Art & Culture

How Western music covers have yielded to a fertile, original indie music scene in India

Ajay Mankotia
Ajay MankotiaSep 15, 2020 | 14:30

How Western music covers have yielded to a fertile, original indie music scene in India

The indie scene is buzzing with huge potential and the future looks promising.

I heard a band play English music live for the first time in Chandigarh in the late 1960s. I was 12 years old. My father was posted there as an Air Force Squadron Commander. The band consisted of airmen — all Christians (of whom some were Anglo-Indians) hailing from Bombay, Bangalore, and Kerala. The band was named ‘The Shockin’ Blues’ (which was also the name of the Dutch band formed in 1967 whose song ‘Venus’ was to become very popular in India in the early 1970s). To differentiate themselves from this blatant copy, they dropped the ‘g’ from ‘Shocking’ and added ‘s’ to ‘Blue’. They would play in military messes during official functions and at our sprawling bungalow lawns during social get-togethers. The feeling of elation and excitement to hear live the familiar English songs — ranging from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys in the early part of the proceedings, to the softer melodies of Elvis, Tom Jones, Jim Reeves and other crooners in the latter part (when couples would do the slow dance) — is forever etched in my mind. Hearing a band live has its own charm. The intimate connection with the music and the musicians, the shared audience experience, the bonhomie, the spontaneity of the music which vinyl cannot deliver.

During my college days in Delhi, I heard many bands at college festivals in the city and other colleges across the country, and music shows (the open-air amphitheatre in Pragati Maidan was very popular). They were usually a rag-tag assemblage of college students who had a talent for music. Money was a pittance. In any case, nobody really played for monetary considerations. Playing before an appreciative audience was a high for them. The overhang of the sweet-smelling cloud over the stage and the ground revealed another kind of ‘high’ which was an abiding feature of such live performances. The songs were covers of well-known English songs which the audience was familiar with and could relate to.

For some time, I became a DJ in the iconic The Cellar discotheque in the basement of Regal Building of Connaught Place in New Delhi in the late 1970s. I had to play LPs on the turntable. The paraphernalia and technology and the adulation and creativity that informs today’s DJ scene was completely missing that time. The job entailed feeling the pulse of the audience and playing the appropriate song, and of course, complying with requests (which bizarrely one day included playing the dialogues of Sholay which was politely declined for lack of the relevant disc). One day I received a request for JJ Cale. The record companies had not released the artist in India. So, I played Eric Clapton’s cover of Cale’s After Midnight — who says covers did not happen abroad? They did, but in a very limited way.

Bands would occasionally play there to a packed audience, normally during the Christmas and New Year season. But only cover versions of English songs. If the band was plain vanilla, then you could expect straightforward songs. If it were more evolved, then maybe Led Zeppelin or Uriah Heep. The same thing was happening across the length and breadth of the country. Bands were playing cover versions — be it Trincas in Calcutta (Kolkata), or Razzberry Rhinoceros in Bombay (Mumbai), or other restaurants, nightclubs, or discotheques. There was no original music happening.

Musicians always did so for fun and passion. It was never supposed to be a viable career. Music was copied and regurgitated to fans. This cemented their love for Western bands and stymied the growth of original material.

There were other factors too. It is not that musicians were incapable of original work. But the right time had not arrived. The English music programs on the radio were very few and limited to cities. In Delhi, All India Radio would have ‘In the Groove’ every evening for 25 minutes. It was a great honour to clear the audition to host it and be paid for it, even though the amount was nominal. Then there was ‘Date with You’ every Sunday night, and ‘Forces Request’ every Monday night. Record labels would only release limited popular Western acts. The fortunate ones who travelled abroad could lay their hands on bands otherwise not available in India. And not every music listener had a turntable or a cassette player. There would be the All India Simla Beat Contest in the early 1970s where only cover versions were played by artists.

So, there you have it: Limited exposure to English music on the radio, record companies playing it safe and bands playing for a lark and sticking to the tried and tested. Listeners were starved of music and whenever they would attend concerts – which were few and far between – they would be loath to hear anything unfamiliar. Some intrepid bands did try it. But the audience would not tolerate it. Either there was nothing unique by way of style or theme, or even if there was, it was cliched and just not good enough.

I recall Susmit Bose releasing Winter Baby in 1973. It got some radio time, but the song and the embedded protest was in the style of Bob Dylan.

Cover versions would continue during the 1970s until the 1980s.

However, the bands were becoming more professional and proficient. Musicianship became more sophisticated and seriously talented players began joining the growing tribe. Bands started playing various styles of music — from pop, rock and roll, pop-rock, to hard rock and metal. From the early 1980s until the mid-1980s, disco dominated.

