Indian Indie scene building up to a crescendo: When will you join?
brunch Updated: Sep 25, 2015 12:12 IST
It’s just another stuffy Saturday evening in Delhi. A lone road is choc-a-block with big, shiny cars. Loud electronic dance music (EDM) plays inside a few, the heavy bass and drum beats thudding through the rolled-up windows. The traffic moves forward, slowly. Groups of men and women dressed in the fashion of the hour get out of their cars and walk towards the many, many pubs and bars peddling happy hours and happier attractions – either a live gig or a DJ night. The ‘Village’ is the most happening place to be, and everyone is gathering to be a part of ‘the scene’.
In Bangalore, an unexpected shower lashes the city, but the hip crowd is undeterred. Last night, it was a drum and bass gig, tonight it’s their favourite local electro-rock act playing at the newest venue in town. With so many gigs every night, they’re always spoilt for choice, but come rain or more rain, they never miss being in the scene.
Thousands of miles away from these busy metropolises, in the lush green valley of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh, in the shadow of pine-clad hills and cottony clouds, a stage is slowly coming up – bamboo by bamboo. Over the next few days, hundreds of tents will be pitched in the ground covered with wild grass, thousands of people will make their way here from all parts of the country, dozens of bands will sound check their equipment, and India’s ‘greatest outdoor music festival’ will come to life once again.
Winds of change
In the last five years, India has become a cauldron of a steaming, brewing independent music scene – scores of bands, acts and artistes are emerging from every part of the country, and they’re experimenting with sounds and cross pollinating genres like never before!
The credit, in part, goes to the many music festivals mushrooming across the country, an ever-increasing crop of venues promoting live gigs, big brands sponsoring indie-exclusive TV channels and programmes, and a growing social media presence of the bands and acts. But behind such organised marketing initiatives, what has really changed is the passion and dedication of the artistes themselves, to push the envelope just a little further. And the mindsets and attitudes of people towards an alternative culture.
Raghav ‘Diggy’ Dang, founder of India’s first reggae outfit, the Reggae Rajahs, and former guitarist with the popular ska band, The Ska Vengers, remembers the time he played his first few gigs in early 2009. “It was very difficult when we started out. Everyone was foreign to the music we were playing,” he says. The generations that grew up singing But It Rained along with Parikrama or dancing to The Midival Punditz, the ’90s kids who tripped on Indian Ocean’s Kandisa, and the millennials who followed Them Clones everywhere or headbanged to Bhayanak Maut, were suddenly being subjected to new sounds. And they didn’t know what to do with it. “It was challenging for us to get booked at a club or a bar, and even more challenging to get people to listen to us,” Dang says.
But people love variety, and if that variety is good then given a little time, they embrace it with open arms. Ipshita Roy of the Delhi-based blues band Big Bang Blues agrees, “We were one of first blues bands in Delhi when we started in 2009. In the beginning, we’d sometimes get just four-five people at our gigs. But we’d still play our best and make sure each of those four people were enjoying our music. Soon enough, we were playing gigs every week.” These gutsy new bands of that time were thus opening the floodgates to what would be, in the next five years from 2010 until now, a rush of newer bands and acts, making music in genres other than what we were used to.
The language of music
Paul Schneiter, drummer of the Calcutta-based ensemble Tritha Electric, which plays a blend of Indian classical and folk with Western psychedelic and punk influences, attributes this trend to the “new generation of musicians in India today who have digested musical influences from abroad.” “But instead of simply copying those genres, Indian musicians are now making them their own and creating music with a strong personal identity,” he says. “They refuse to conform to the norms of the musical establishment.”
“The other good thing that has happened is people are beginning to really be comfortable in their own skin,” says Vijay Nair, CEO and co-founder, Only Much Louder – the company that organises NH7 Weekender, “which is why you see so much of regional music and people singing in regional languages. But their music is still becoming big because the elitism of English is falling.”
It isn’t surprising then that regional bands like Avial, Imphal Talkies, Prachir and others have already established themselves, even while creating songs in the languages of their land.
