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.
BY KSHITIJ BISEN
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.