The media’s hysterical coverage of Indian rock bands is a sham, says Inder Sidhu. Why is everyone so desperate to sell a scene that does not even exist?
IF YOU’VE been following the papers lately, you probably already know that rock and roll is booming in India. Rock bands are wowing audiences across the nation with exciting new sounds, performing alongside such internationally renowned and critically respected acts as the Backstreet Boys. No longer content with the dinky college-IIT circuit, they’re making their presence felt at events like ‘Red Romanov Rock In India’, which featured four international acts (including the headlining Backstreet Boys) and two honest-to-goodness national bands in Bengaluru and Delhi this February — all in the name of vodka. Yes, times are good to be an Indian rock band: music magazines like Rolling Stone’s India edition have nearly as many correspondents as they do marketers; newspapers describe how rock is “becoming as important to a [Bollywood] soundtrack as the item number once was”; and movies like Rock On!!! have finally broken Indian rock into the mainstream.
Except none of this is exactly accurate. For starters, whoever thought it’d be a good idea to invite a hasbeen boy-band to headline a national rock festival should be meted merciless justice and made to listen to them.
Though its profile has undoubtedly benefited from the Bollywood treatment, and from reality shows like Rock On With MTV, Indian rock remains a niche market, far from anything resembling a lucrative industry or any kind of cohesive creative movement — despite whatever image the media is pushing. Even musicians invested in the country’s rock scene are strongly divided on what Indian rock is and where it’s going.
To begin with, rock bands simply do not register on India’s music landscape: industry data indicates 80 percent of all music sales in the country are film-related, with devotional and regional artists bringing up the rearguard — rock accounts for less than one percent. Bobby Talwar of Only Much Louder, a Mumbai-based company that operates the Counter Culture record label (in addition to offering artist management and promotion services), says top-tier groups like Pentagram and Zero (who disbanded in 2008) manage to sell roughly 10,000 albums. The vast majority typically sells 1,000 to 2,000 CDs. Hardly encouraging. “To be brutally honest,” Talwar says, “rock will never really ‘arrive’ in India. It’s a genre that a very select community finds more interesting than Bollywood.”
While there is a discernable uptick in the number of Indian rock festivals — The Great Indian Rock Festival, the South Asian Bands Festival, the Kingfisher Pub- RockFest — this has yet to translate into ground-level success. The ‘scene’ is still largely made up of the same old faces coming to see the same old bands. As Amey Chautray, bassist for veteran Mumbai metal act Infinite Redemption, states flatly, “Most of the shows we play are attended by guys who’ve been there for the past 10 years.” The question, then, of whether rock culture actually exists in India, and what rock and roll means in this country, continues to nag.
These questions clearly rile Indian Ocean guitarist and co-founder Susmit Sen, who curtly shoots back, “[The term] ‘rock’ is an easy way out for journalists. What is rock? There have been bands who’ve been brought into a more ‘modern’ way of musical expression. I would not call that ‘rock.’ The Beatles used a sitar: does that make them ‘Indian Classical’? If I club myself to any genre, I kill Indian Ocean.”
A lazy press, however, may be forgiven for mis-characterising a movement that can’t even agree on whether it’s a movement at all. Any old band fitted with electric guitars, like Indian Ocean, is regarded as a rock band because reporters — and many musicians — don’t know any better. Despite the efforts of magazines like Rock Street Journal and MOB, serious music journalism in India is sorely lacking. Thus, overeager concert reviewers are more likely to write something banal along the lines of “[the] band took the crowd to a euphoric crescendo” than say anything substantial about the music. The vocabulary and context for rock criticism does not exist in India.
In many ways, shoddy coverage is a symptom of shoddy music: what can you say about a band that doesn’t say anything? Many undeservedly glowing reviews are valiant efforts to sustain the impression that rock culture is alive in India. Samar Grewal, former assistant editor of our domestic Rolling Stone, agrees, saying, “Music journalism lacks balls in our country. You only have 10 bands that are popular when you launch a mag — and if you were really honest about them, you’d be trashing eight of them. There’d be nothing left to talk about. You have to work in euphemisms.” Siddharth Srinivasan, lead guitarist for Chennai’s Junkyard Groove, is rather more direct: “The media has to package the ‘scene’ — it’s part of marketing. You can’t sell shit, can you!” Well, they’re trying.