The much-loved Amarrass Music Festival that is held annually in the Capital, features Rajasthani folk and Sufi artistes like the Barmer Boys, Manganiyar Seduction, Lakha Khan and others.
Ashutosh Sharma, founder of Amarrass Records, says, “Different generations of people, young and old, attend our festival each year. The point is that if it’s good music and if it’s presented well, it is bound to find resonance amongst all.” Looking back at our comparatively plain, largely Western-influenced indie history, this can only be a good thing.
Rewind, Stop, Play
The newly-independent India of the 1950s was just beginning to come of age. Its small population of westernised urban citizens was trying to find ways of expressing itself and music was one of them. In his book India Psychedelic, the Story of a Rocking Generation, journalist Sidharth Bhatia writes, “The music of choice in the 1950s was either jazz or soulful songs by the likes of Frank Sinatra... Jazz, for all its working-class, ghetto origins in the US, had morphed into the music of choice of the urban upper classes.”
By the turn of the decade, the Beatles were setting off a storm in England that would sweep the entire world. “In socialist India, too, youngsters put on their dancing shoes to groove to this new sound, so different from anything they had heard till then,” writes Bhatia. “Some were sufficiently inspired to grow their hair, put on their bell-bottoms and pick up their guitars. And the Indian pop and rock revolution was born.”
When everybody danced
Rock and its many derivatives – soft, hard, metal – continued to rule the non-Bollywood music scene in India over the next decade into the ’70s. In the early 1980s though, rock began to be overshadowed by disco – a movement started almost single-handedly by a musician from Bangalore named Biddu. Originally part of the first Indian English band called The Trojans, Biddu moved to England in 1967, worked at a doughnut stand, penned several non-hits and eventually composed a club hit that would establish him as “one of the most prolific purveyors of dance music outside the United States,” as per the book Saturday Night Fever: The Story of Disco by Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen. Biddu brought disco to India when he moved back in 1979, thus establishing the defining sound of that era.
Simultaneously, there was another influence entering the Indian indie scene. According to an essay by electronic music producer Samrat B in the 2010 HUB yearbook, India’s first and only anthology of electronic music, “The late ’80s in Goa saw the rise of tourism... Electronic music and sound was arriving to Indian shores via DJs, writers, filmmakers and tourists... It is in this socio-cultural melting pot that the popular, psychedelic electronic music form now known as ‘Goa trance’ was born.”
With the arrival of music channels on television in the mid-90s, music enthusiasts in India started getting influenced by Western rock sounds again – but this time the sounds were harder and rapidly changing. Bands that formed during this time evolved their styles from rock to alternative rock, progressive rock, metal and others.
It was only natural for the independent scene of the ’90s and 2000s to take these musical influences forward and lead up to this current decade – a time of widespread popularity of electronica and its many sub-genres, and of a resurgence of older genres like disco, cabaret, jazz, blues, rock and more – all permuted, combined, mixed, remixed and fused with each other, with a garnishing of traditional Indian influences.
Changing the dynamics
Perhaps, the biggest push to the thriving indie scene has come from the emergence of music festivals. From 2010 when its first edition was held in Pune to now when it has branched out to five cities across India with multiple stages in each, NH7 Weekender has become the single biggest event on the music calendar. “It has given the indie space the legitimacy that it really needed. It has become a coveted platform for artists to get great exposure,” says Vijay Nair. “Artists now launch their albums in November around NH7 and then come, play and promote them at the festival. Younger bands look forward to playing here, so we end up getting hundreds of entries. And the number of people at NH7 just keeps growing each year.”
The attraction of music festivals however, lies not just in the artiste line-up but also the whole experience of travelling to a location (in case of destination festivals like Ziro, Magnetic Fields, Ragasthan, Storm and others), catching up with friends in a different environment, relaxing, drinking and having a good time with great music for company.
Mumbai-based photographer Roycin D’Souza, who has photographed more than 500 concerts, says, “Once upon a time, you would only find young people from colleges at music fests. Now those people have grown older and they come to the festivals with their spouses and kids in tow. Then of course, there are fresh batches of younger people. But even they are diverse now – not just from local colleges but also from nearby towns and cities.”
