Tax Talk

Is the violin really Western? A Carnatic performer explains how GST will damage Indian music

Musical instruments that are not indigenous will attract a 28% tax rate. But Western instruments have been used in Indian music for centuries now.

We are in the best of times, we are in the worst of times. We are making in India, and also breaking in India. In ways that are not often obvious, we are being told how to be patriotic, or worse, nationalistic. The latest of these is the idea of levying Goods and Services Tax – a single nationwide tax replacing all state and Central taxes that came into effect on July 1 – on musical instruments that are not indigenous.

Idiosyncratically enough, this 28% rate is applicable on instruments that are not handmade and not Indian – including, for instance, the violin, which is widely used in Indian classical and film music. It has not been included on a list of 134 instruments that are considered Indian and hence exempt from the Goods and Services Tax. Nearly 60% of that list, though, consists of instruments that have not been played for the past two centuries, making this exemption a bit eccentric.

At the root of this categorisation, though, is a basic problem: music itself has taken multicultural influences over the centuries and differentiating between the purely Indian and purely Western would probably necessitate the formation of an expert panel of historians and musicologists. Despite the GST rules, Indian music is played on a variety of instruments with their origins in the West: the guitar, the saxophone, the mandolin, the violin and, of course, the piano, which is my instrument of choice.


Imagine the situation Padmavathi S, a Carnatic violin teacher in Chennai, finds herself in. Her violin is going to cost 28% more, despite her protestations that the music she is making is unquestionably Indian. A basic violin of reasonable quality was priced at upwards of Rs 2,500, before the new levy but will now cost Rs 3,200 and more. She did not take kindly to my suggestion that she might consider shifting to the “sangu” (Indian conch shell) or maybe even the “algozha (double flute)”.

While the affluent customer is unlikely to baulk at this because of his or her love for the instrument, the majority of the violin’s customer base belongs to the Great Indian middle class, especially in South India.

Prohibitive cost

For those planning to buy more expensive instruments such as the piano, the import duty and the Goods and Services Tax put together make it absolutely prohibitive to even consider buying one. Pianists should immediately consider alternative careers in stand-up comedy (in Tamil or in Hindi, naturally, because English plays attract Goods and Services Tax whereas Indian language plays do not).

In commodifying instruments based on their place of origin, we have now introduced a rather young elephant into an already crowded room. Play an Indian instrument, and play Indian music. If you make the unforgivable mistake of playing jazz or Western classical music, semi-classical or film or any genre that is not purely homegrown as decided by the powers that be, pay the price.

The effects will be felt in a variety of situations. Musical instrument retailers to whom I spoke forecast a decline in sales between 12% and 20% year-on-year. They also fear the impact on music education. Students are worried about taking up keyboard or violin lessons as most teachers expect them to buy their own instruments, which have now become unaffordable to many. The decline in enrolment for music classes this academic year was pegged at 15% among teachers to whom I spoke. This means that we are losing out on considerable instrumental talent in our country.

Unfortunately for most of us, music continues to be a passion. Apart from those who derive their livelihoods from it, it is an important aspect of human endeavour, and one of the most vibrant aspects of being alive. As a pianist, I might have to start a campaign to claim the South Asian origins of my beloved instrument of choice. The alternative, it seems, would be to shift to playing the conch.

Anil Srinivasan is a pianist who lives in Chennai.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

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Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.