Others take a more generous view, arguing that a more music-savvy media is finally beginning to give rock the attention it deserves. Anup Kutty, guitarist for Delhibased group Menwhopause — voted Best Band in a 2008 Internet poll by Jack Daniel’s in India — says that the kind of press attention rock receives today would have been unthinkable only five or six years ago. “No matter what you did,” he says, “the press would give you a patronising pat on the back. Bands are being taken more seriously now.” Seriously enough to provide music for deodorant ads, at any rate.
Tony John, frontman for Kerala’s Malayali fusion ensemble Avial, meanwhile, resents the media’s post-Rock On!! rock honeymoon: “Channels like MTV are total bullshit. There’s no interest in local musicians.” Many rock musicians, he adds, see bands as a fashionable ‘timepass’ before the realities of a job, family and career kick in. As for the bottom line, John sighs, “Very few people turn up for a rock show — 4,000- 5,000 maximum. It’s a small group of people.”
Sanjeev Nayak, who plays violin for Bengaluru’s Swarathma, suggests in a happy-just-to-be-here tone that Indian rock is ready to enter mainstream culture. “Rock bands,” he says, “are more visible now,” thanks to Bollywood’s interest in their music. But then, Bollywood is a fickle beast: the Rock On!! soundtrack didn’t feature a single Indian rock group: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy handled musical duties while Javed Akhtar handled lyrics. Kutty, for his part, is irked. “Bollywood doesn’t really understand what’s happening,” he says. “Most people who get influenced by this stuff don’t get the scene, anyway.” Unfortunately, Bollywood is an entry point for the casual audience rock must win over if it hopes to establish a cultural foothold — and if they don’t ‘get it’, what’s the point?
The disproportionate attention heaped on Indian rock is premature and a disservice to a sub-culture still trying to find its feet — adding to the uncomfortable sense of faddishness. Split rhythm guitarist Melroy D’Mello is resigned, “In the US, rock is powerful in a mainstream kind of way. We’re a micro-minority.”
HISTORICALLY, ROCK’S roots lie in American “race music” (black rhythm and blues, soul and gospel) — a dangerous outsider art and product of a marginalised underclass. Its mythology is, in an understatement, colourful. Rock — crime, sex, intoxication and all — was built from the politics of the outsider fed up with the status quo and packaged in an insecure, but sexually aggressive, machismo. This strain still runs strong through western rock.
The rock idiom in India, by contrast, lacks any such character. In a complete reversal of the genre’s origins, our homegrown rock is almost exclusively upper middle-class territory — and its practitioners don’t seem to have much on their minds. Often bankrolled by indulgent parents, and decked out in the requisite accoutrements and peripherals — a tattoo or two helps — these young rebels wage quiet war on creativity and imagination. The absurdity of these creatures of comfort and means strapping on guitars and declaring themselves a ‘rock band’ would be laughable if it wasn’t so terrifying. The politics of the outsider and the marginalised, meanwhile, have become the politics of the leisure class and badminton togs.
‘You have 10 bands when you launch a music mag. If you were honest, you’d be trashing eight,’ says Samar Grewal
Indian rock music, fundamentally, is rooted in affectation, not origination. While many bands have tried to cultivate their own sound, many more are openly derivative or, worse, uninterested in developing their own rock vocabulary — even if they do write their own songs. Grewal offers an explanation: “We’re still too impressed by our western icons. We’re too caught up in emulating and not songwriting.”
The difference, say, between the unfortunately named Them Clones and any other band playing on a rock-format radio station anywhere else in the world is negligible: tightly produced, technically impeccable, bogstandard power-chord fare — raising again the spectre of novelty value. And then there are the ‘embarrassing middle-school poetry’ lyrics: a song called Zephyretta runs,“Am I feeling what I should feel/ Or is it just something unreal/ Cloud of oceans big and blue/ In my mind I’m feeling you/ In my heart in my face/ In my love in my fears.”