VH1 Supersonic is a big brand in the dance music space and has created an entire ecosystem of gigs and festivals around itself. With three extensions – club nights, campus gigs and city-based arcades (which have brought some of the biggest international names to India) – Supersonic held close to 110 events last year across the country. “We give almost 70 per cent space to domestic DJs; the idea also is to activate all genres of dance music and bring newer sounds to India through international artists,” says Jaideep Singh, senior vice president and business head – LIVE, Viacom18 Pvt Ltd.
Delhi-based progressive house DJ Kerano says that international names coming to music festivals in India is a good sign of where the country stands on the world indie radar. “If we were not significant, I don’t think any of these big names would have bothered coming to play here,” he says. “For a musician, it’s a great learning experience to watch international artists like Tiesto and Dash Berlin play – you learn a lot about stage presence and the kind of crowd interactions they have.”
It’s not just their music that indie artistes across genres are focusing on. “Artists have also been pushing the boundaries and raising the bar of how they present their music visually,” says Ankur Tewari, consultant, MTV Indies. When it launched a year ago, the channel merely had 50 music videos. “We now boast of a handsome database of over 1,000 videos. We cater to the new voice of India, one that takes pride in alternate culture, whether it’s music or movies or comedy.”
Where’s The Money, Honey?
Although there’s no doubt that the indie scene is booming, it still isn’t helping musicians sustain themselves. In Delhi, for instance, says Pranav Sawhney, senior culture manager of Social and Antisocial, most pubs host live gigs as a marketing tool to attract customers. “Every time we host a gig, we charge an entry fee for it; if you can pay to go watch a movie or a play, then why wouldn’t you want to pay for a music performance, right?” After BlueFrog shut down, Antisocial is perhaps the only venue in the Capital dedicated solely to promoting indie music. “All others are just pubs offering cheap drinks along with some live music as entertainment. Without an entry fee, they really aren’t making enough money to pay the bands,” he says.
So while it’s become comparatively easier to score a gig now because of the proliferation of venues hosting live music, the income itself has gone down. “When we started in 2009, you could easily demand Rs 20-25,000 for a gig. But now, people settle for as little as Rs 10-12,000 or less,” says Ipshita Roy of Big Bang Blues. “It’s because there are so many new musicians now, and they’re just really eager to play, and they end up doing so for much less money. That brings the entire scene down because now pub owners just pay for whoever comes cheaper.”
Despite getting a raw deal financially, the new generation of musicians is even more hopeful, even more determined, and fiercely optimistic about the future. “It’s a risk, but at the end of the day, if you do something that you love, if you’re honest with it, if you’re dedicated to your craft, sooner or later money will come in,” says Alobo Naga, frontman of the popular Dimapur-based contemporary progressive rock band, Alobo Naga & The Band. “Most indie musicians, when they aren’t touring or playing gigs are usually teaching music to make some money. We’re not making a lot of it, but at least we’re really happy doing what we love and being part of this exciting time for indie in India.”
Brunch recommends: Seven promising new Indie music artistes you should listen to:
Formed in: 2011, Based in: New Delhi, Genre/Sound: Indian classical-folk-Western psychedelic-punk
Tritha Sinha was four when she started learning Hindustani classical music. Hailing from a non-musical family in Kolkata, she went on to win the Close-up Antakshari in 2001, thereby setting off on her solo music journey very young. A decade later, Tritha Electric was born in Delhi, “in the golden TLR (café) era of the (Hauz Khas) Village,” when Sinha came together with drummer Paul Schneiter, bassist Tony Guinard and guitarist Mathias Durand.
The ethnopunk ensemble regularly tours abroad but their audience in India, they say, is more diverse, from “college kids hungry for new music to older people who appreciate Indian classical traditions and still enjoy our interpretations”.
