While the rest of Delhi tunes out before midnight, the head-banging revellers at Café Morrison boo the DJ for playing a pop-like song. Amends are made, and a Megadeth number blasts through the modest bar in the southern part of the city.
An appreciative cheer also erupts from the quieter group of artists and professionals who tuck into their kebabs and conversation.
They insist that only Rock and Metal music grace the crowded-room that glows red in the brazen orange lights. In haunts like these, all over the country, similar scenes unfold.
Still in his work clothes, a young associate in a Big Four firm, Pranay Das, is lost to the world. Eyes wrinkled in concentration, he mouths the words of a Deep Purple song and his fingers ferociously pound an imaginary guitar.
Ten years ago, MTV led many English-speaking teenagers to Jon Bon Jovi and Santana. Back then, Das was enticing his high-school classmates with Metallica, and Black Sabbath —pariahs in the land of Bollywood awakening to Western popular music.
Down the road, the 25-year-old and many like him turned in their guitar pecks for stable jobs. They still remain loyal to the Rock fraternity in India.
“The Indian Rock scene is going to explode soon,” declares Das, ecstatically. “It’s been a long time coming.” This year at least 20 Rock/Metal albums have been released, which is more than all of the nineties.
A former drummer and vocalist, Shashwat Gupta, 26, decided to enter into the business side of the industry when he discovered he had “no music talent.”
Gupta has launched a record label company and is currently managing nine groups.
The entrepreneur wants his agency to become “a one stop solution” for all upcoming Indian bands. “Opportunities are booming," he says. “But with the CD days over I’m thinking about new business models."
A book called 'Twitter Power: How to dominate your market one tweet at a time', slides back and forth on the car dashboard as he drives to meet his “baby band” — Constellation.
On a scorching afternoon, the six-month-old ensemble is practicing in a dingy music academy tucked away in a back alley.
With a couple of songs under their belt, they feel ready to hit the Delhi circuit before the year ends.
The rookie rocker starts out by playing in college competitions and Rock festivals. The next step is to get gigs, and then cut an album. The trend of independent music or “Indie music” is dominant, since it permits the artists greater flexibility in their work. The long-term success of a band now depends on creating high-quality original material.
Constellation is making “experimental music"— a stew of jazz, punk, pop, rock and metal. One of their songs, “Daytime Barbie” parodies Indian soap operas, and another called “Ring the Bell” is about domestic violence.
“The Delhi audience has really evolved and we think people will like it,” says Nikhil Kaul, the guitarist and song writer.
“People on Myspace and Facebook say that we have a very international sound,” chimes in Garima Aheja, the lead singer.
Still, music isn’t enough to survive. A recent college graduate, Aheja faces worried parents at home. “You get demotivated at times,” she sighs. “I know this won’t put bread and butter on the table.”
While two other members of their band have regular jobs, Aheja and Kaul, both 22, nervously joke about being cut-off soon by their families.
These days, it’s easier to get music out there but tougher to make money. New acts make their songs freely available on the Internet for publicity, very few fans buy CDs, and paying gigs go to a handful of veteran bands.
Even so, the Rock fraternity continues to grow. “If you don’t risk it, you won’t get the biscuit,” shrugs Kaul. There are estimated to be more than 350 bands nestled in small towns and big cities. More than 400 shows happen in a year, some featuring idols like Iron Maiden. Equipment stores selling low-priced musical instruments are thriving. Public spaces are available at low costs for jam sessions.
The music pundits credit this “revolution” to the Internet. The web has improved access to a diverse range of international artists and their work.
“Metal is no longer just about imitating Metallica,” says Andrew Lu, a senior editor at the home-grown Rock Street Journal.
The magazine concentrates on promoting local talent, and educating its readers with features like “Essential Guide to Metal”. It has increased its circulation from 1,000 to 50,000 in the past few years.
“I remember a time when we had to go from pillar to post to get hands on one Metal magazine,” says Reuben Bhattacharya, the bassist for Undying Inc, which has been playing Heavy Metal since 2001.
The 29-year-old from Shillong is confident that the demand for his music will rise. “The metal crowd is fastest growing because there is so much happening in the country with poverty, taxation, terrorism,” he says.
Bollywood, too, has caught on. Last year, the movie “Rock on” told the story of four band members that split up, and then reunite after several years for one final showdown at a Rock concert.
Since only 10 per cent of India's more than one billion people speak English, the movie’s success sparked suggestions that singing rock music in Hindi and regional languages will attract a larger audience.
Although the “puritan” musicians in Delhi mock the Bollywoodised version of Rock, they acknowledge its role in mainstreaming the fringe music. As Gupta exclaims, “It has transformed the image of a rocker from a druggy to a real person.”
(Betwa is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India)