More importantly, bands flounder in complete cultural disconnection. They exist in an odd liminal space, neither Indian nor western in music or lyrics. Them Clones are exemplars — completely oblivious to rock being an opportunity to say something meaningful — settling into comfortable mediocrity instead. As John puts it, “In the end, most bands don’t have an identity.”
Kutty, meanwhile, argues “The Indian rock scene right now comes from rapid urban globalisation — and that’s evident from the sound it’s creating.” This template includes fusion bands like Avial, Swarathma and Indian Ocean, who integrate traditional melodies, rhythms and instruments into a rock framework, attempting to create a kind of music grounded in India. “I’m not crazy about Indian Ocean’s music,” says Grewal, “but they’re one of the best bands out of India. They’ve found that ‘Indian sound’ — it’s their own.” That one of the most original bands in the country has been working within the same musical framework for 30 years is, frankly, shocking.
On the other hand, up-and-comers like Indigo Children have been winning well-deserved praise for forging an energetic new path for Indian music. The band is loose and unafraid to fiddle with their effects panel in creative ways; processed guitars flare and the rhythm section alternates between four-to-the-floor rock and bouncy syncopation. Grewal says, “The first time I saw Indigo Children, I couldn’t believe it was an Indian rock band. I was blown away.”
Broadly speaking, rock in Indian remains largely confined to the “A-grade metros” — Delhi and Mumbai specifically — and urban centres with a high number of potential concert venues. (Standing curiously apart from the Delhi-Mumbai axis is the active northeastern rock scene and West Bengal, where villages and small towns are involved in the music.)
A typical Delhi rock audience is peopled by Englishspeaking, middle-class, enthusiasts. The Hard Rock Café, located in a shopping mall, is one of the city’s most popular venues and, on entering, one gets the impression of an insular community. Impressive-looking lighting fixtures, a professional- grade PA system and concert frills like smoke machines and expensive substandard beer give the place a certain authenticity. When the band finally comes on, 30 or so people gather at the front of the stage, nodding in approval. The rest congregate in the smoking room or chit-chat on plush couches by the stage. A bored girl busily fiddles with her phone. After the show, half the audience leaves, the other half — either diehard fans or friends — hang around, all backslaps and Bacardi.
Rock — crime, sex, intoxication and all — was built from the politics of the outsider fed up with the status QUO
The picture is slightly bleaker elsewhere: “Chennai,” Srinivasan says, “is quite bad. You do have the odd club that accommodates bands, but how many people show up? 100? That’s not nearly enough. It’s pathetic. Hyderabad’s rock scene is probably the weakest.” And Bengaluru’s restrictions against bands performing at a venue with both a dancefloor and a bar, as well as an enforced 11:30 pm shutdown, aren’t exactly rock and roll conditions.
Avial’s Tony John says, “There just isn’t a framework for Indian rock music in this country. There are no record labels supporting bands in India. Everybody’s working on their own.” Nayak, whose band’s records are channelled through big-league label EMI, agrees, “Labels help get your record out, but they take your publishing rights. The band hardly gets anything. The only rights you have are performing rights, so you use the CD as a marketing tool for yourself.”
Our homegrown rock is exclusively upper middleclass territory — and its practitioners don’t seem to have much on their minds
Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites have helped bands to deal directly with fans and measure their fame (or notoriety) in site-hits and downloads. While many are satisfied with exposure through the Internet, others are looking to monetise their digital presence, putting songs up on the iTunes online music store. “The only way we’re marketing our music,” says Srinivasan, “is playing our music live and online PR. We’ve had 50,000 downloads in about a year. We’ve abandoned selling CDs because costs were too high.”
In the end, there is little consensus on what precisely Indian rock is and how to approach it. The fact is that original rock in India is still wandering around with its umbilical cord, trying to find some place to plug it in. Where Indian rock is headed, if it’s even going anywhere, remains a sticky point of contention. Luckily, we’ll have the media to decide what’s going on for us. Failing that, maybe we can just bring the Backstreet Boys back.