Formed in: 2013, Based in: Mumbai, Genre/Sound: Funk-nu disco
‘Madboy’ Imaad Shah and ‘Mink’ Saba Azad may be just two years old on the circuit, but their all-encompassing sounds – old school funk, swing, disco, gypsy, Harlem, jazz, blues (phew!) topped with post-modern electronica – are travelling through India.
The duo can often be seen prancing on stage: Shah with his floppy mop of hair, Azad bubbly in funky outfits and hairdos; their music as sprightly as their personalities. “Let’s just say that our palette and canvas are both wanderers at heart,” says Azad. One listen of their latest EP Union Farm, and you’ll be wandering too, back to the ’60s and ’70s, heady with nostalgia, resisting the urge to get up and dance.
Started performing live in: 2011, Based in: New Delhi, Genre/Sound: Indie folk-pop
Singer/songwriter Prateek Kuhad is easily one of the most promising artistes in the scene right now. His soft, acoustic numbers with some indie folk influences and laidback vocals in English or Hindi are easy on the ears, something that you can sway to.
Growing up in Jaipur in a family of lawyers, he started playing the guitar at 16, and writing songs by 19. “To me, songwriting is a single cohesive process of finding the perfect combination of words and tune,” he says. It was while studying at New York University that he started playing gigs. After releasing his EP in 2011, he moved back to India and has been playing across the country ever since.
Started performing live in: 2015, Based in: New Delhi, Genre: Progressive house
Earlier this year, DJ Kerano launched his first EDM single along with Polish electro-house biggie Tom Swoon. He signed with the American record label giant Ultra Music – the first Indian to do so. And he is all of 24!
Karanvir Singh comes from a family of garment exporters. He started playing the drums and guitar at a very young age, and moved on to producing music digitally under the alias North & South. After rebranding as DJ Kerano, he started performing across the country this year, gathering a big following along the way. He loves playing in smaller places like Indore – “the excitement there is more palpable; people just come to enjoy the music and dance to their heart’s content without bothering to take selfies.”
Formed in: 2010, Based in: Nagaland, Genre: Contemporary progressive rock with pop sounds
Alobo Naga started singing when he was five years old, and by 11, he was writing his own songs. “But being from a traditional Indian family, everyone said, ‘You can’t make a living out of music if it’s not Bollywood’,” he says. So he went on to do a double masters and got a full-time job. “But I couldn’t do it. I quit and went back to music full time.”
When he formed his band and started playing, they didn’t have a name. “A newspaper called us Alobo Naga and the band, and that simply stuck.” In the five years of its existence, the band has gathered over 65,000 followers on Facebook, and gone on to win the Best Indian Act at MTV Europe Music Awards in 2012.
6 The Ganesh Talkies
Formed in: 2011, Based in: Kolkata, Genre: Alternate-rock-pop-Bollywood kitsch
“Whether you like it or not, Bollywood is a big part of our existence in India,” says lead singer Suyasha Sen. It was their unified love for all things filmi that brought this band together in Kolkata in 2011. With other influences like Nirvana, Radiohead, System of a Down, Red Hot Chili Peppers and “Ramsay Brothers, Bappi Lahiri, and shiny objects” all coming together, their unique sound was born.
While their earlier songs had a strong element of nostalgia, “our recent material has a lot of my views on gender stereotypes and the political situation in the country today. I’m angry, ranty and young,” Sen says. “If I don’t let my music talk about things relevant today, who will?”
7 Peter Cat Recording Co (PCRC)
Formed in: 2010, Based in: New Delhi, Genre/Sound: Gypsy jazz-cabaret
Perhaps the most popular amongst the newer entrants in the indie scene, thanks to their collaboration on the music of the Dibakar Banerjee-directed Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, PCRC’s music is “for people who drink, have intimacy issues, don’t belong to this time or place, and have a general regard for beauty without identity.” “There is no arriving; we present curated accidents,” says bassist Rohan Kulshreshtha. Even after receiving considerable stardom in the indie circle, the funky, quirky four-piece band prefers playing at small bars or clubs, “with a capacity of at least 200 people, even though far less show up.” Needless to say, their sense of humour extends to their music as well.
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From HT Brunch, September 20
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