This is Bhakti Vibration — an intense new electronic music genre out of Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, known for remixing speeches by religious leaders, Bollywood stars and politicians, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While some of the tracks are focused on Bhakti, Hindu devotional music, others take a far more political, often stridently nationalist tone.
Despite the strong political overtones of many Bhakti Vibration tracks, including his own, DJ Lucky denies that he is creating anything but entertainment.
Religious devotion and communal tension
The most popular songs coming out of the new genre focus on religious devotion, and comments under the YouTube videos often praise Hindu gods and call for unity among Hindus.
But to engage their followers and get maximum reach online, DJs often choose provocative titles and samples for their tracks.
The tracks remix Sufi Islamic devotional music, sample political dialogues and use repetitive slogans like “Nara-e-Takbeer,” or “God is Great.” With titles like “DJ Qawwali AK 47 mix” — in which gunshots are sampled alongside Sufi music — some tracks are as combative as Bhakti Vibration.
Shabnam Hashmi, a Muslim activist and founder of Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD), a human rights group, said both sides are responding to an increase in communal tensions in recent years.
According to Hashmi, “both (Bhakti Vibration and Miya Bhai) are very dangerous,” though she points out the audience for Miya Bhai Electronica is arguably more limited.
India’s population of approximately of 1.3 billion is made up of a Hindu majority of around 80%, as well as a large Muslim minority of some 185 million, or about 15% of the total.
If Bhakti Vibration has a home, it’s Allahabad, officially known as Prayagraj, a city in Uttar Pradesh which plays host to some six hundred DJs.
DJ Deepu is an up-and-coming star in the Prayagraj scene who started learning how to remix songs at the age of 15. Now 18, he runs his own studio in the city and teaches others how to DJ. At Bhakti Vibration events, he engages in DJ battles, facing off against another musician while a crowd dances in the middle.
“The crowd wants to feel the vibrations, so whoever is able to produce the highest and the nicest vibrations wins,” Deepu told CNN.
Like DJ Lucky, Deepu’s success is fueled by a large YouTube following, though his is mainly focused in Prayagraj. Now a local celebrity, he is paid by event organizers or residential communities who hire DJs for religious festivals.
“We don’t play music in clubs or pubs — there are none in Allahabad. We play it for the crowd and our crowd loves to vibrate,” he said. “But since I have a studio I can participate in bigger projects now.”
His most recent project was a song for a political party, which he declined to share with CNN. “It’s mainly filled with slogans,” Deepu said.
‘Part of a larger trend’
Music and Hindu nationalism have a long, complex history, said Richard Williams, a lecturer in ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London.
“From the early nineteenth century onwards, many Hindu music scholars in North India have denounced Muslim musicians, and blamed them for the alleged ‘degeneration’ of classical music,” he said.
“Since then, Muslim musicians have routinely been side-lined in histories of Indian music, and reformist groups have successively attempted to ‘purify’ Hindustani classical music as a form of sacred, i.e. Hindu, music.”
While many Bhakti Vibration DJs don’t see themselves as motivated by communalism, Williams said it was “fair to say they’re responding to a popular demand for anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan media. This is part of a larger trend.”
But DJ Lucky doesn’t see anything wrong with Bhakti Vibration and rejects the suggestion it is intentionally provocative.
“I make music because I like it, it’s my passion and hobby,” he said. While he said it can be taken too far, referencing an incident in which Bhakti Vibration was played outside a mosque, Lucky said it was not his intention to promote hate.
“No DJ would play music which would upset others or give problems to others,” he said.