the Macedonians – in battle in 327 BC along the banks of the Jhelum river. The meeting may be the most famous encounter of Greek and Indian cultures but probably not the earliest. References to the Greek language – Yavanani –appear in grammars, Sanskrit literature and even the Mahabharata, all centuries before Alexander met his match in Punjab.
A vibrant Indo-Greek culture, centred largely around what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, dominated the region for 200 years after the retreat of Alexander. But even after the dissipation of political power, Greece’s influence on India can be seen in coins, sculpture and philosophy.
For modern Indians these rich linkages are likely to be nothing but ancient history. Most would be hard pressed to identify any touch points between the two countries, beyond the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Greeks, on the other hand, would easily point to a contemporary instance of cultural exchange – music.
At the end of the first World War, emboldened with assurances from the Great Powers (France and Britain) the Greek army was seduced into occupying Asia Minor, where millions of ethnic Greeks had lived for centuries. But when the Greeks made an unscripted thrust toward Ankara, the French yanked their support, and the Greeks had to hightail it back across the Bosporus.
Fearing reprisals from a new and vigorous Turkey under Kemal Ataturk, ethnic Greeks in the millions fled with the army back "home" only to find there was little welcome from their countrymen. Balkan and Turkish Greeks congregated in slums and camps on the outskirts of Athens and Thessaloniki, marginalised and left to their own devices.
In the hashish dens and coffee shops around these settlements, the refugees sang a new style of urban blues. Called rembetiko it was played on oriental instruments like the bouzouki and tzouras and told stories of injustice, longing, addiction and hope for a better future. Though the middle classes rejected the refugees and their music, it caught on in the cities with a number of singers gaining national popularity. By the 1950s, in a process not dissimilar to the blues morphing into rock and roll, rembetiko was transformed into laiko, the pop music of Greece.
At the same time as rembetiko/laiko were finding new audiences, a completely unexpected element was introduced into Greek popular culture: the Hindi movie.
If you didn’t like hanging out in dark taverns and hash parlours, then about the only mass entertainment available was the cinema. Beginning in the mid-1950s, a small group of film importers took a punt on Hindi films which were available for cheap on the international market. Titles were changed and subtitles added to appeal to local audiences; and against all expectations the films caught on. What began as a commercial gamble turned into a "cultural moment" with long lasting impact.
Though they understood not a word of Hindi, Greek audiences connected with the themes of films such as Mother India, Paapi, Aan, Awara and Shri 420. The unrelenting crush of poverty, a fast-changing society, new roles for women, not to mention the glamour and fantasy all captivated the heart.
Helen Abadzi, a Hindi speaking Greek educationist, published a tremendously researched article some years ago in which she tells how Greeks fell in love with Nargis and Madhubala and how queues wound around central Athens as people flocked to get a ticket for Mother India, renamed, Land Drenched in Sweat.
And of course, in the music of C Ramachandra, Shankar Jaikishan and Naushad the rembetiko-loving people heard the faint strains of a lost Byzantine, even Indo-Greek, tradition. Now, a new genre of music, indoprepi was born, a genre that built on the musical structures, even ragas, of the original Hindi songs – but often developed its own melody lines.
The moment did not last. Indoprepi was attacked in a backlash from critics and elites who wanted to look westward rather than to the East for inspiration. Musicians were publically shamed for playing "backward" music. But in recent years musicians and audiences have come out of the cultural closet and begun to reconnect with India and Indian music once again.
Let’s have a listen.
Kaun kahe unse jaake huzoor (Paapi)
We begin with a spookily faithful rendition of the Asha Bhosle song from 1953’s Paapi. Voula Palla was a popular actress and laiko singer whose love of Hindi film songs resulted in a number of recordings, including a 2007 CD compilation titled, Bollywood Songs of Nargis. Palla’s original recording appears to have been made in the late-1970s or early-1980s, a time of severe critical disdain for Indian music suggests something of her strength of character.
Auti i Nyxta Menei (This Night Remains)
You can see why this song would appeal to a Greek audience. Based on Ulfat ka saaz chhedo (Aurat 1953) by Shankar Jaikishan, this version matches the mood while retaining the basic melody line of the original. The Hindi version even opens with an introduction played on what sounds like a bouzouki, the Greek national instrument. The singer, Stellios Kazantizidis, came from a Turkish-Greek family. After a rough start in life that saw his father pass away when he was 13, he found music when someone gifted him a guitar. By the 1960s he was a huge star popular for championing traditional rembetiko but also indoprepi. If you listen carefully in the final verse you can hear the word duniya. Words such as this, common to Turkish and Hindi , were another subtle attraction of Hindi songs for this new audience.
Do Not Hurt Me (My Poor Heart)
Mother India was a huge hit in Greece. According to Abadzi, the film opened with no fanfare but so touched was the audience that people flocked into the streets compelling others to come and see the film. Naushad’s music also struck a deep chord. Though he and other Indian artists were often airbrushed out of the credits by indoprepi artists, in recent times, a new generation has made it a point to acknowledge the original composers. This lovely interpretation of Duniya Mein Ham Aaye from Mother India is one of modern Greece’s most beloved songs and has been covered by dozens of singers and groups.
The first 1,00,000-seller in Greece! A song composed by Kazantzidis after he saw a Hindi film and one, we can assume from the title, that starred Madhubala. The actress was hugely popular in Greece, second only to Nargis. Both were objects of a number of songs and poems that extolled their beauty and grace.
Here Kazantizidis, sings:
Madhubala / love me sweet/ I long for you to come near me again .
Since I am lost I call your name with pain
Petroloukas Halkias (clarinet) - Rakesh Chaurasia (bamboo flute) & Shubankar Banerjee (tabla)
This track from a music festival is a lovely demonstration of how the music of Greece and India, though quite different, fit so well together. The mellow honeyed tone of the clarinet, reminds one of the shehnai, and the violin is an instrument familiar to both traditions. Though in the Greek performers there is a strong folk, almost informal feel – you can imagine sitting around for hours in a taverna sipping Ouzi as this guy sings – the Indian musicians are more reserved and classical in their approach. Yet the combination is somehow very natural and enthralling. One possible explanation for this affinity is the high number of Roma (gypsies) among Greek’s music community. Perhaps what we are hearing is truly the sounds of ancient Gandhara!
Greeks and Indians
We end with a contemporary remix of some Indian and Greek sounds.
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