Indian Rock: Dark side of the tune?

Rock music in India has few takers. If it’s in English, it’s a death sentence. As rock aficionados growing up in guitar starved hinterlands of the country, we wonder why we can’t kick ass when it comes to those feral frets.


20 August, 2007:

To yeh thé ab tak ke samachar, ab prastut hai pashchatya sangeet ka karyakram…” was the closest one ever got to ‘western music’ growing up in a small town in India in the late 70s and early 80s. As Karen Carpenters crooned Top of the World on Akashvani, we turned up the faltering volume of our radio, adjusting the Short Wave frequency a tad to get clearer, beeeep-byoooo free sound. The LP shops had limited supply of Elvises, Abba, Boney M, Osibisa, and the likes that cashed in on the Disco Fever then, but rarely did one find something close to Led Zeppelin, or the Doors. Rock, as a form of music, was literally unknown to the ears of us village people.

Cassettes made a foray into the Indian music market, and companies like T-series caught on big time, selling pirated compilations of popular music in the West. We were growing up, and growing out of our minds. Synth sounds were soon losing their appeal to the bursting hormones of soon to be teens like us. They called it rock, we learned to stone ourselves to it. We’d found something that made sense to our against-the-odds grain.

Rock Goes Mainstream

That was a long time ago, but things changed soon. The gulf war of 1991 opened the floodgates to media in India. MTV was one of the channels that was beamed, along with CNN. Like a godsend, it brought to us what we had been missing all these years. Pop music apart, it was rock we lapped up like hungry dogs. However, as an audience, our numbers were critically minimal. Something that stays almost the same compared to music that does well in India today - Justin Timberlake and Shakira.

 It was only bands like Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and U2 that caught the fancy of those who preferred Spice Girls over Santana. To a large majority, rock began and ended with Deep Purple’s Highway Star – their love for rock only amounting to name-dropping and wanting to sound fashionably rebellious and with it.

Hindustani Western Music

While all this came to pass, India has not been devoid of its own share of ‘western musicians’. We had Usha Uthup’s powerful vocals dishing out almost every genre of songs that played offshore as long back as the late 60s and 70s. Classical musicians like Ustad Zakir Hussain collaborated on fusion-jazz projects. Gary Lawyer blended country music sensibilities with a touch of rock in the 80’s. But it was only in the 90s we dared enough to dabble in pure rock music Indus Creed even came out with videos that MTV was quick to promote.

Pentagram, Parikrama soon became synonymous with college fest gigs. With them, we finally had our own rock bands – and they inspired others to step ahead with their devilled guitars. But one fact remained – not many found commercial success in India, let alone outside of it. Indian rock usually suffers from lack of funding, because it is largely considered non-marketable by the industry big-wigs. Whatever efforts one sees are mostly driven out of passion – reflected through magazines such as the Allahabad based Rock Street Journal, dedicated to rock and metal.

Change is Blowin' in the Wind

Indian rock music has steadily held on, slowly morphing its sounds to reach out to its audiences, no matter how niche they are. Millennium, India’s very own heavy metal band from Bangalore, opened up the floor for heavier sounds on the Indian rock circuit. Motherjane, a prog-rock band from Cochin followed suit, bringing Indian rock to international audiences. Orange Street gave rap-rock a distinctive Indian face. Them Clones fused a variety of genres, from grunge to techno and even Punjabi.

Pentagram took off from where Indus Creed had left off. It was the first fastest selling Indian rock band, enjoyed wide airplay on music channels, and being noticed internationally. The band’s success is chiefly because of the band’s openness to experimentation. Plus, the band has sound financial backing, which allows it considerable freedom in terms of the kind of music it will like to produce. Their sound now encompasses motley of influences in what the band calls as progressive alternative pop. In a clever and novel attempt to promote their single My Voice in 2007, the band invited people to send in films shot on their mobile phones, to be used as the video for the song.

A seemingly dull Chennai burst into a loud riot of sound through Moksha. Born out of music competitions at various college fests, Moksha brought their interpretation of music by bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica, and Extreme. Like Moksha, many bands found college fests and competitions their cradle. Antaragni, a fusion band from Chennai, made waves with its simplistic, yet strong folk and fusion inclinations.