With the arrival of MTV, tastes rapidly changed. This encouraged the bands to harden their style and focus more on underground styles such as death metal, alternative metal, and progressive rock. The 1990s saw the rise of a much larger following of various harder styles for this reason. Bands that had formed in the 1980s, such as ‘Rock Machine’ (who would later be known as ‘Indus Creed’) altered their style with the influx of newer techniques and influences from the West.

Indus Creed in fact are considered the pioneers of rock music in the country. They blazed a trail across India well before the advent of satellite TV, setting the stage for today’s fertile indie scene. For the uninitiated, ‘indie’ music – short for independent music – is created independently of commercial record labels. The path-breaking albums of Indus Creed are still considered seminal works. The multi-award-winning band first put India on the international rock map from the late 1980s to the late 1990s. They released their first original work in 1988 — Rock N Roll Renegade. The album signalled a tectonic shift for the Indian rock music scene. Some of the most popular bands that were formed later, including Parikrama, Agnee and Zero, were all influenced by the sound that the band created.

Rock Machine did not just embolden other bands to play originals but brought a whole new generation of musicians into being. The band had made the album to promote their first international shows in USSR under the aegis of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). Many albums were released over the years. In 1994, MTV produced a Rockumentary on Indus Creed, the first they had created on a non-Western act. It was during this time that Euphoria surfaced on the Indian scene. The band later started writing in Hindi and gave birth to what is known as ‘Hindi Rock’.

The early 1990s represent a watershed for Indie music. It was the time when a new generation of fusion bands like the Indian Ocean, Parikrama and Pentagram began making their presence felt. It was also the time of economic liberalisation that changed the world of music. Online media (and social media, subsequently) also brought about a change in the music ecosystem.

An Indian subgenre of rock came into existence, which focused on blending traditional Indian styles of music with rock music. The floodgates of moving into original territory had opened. As in the decades before, university campuses and campus rock shows continued to be the driving force behind determining what kind of band would succeed and what kind of music young people liked.

In 1996, Colonial Cousins arrived with a huge bang. Their eponymous first album hit platinum in sales in India alone and consistently headed the Indian music charts. The style was essentially fusion, with a lot of songs opening with Hindustani or Carnatic ragas and then segueing into a more pop style (which many other fusion bands were also attempting).

They received numerous awards, notably the MTV Asia Viewers’ Choice Award, 1996, and the US Billboard's Viewers' Award, 1996. They released more albums thereafter. But their success was an exception. Hariharan was a ghazal singer in the Indian music industry for over two decades at that time and had also lent his voice to many Hindi and Tamil films. This was a quasi-Bollywood offering from a known singer and hence the mileage and the support was way beyond other bands’ wildest dreams. Of course, the final product was outstanding.

In 2008, music journalist Abhimanyu Kukreja directed Rockumentary — Becoming of Indian Rock. The documentary was the first of its kind on Indian rock that showcased the evolution of rock music in India starting from the 1960s. The documentary featured Indian bands.

Riding on the rock wave, Bollywood would release Rock On (2008), Rockstar (2011) and Rock On 2 (2016) which would have outstanding rock songs. But these were Bollywood offerings with the financial and marketing muscle backing the projects. Hence, these were aberrations to the general rule of bands struggling to remain viable.  

Meanwhile, the other bands were not sitting idle. Consider some examples of the kind of experimentation going on — a devotional poem set in Carnatic raga turning into a psychedelic trip, funky riffs over Hindustani classical vocals, ‘Punk Bhajan’, traditional Assamese boat song suffused with a heavy dose of rock and a hypnotic rhythm section, the traditional Maharashtrian refrain of Ganpati festival with dhol drumbeats. These themes heralded a rebirth of the Indian folk music scene, emboldening groups to wear their regional music influences like a badge. ‘Vedic metal’ music was born based around Hindu themes.

And consider the style — alt-rock, electro post-punk, blues, folk-tinged prog rock, Carnatic-style fret-play, electronic music, New-Age World music, instrumental rock — nothing was off the table. Some of the themes covered godmen and preachers, ‘Bilqis’ the gang-rape victim during the Gujarat riots in 2002, freedom, making the Earth a greener place, Aramaic-language prayer jam, Narmada, music journalists, and missing persons in Jammu and Kashmir.

Goa-based author, musician and life coach Jonathan Sequeira wrote a book Life Lessons From When I Was In A Rock Band. It featured his own quirky tales from being part of bands and included wisdom from seasoned Indian bands.

So, what is the situation of indie music now?

