The beauty of music lies in its ability to provide feeling across borders, classes, and races, and to resonate where words fail. I remember hearing the Gypsy Kings playing live at a Merkato 55 brunch party in New York; I remember dancing to Cuban band Las Orishas at Poble Espanol in Barcelona; I remember listening to Australian rock from my tent at Glastonbury in the U.K.; I remember singing “Beautiful” along with Akon, live at the Indian Premiere League Launch in Mumbai. With such an eclectic fusion of sounds crossing the globe, I wondered about India’s spot on the playlist. While Bollywood music is certainly a global export, my time in Mumbai has introduced me to a new, innovative, and increasingly popular scene that is gaining momentum all over India and on the international stage.
I had heard about Indian Ocean from the moment I stepped foot in India. The Delhi-based band has been around for about 20 years and many have grown up on their music. I knew their powerful words had the ability to move people of all ages and that they were immensely popular on the Mumbai scene. Nothing, however, prepared me for the crowd I witnessed on a Wednesday night in Mumbai when Indian Ocean performed at Blue Frog, the city’s most popular music venue. The concert was slated to start at nine, so I assumed an arrival time of eight would give me more than enough time to get settled. When I pulled up to the venue, however, I was greeted by the sight of hundreds of Mumbaikers who had already beat me to the scene, waiting in line since morning to what was an already completely full and sold out show. Luckily, my friend knew the owner, and he ushered us to the front amid much animosity from the other fans. I felt bad for all of those waiting in line, but then again, it was research!
I’ve been to many concerts, all over the world, and I can honestly say that this was one of the most memorable and moving experiences of my life as people of all ages sang along to and revered this age old rock group, breaking through the mold of a traditionally Bollywood dominated Bombay scene. Indian Ocean is famous for only ever singing original songs and for singing in Hindi. It was interesting to me because I had previously noted the popularity among the upper class of places that played only western music, however here was Mumbai’s upper class and expat community, singing along in Hindi to Indian Ocean’s poignant lyrics that ranged from condemning terrorism against humanity to overcoming pain through the sunrise to describing the tragedy of unfulfilled dreams and the role of karma in our lives. The band is comprised of Susmit Sen on guitar, Amit Kilam on drums, percussions, and vocals, and Rahul Ram on bass guitar and vocals. They sadly lost their immensely talented founder at the end of 2009, tabla player and vocalist Asheem Chakravaty, from cardiac arrest, and their difficult journey recovering from his loss is reflected everyday in the soul and sensation of their music. The band presents a fusion of rock, pop, and jazz, with Indian classical and folk music. They have been described as “the thinking man’s group,” and the “revolutionary granddaddies of ethno rock.” The band’s popularity grew after they were chosen to perform the soundtrack and score for “Black Friday,” a Bollywood film. The director approached them with the opportunity and gave them the creative freedom to compose the music their way, an unusual proposition for mainstream Bollywood cinema. The song “Bandeh” from the film, shown below as performed at Blue Frog, ended up reaching a peak position of #2 on the film charts.
I recently met with Bobin James, the Editor of Rolling Stone Magazine in India, to get his insights on the emerging rock and indie scene in the country. As Bollywood represents around 80% of the music produced in India, he explained the difficulty of convincing mainstream Indian audiences to appreciate this alternative sort of music, still niche genres in the nation. “Indian rock and roll is not Bollywood,” he said. “And that disparity translates into the number of readers of Rolling Stone.” Radio in India is also Bollywood driven, as advertisers seek to reach the masses who favor the film music. The few stations that played strictly English songs have since shut down due to funding.
