Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Great Indian Band Phenomenon

Do you know that over 90% of bands that were formed in the 2000s had members who had a room of their own when they grew up in the nineties? That over 80% of them owned a PC and a walkman? And that over 70% of them had access to dial-up internet before the year 2000? 
Apologies, the numbers are made up. But the statistics are not. Just replace the percentage figures with “most" and this will give us two insights- one, on how percentages can be quoted to make an article sound well-researched and two, how the “Great Indian Band Phenomenon” came to be.

The world's first portable mp3 player,
The Audio Highway Listen Up.
(Photo courtesy TIME magazine

What did you grow up listening to? If you were a part of the average papa-mummy family unit of the nineties, it is unlikely that you listened to music on the then state-of-the-art Audio Highway Listen Up (Not if you pocketed a 75000$ allowance, that is) My own narrow avenue to the world of music was a rickety-rackety BPL two-in-one tape player. Being from a respectable middle class family, this piece of sonic equipment was strictly vegetarian. It would play ghazals and ballads of the Sanu-Udit-Alka musical triumvirate of the 90s with glee, while stubbornly refusing to play Backstreet Boys or anything beyond. Any English songs’ cassette that went in was faithfully disembowelled  and came out with tangled ribbons of magnetic tape that had to be surgically unravelled and then rolled back (a Nataraj pencil or Reynolds pen cap usually did the trick)

The prized possession back in the days was the walkman. Personally, I think it was a wonderful gizmo and I rate it above both the tablet and the touch phone as a trend setting gadget, (and so does TIME. See TIME's list of the most influential gadgets: Sony Walkman) for it spared mummies and daddies from listening to outrageous mentions of love (of the other kind) and body-parts in lyrics of hip-hop and pop songs which could now thump directly in our ears. Still, our access to 'western' music was limited to a few pop albums, mostly boy-band fare. Nirvana, Def Leppard, Metallica and their pot-smoking, members of the '27 club' predecessors were still out of reach. Enter the internet. Enter rock.

It was Elvis,the king, Presley who lit the rock’n’roll torch in USA, it was Linkin Park who did the same in India. To some of us angst laden teenagers, their songs carried true meaning. They were songs on how they were betrayed in love and “in the end” lost the love of their lives. I didn’t have one to start with, but I could nevertheless, relate to the music. At about the same time, some kids listening to them were thinking, “Sounds like a jumble of bartan banging drums, screaming vocals and heavy guitar riffs. Hey!! I can do this. Dad, buy me a guitar. Now!!”

“Pop music often tells you everything is OK, while rock music tells you that it's not OK, but you can change it.”  (Bono, U2)

Once you understand the origins of popular rock music in India, you can now understand why Indian rock sounds like a pastiche of sounds from rock’n’roll music of bygone decades. Indian rock and Indian rockers did not originate from any desire to give expression to resentment against the system (numero uno example, Credence Clearwater Revival) or to express any angst resulting from the growing pains and confused emotions of youth (as in Placebo). They were merely a me-too phenomena that is so trademark of the Indian populace. I believe the Pakistani rock scene did a brilliant job in avoiding an as-it-is import by basing their rock primarily in Urdu. Junoon, Jal and Strings use lyrics that are based in contemporary Pakistani society. In India, bands like Euphoria, Kailasa and Indian Ocean write songs grounded in Indian roots. But they are few and far between.

Rock need not always deal with issues and its lyrics need not always delve deep into the recesses of human emotion. Its attraction lies in its rawness. How its lyrics is not manufactured by paid lyricists keeping “public-demand” in mind. How the vocals don’t sound hokey and detached like those of filmy playback singing. For me, however, a rock song truly comes alive when it touches a chord within. Try as hard as I might, I cannot relate to songs spewing venom on how useless our lives are (courtesy desi Gothic Rock. Bhayanak Maut is a popular band of this genre) or how I sorely miss my imaginary girlfriend. These are trivialities better left to Marilyn Manson, Himesh Reshamiya and Baba Sehgal. 


  1. Evidently you haven't heard of bands like Motherjane who have incorporated Indian sounds including the tabla and the sitar into their music.

    Or even of how international bands like Tool have used the very instruments mentioned above in their songs.

    I do agree with you on the fact that the Indian rock movement is so far not rooted in Indian roots, hence does not come from the heart and hence does not truly appeal to Indian sensibilities. However, it should be evident to anyone that everyone needs to go through a learning phase before settling on a particular style.

    Just as you do not listen to the same music as you did in class 8th, metal musicians will not be playing similar sounding stuff all their lives. Give it time. The rock 'movement' has only just kicked its heels and is only gathering pace NOW. They need to evolve and ape their favourite bands before settling on a style of their own. And when that time comes, you can be sure it will be rooted in Indian sensibilities. Unless you only count Bollywood as Indian music.

    PS: You seem to have something against extreme metal. It may be the pleasantest to the ears, but as a musician myself, I can safely tell you that they are an absolutely insanely awesome way to learning music theory because of the complexity involved. Case in point - Meshuggah.