Bands like Euphoria have infused their music with local flavors from north India. And they sang in Hindi. Indian Ocean’s Kandisa is another brilliant example of how rock fuses well with Indian folk sounds. A new breed of underground rock music needs to be mentioned here as well. The Sutta song, and its ilk – India’s answer to indie music abroad – go a step further. Their nonchalant use of Hindi expletives ensured instant stardom among campus youths, and those long out of it but not yet the geriatric generation.

When I first heard the sound of Lionnel Mascarenhas’ Wonderland, I sat up and listened to it over and over again. I’d not heard a voice like this for the longest time. I could not believe this was an Indian band. Lionnel’s soft yet strong vocals, with a remarkably melodic music arrangement raised instant hope in me – of a band that could certainly compete with the best of imported sounds in India. I decided to meet the band, one of the most rewarding decisions I have taken of late. So, on a rainy Sunday evening, I joined the gang on their rehearsals. Watching the bunch practice for their upcoming concert was pure fun. Their camaraderie, their jibes at each other, and their sync with each reflected in the band’s music.

According to the band, Wonderland is “a rich mix of styles and soundscapes”. True to the claim, Wonderland comes as a pleasant prelude to what could follow. The songs are easy on the ears, and Lionnel’s songwriting skills bear testimony to the band’s immense talent. The band members agree that they would love to experiment with different genres of music, their inspirations from people as different as Gary Barlow and Cat Stevens to bands like Coldplay.

Aatur, the band’s drummer, eased me with the questions I had in mind about the state of rock music in India. He stated, in his matter-of-fact wit, that audiences for rock in India contribute zilch worldwide. Add to it the fact that English is mostly lingua-non-franca for music listeners in India.

Lionnel and his band have had their share of playing rock. The band still does it, but, as Aatur puts it – they do not wish to restrict their music. They have no qualms advocating experimentation, while still sticking to their good old rock roots. The band has also beefed up its online presence with a well-detailed site, which has helped them get publicity and gig bookings.

Rock Sounds Richer

The Indian rock scene seems to have become a melting pot of influences, and comes across as more open to experimentation than bands outside of the country. Add to it the plethora of options to experiment with, the rich and diverse Indian classical and folk music. This is where Indian rock bands have an edge, and a chance of creating sounds quite distinct from mainstream rock elsewhere.

The rising popularity of western music competitions and college gigs that attracted fresh talent in India caught the attention of music channels. Channel V launched its new look with focus on youth, and came out props with its obvious support for Indian pop and rock bands. Unlike MTV, Channel V focused more on the underground music scene, and not on Hindi film music. It made sure that other forms of music earned their fare share of limelight among the dhik-chick sounds of Anu Malik compositions and the love-handled babes of remix videos.

College fests at IITs, IIMs, and other premier institutes, and independent events such as Great Indian Rock, Campus Rock Idols, Independence Rock (iRock) found sponsors, helping boost the quality of participant bands, and opening the stage for newcomers all over India. Rock had finally made inroads into cities apart from metropolises.

Of Comfort Zones and Derring-Do

Many bands still continue to produce music in English – purely out of their passion. With hardly any takers for such music, often the bands manage on their own, shelling out funds from their own pockets, and taking on legal and marketing hassles.

Rock bands from India stand lesser chances of success abroad. This could be attributed to the fact that rock is essentially considered ‘white music’; the idea of Indian rock may just be as bizarre as a white man rapping. Perhaps, calling it rock music would be a misnomer for Indian bands, who would do well to broaden their scope and experiment with Alternative.

As the band Parikrama describes it, singing in English in India is equivalent to being untouchable to music labels. If you are a rock band, you’re as good as non-existent to them. Parikrama, like many other bands, is not deterred, but all the more determined to not compromise on their music. If the labels don’t want them, they will promote their music through free downloads, and of course, concerts. That’s the band’s way of showing the finger to commerce as far as music industry is concerned. We aren’t complaining. And yes, as the cliché everyone seems to sport as their ticket to cooldom goes – rock on.





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