In Whose Voice? The Stakes of Bollywood Vocalities in Aspirational India

By Peter Silberman, April 19, 2024

The Ithaca Music Forum presents a guest lecture on music in Bollywood films and the TV show Indian Idol

The Ithaca Music Forum presents a lecture by Dr. Anaar Desai-Stephens, Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at the Eastman School of Music, entitled “In Whose Voice? The Stakes of Bollywood Vocalities in Aspirational India” on Friday, April 26, at 5 pm in the Iger Lecture Hall in the Whalen Center for Music. This talk is free and open to anyone, and will be followed by a reception.

Description of the talk:

The songs of Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry, have long been sung by “playback singers” whose distinctive voices have granted them a form of aural celebrity. Following India’s economic liberalization in the 1990s, the sound of these voices has shifted and diversified, yet the voices of iconic singers active from the 1950s through 1980s continue to be held up as ideals. This talk examines resultant tensions over the kinds of voices and vocal styles being heard in Bollywood today and their implications for upcoming singers. While older producers of Bollywood songs ask the singer to emulate iconic singers of the past, many younger producers of Hindi film music are increasingly placing a premium on “new voices,” marked by distinct vocal timbres and the ability to “sing in your own voice.” Young singers attempting careers in the Bollywood music industry must negotiate competing injunctions to “sound like the original” and “sound like yourself.” These contestations about the vocal aesthetics of Bollywood songare foregrounded on Indian Idol,an important platform for aspiring playback singers, in the interplay between contestants’ performances and judges’ commentary. Drawing on interviews with reality music TV show judges and directors, this talk poses the question: “in whose voice should the aspirational singer sing?” Further, I propose that these contestations about vocal aesthetics are not limited to the realm of music; instead, they illuminate broader debates about the forms of selfhood considered desirable and productive in contemporary India.

About the speaker:

Anaar Desai-Stephens is an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, where she is affiliated with the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies and the Visual and Cultural Studies Programs.Her work focuses on popular music, media economies, and subjectivity in South Asia, and has been supported by fellowships from the American Musicological Society and the American Association for University Women, among other sources. Anaar is currently completing her first monograph, Voicing Aspiration: Bollywood Songs and the Dreamwork of Contemporary India, which explores the role of popular music as a medium for aspirational self-making in neoliberalizing India.Trained as a violinist, Anaar continues to be an active performer across a range of styles.

Anaar Desai-Stephens

Anaar Desai-Stephens

Individuals with disabilities requiring accommodations should contact Zachary McDonald at or 607-274-3717. We ask that requests for accommodations be made as soon as possible.