    1. I don't get your point when you mention Motherjane and Tool using Indian sounds. What are you trying to say...?

    2. It is not about the instruments (or loudness) and it is not about the language either. The songs can be in Marathi for all I care. All I am saying is since rock is all about sharing emotions and ideas, shouldn't it be grounded in collective experiences we have as a society/ generation/ nation. When it comes to "My Generation", I can relate neither to the Kinks nor Limp Bizkit. We just have single mainstream hit on the Bombay riots (Indian Ocean), none on the Gujarat riots, none on teenage angst. Whereas there are like a million songs on the Vietnam War. I don't see our bands catering to any of these 'ripe' lyrics material. Btw, listen to the soundtrack of Udaan. You'll understand what I mean. I would like more of that. It's like carrying an image on your tee you don't relate to. Then whether it is Mao, Stalin, Che or Prakash Karat. All are the same to you.

    3. Which is why I made the point about evolution. Black Sabbath didn't evolve their sound catering to their sensibilities overnight either. The metal scene has seen a definite spurt of growth in the past 2-3 years in India. People need time to understand the music before being creative enough to compose their own. But trust me, when it comes, it'll come big because in a way, the entire metal scene in India is maturing at the same time.

      Imagine playing the riffs of War Pigs but using lyrics on the Gujarat riots. It would suck right? Hence, the point of evolution comes up again. The best music is that in which the 'feel' of the music matches the lyrics. Hence I mention the usage of Indian instruments. Only when music composition, instruments and lyrics come together will we see exactly what you're looking for.

      Give musicians some time. It's too soon to judge something that is, to all ends and purposes, at a very nascent stage in our country.

  2. May not(be the pleasantest to the ears)*

  3. I agree with you on the 'me-too' phenomena and aping tendencies of Indian 'musicians'. Rock was meant to be original, raw, expressing your emotions (not necessarily angst or disapproval of the society), but look what they have made it into..... its actually sad.

  4. ....and since you mention Linkin Park, man... I HATED that band when I had come to college. That was the first time I had heard a 'rock song', and it sounded to me like they were punishing me for listening to them...... and I have still not understood why does a Rock-fan need to show to the world that he/she is a Rock-fan and that too by playing songs at volume levels that could destroy your ability to listen to any form of music, by wearing a painted T, and the most hideous looks.
    Isn't it about the music...?

    1. Abhas you sound like 'a' dad. Well showing off has no genre. Take away a "dude's" Ozzy t-shirt and he'll start showing off his Justin Beiber 'imported' undies. You cannot help these people. And I am letting the world know, that Abhas is personally responsible for claiming an eardrum or two. He played drums in the college 'band.' ;-)

  5. With every word that I read above, I felt as if I was reading my thoughts penned down by someone else. Agree.

  6. Again and yet again.. i think I like whatever you write but still though i like it am not sure if i qualify to comment on this one coz for me .. ROCK.. is noise .. well thats what I concluded from whatever i heard from that genre. .. and so I dont much focus on its development in India.. but since you mentioned Udaan in one of your comments and if thats "Indian Rock" then I LIKE IT.. I think my problem is i dont categorize music to sub compartments (its for more evolved-heads like you).. for me its just the lyrics, the beats and the meaning.. whatever it be then.

  7. Again and yet again.. i think I like whatever you write but still though i like it am not sure if i qualify to comment on this one coz for me .. ROCK.. is noise .. well thats what I concluded from whatever i heard from that genre. .. and so I dont much focus on its development in India.. but since you mentioned Udaan in one of your comments and if thats "Indian Rock" then I LIKE IT.. I think my problem is i dont categorize music to sub compartments (its for more evolved-heads like you).. for me its just the lyrics, the beats and the meaning.. whatever it be then.

    P.S :: Sneha - ashish for your pranam..

  8. I agree with blindly aping the western scene to an extent. But the change is visible. Obviously in any system most of the bands that are formed have to be crappy and unsuccessful . I mean we don't listen to a lot of non famous, non successful western bands. Bands like Motherjane, Avial , Raghu Dixit Project, Swarathma and Agam have created new sounds blending a lot of genres and for an ardent and eager listener the rock scene in India was never better :)

  9. dude...mast likha hain.... and after reading this, i feel there is scope of a sequel...anyways respect..

  10. Nicely written buddy .. I think indian bands too are coming up with innovative techniques for expressing the souls in their songs be it with the MTV Unplugged versions or MTV Roots .. Honestly i am not a big fan of Hard Rock Music, but i believe as far as indian music is considered, it will surely pick up and i m sure someday your son might be humming the tones of Indian Rock Bands with the same ardent passion as that of Floyds or Zeppelin ...

    And about the blog... Only thing that comes to my mind reading your refreshing blogs is "YEH DIL MAANGE MORE" :D :)

  11. How dare you say anything against param-poojya Himeshji and "India's first hip-hop rapper" Baba Sehgal (of "rock and roll with the Balle-Balle king" fame)?!
    Memories of a lifetime have been made crooning "Aaja meri gaadi mein baith ja" to chicks at bus-stops.

    On a more serious note, I am told the noise and growl and melodic doom tunes of that abomination centred around death metal is the expression of resentment against the system, or as Jack Black put it in that amazing ode to rock music School of Rock, sticking it to The Man. Doesn't make it any less criminal, in my view, but just adding a perspective.