Mainstream record labels in India still ignore indie music, with a few exceptions. Album sales are abysmally low. Bands also fail to sell their songs even after making them available to major music stores. The reason is that Bollywood songs still rule the airwaves and indie music is heard by a niche audience. The music scene has been monopolised by Bollywood and there is no escaping it. The Mikas and Badshahs have hijacked FM channels and nightclubs. No matter where you go, you will be bombarded with the same kind of music. It’s happening in the erstwhile colonial clubs too. Last year, on New Year’s Eve, the Gymkhana Club in New Delhi had about a hundred people dancing to the English music band in the main hall, while more than thousand danced to Bollywood re-mixes and the Honey Singhs in the lawns outside. Nothing wrong with that — but that is a pointer to the current state of affairs.

But green shoots emerge even through cemented pavements. Things are not so dismal. In the last few years, bands and artists have made a concerted effort to make their songs more accessible to audiences beyond their live gigs, through channels like iTunes, YouTube and Facebook. The scene has also been transformed by the rise of several online portals promoting Indie music. Rock Street Journal and Rolling Stone India are promoting Indian bands and artists. Some record labels have also come up dedicated to promoting and supporting Indie music.

JD Rock Awards honours artists from the Indian indie music scene. There has been an explosion in the number of venues where bands can play, as also the number of music festivals. Music has also moved into the hinterland and stopped being metro-centric.

But despite the talent in the country, can the bands/artists step out of their limited area of influence and become pan-Indian? Many have. But can they go global? A few have. The English language is not necessary. Look at K-Pop. Millennium opened for the Deep Purple concert where I was present. Deep Purple, curious to know how they would stack up against the opening act, spent a polite minute or two in front of the stage and went back to their Green Room. Not that Millennium was bad – they were very good. But the chasm between bands/artists like them and a world-class act was still some years away to be bridged. Parikrama (who also ran a music school in New Delhi, from where my son learnt guitar) had a somewhat better experience when they opened for Iron Maiden (which my young son insisted on seeing, so I had to fly to Bangalore with him). But that was in the past.

Presently, there is a huge silver lining in the form of some artists who are doing excellent original work – Raghav Meattle, Tejas, Mali, Samar Mehdi, Abhilasha Sinha, Kamakshi Khanna, Peter Cat Recording Co., Parekh and Singh, Sumer Bhatia and many others. The list is not exhaustive.

Prateek Kuhad has taken the rest of the world by storm in recent years, winning accolades around the globe. His Cold/Mess proved to be his breakout year in North America that culminated with three sold-out shows in New York. The song made it to Barack Obama’s list of 2019’s favourite music. Rave reviews followed Kuhad everywhere he went. His In Tokens and Charms was a hit and won an MTV Europe Music Award, Indie Album of the Year from iTunes, and Best Pop Artist at the Radio City Freedom Awards. The album’s ‘Oh Love’ captured first place in the International Songwriting Competition. He has travelled the world for festival performances. Nike selected him to join their #BleedBlue campaign, Converse invited him to record in Rio de Janeiro as part of their Rubber Tracks series.

Akshay Chowdhury is a composer, singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist based in Goa and great-grandson of renowned Indian classical Thumri artist Naina Devi. One of the best guitar players in the world is Steven Vai — a three-time Grammy Award winner and 15-time nominee. He played in Frank Zappa's band for some years which is a huge accomplishment. I had the pleasure to attend the live concert of his mentor Joe Satriani in 2005. Greg Wurth is a producer and main engineer who mixes and masters for Steve Vai. He works with Akshay, also which is a testament to the faith Greg has in Akshay’s ability.

Akshay released his first set of solo material in January 2020 which is truly outstanding including ‘Nilina’s Song’ which is a tribute to Naina Devi. The song has been created around an alaap. It combines a modern playing style/instrumental arrangement with synths and classical Indian vocals. The song ‘Lonesome Child’ has a synth sound that is played on electric guitar. The song was recently awarded ‘most innovative use of the OMEC Teleport pedal’ by Orange amplification. He was a finalist in the Rock and Singer/Songwriter categories (along with his co-writer and bandmate of Barefaced Liar) in the UK Songwriters contest 2016. 

The indie scene is buzzing with huge potential and the future looks promising. We have a massive pool of talent in our country straddling all genres — fully capable of writing original material which can equal the best in the world. What is required is an enabling environment — music education institutes, supportive venues that look beyond the bottom line, major record labels / FM stations looking beyond Bollywood, and a vibrant crowd of listeners. Then maybe one day, a touring Western band will sit up and notice and nod their heads appreciatively at the opening act. And maybe not long later, our bands/artists will perform the main act at Wembley after the opening act of a Western band!

Last updated: September 15, 2020 | 14:30
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