Generally, the lower classes in the cities and in the rural areas of India are limited in their musical exposure to the cinema and the radio. Revolution is in the air, however. “Yes, it’s true that you can’t escape Bollywood,” repeats Bobin, “but it is changing with a new generation of filmmakers that think outside the box and incorporate other forms of music.” When the director of “Black Friday” asked Indian Ocean to perform the soundtrack, he allowed their fusion rock sound to be heard by Indians all over India, from the slums to the rural areas to the cities. Indian Ocean is also composing music for Aamir Khan’s new film, “Peepli Live,” as well as for “Mumbai Cutting,” and “Bhoomi”. These movies are bringing different genres of music to the silver screen and thus to masses across India, helping in part to bridge this musical gap between all classes of society. Amit Kilam of Indian Ocean is convinced that the time is ripe for them to create music in Bollywood, as the industry is going through a transitional phase and becoming more open to unconventional tunes. According to Kilam, “Bollywood is opening doors and using different sorts of music a lot more than before. Since the reach of the industry is tremendous, when Hindi films use composers like us or other young bands and young singers, then the kind of music we create has a bigger chance to reach out to more people.”
Bobin explained then 10 years ago, many Indian bands only played cover songs, alienating other classes of society, as it was only the upper class that had heard of The Beatles and Buddy Holly. Since then however, there has been a push to original music and distinct sounds. The main goal for Indian Rock and Roll bands now is to move from being classified as an “Indian band” to being known as a “Rock Band,” without comprising their beats. Just as AC/DC is not known as an Aussie band, or U2 as an Irish band, explains Bobin, neither does Indian Ocean want to be considered an “Indian band.” They want to retain their language, culture, and distinct Indian sound while speaking to an international audience.
A major player in revolutionizing the music scene in Mumbai in particular is the popular music venue, Blue Frog. I can be so bold as to say that it single handedly changed the live music climate of Mumbai and exposed its inhabitants to new genres of music, international bands, and obscure sounds. Blue Frog features a diverse lineup that can range from Austrian beat boxing group Bauch Klang to international trance dj, DJ Sasha, to Indian rock and roll band Indian Ocean, all within one week. The venue’s immense popularity speaks to the open-mindedness of the current generation and their desire to diversify their palette to experience new beats.
Aside from Indian Ocean, many other Indian bands have been increasing in popularity in India and on the international stage. Raghu Dixit Project and Swarathma, both singing in local languages with a distinctly Indian folk rock sound, are among Bobin’s favorite groups. Swarathma has played all over the world and, as many music blogs say, “have successfully managed to bridge the crucial gap between novelty folk act and quality musicians.” A proactive band, Swarathma has launched a project called “Action Replay,” playing a free concert for charity for every paid one. Bassist Jishnu Dasgupta explains the name of their project: “that’s why it’s Action Replay – as musicians, this is how we take ‘Action.’ And it’s a ‘Replay’ of what we just did for someone else.” Among other charities, Swarathma has played for children at the Poona School for the Blind and for the street kids at the Sumanahalli Leprosy and HIV Rehab Centre in Bangalore.
Of course no discussions about the evolving Indian music scene can be complete without talking about the Midival Punditz. Known as the “new sound of 21st century India,” childhood friends Guarav Raina and Tapan Raj are famous as producers, DJs, and remixers of original electronic music mixed with bhangra and classic Indian sounds. Their new album, “Hello, Hello,” features a sound that brings folk and Indian classical music together with electronica and international pop. The duo have performed the score of Bollywood film, “Karthik Calling Karthik,” and provided tracks for Hollywood film, “Closer” and “Monsoon Wedding,” without compromising their unique fusion sound. The name “Midival Punditz” derives from MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), a term used by electronic musicians, combined with the fact that they are both Brahmins (Pandits) of the Hindu caste system. A play on words, and the Midival Punditz is born. Guarav and Tapan realized that their sound was unique from anything else on the Indian clubbing scene, and they wanted to reveal it to the world through a series of new and innovative shows they called “Cyber Mehfils.” They explain that Cyber Mehfils are a setting where people gather “to appreciate music as an art form.” They say that at these shows, you will find people going completely nuts in a dancing frenzy, while others are sitting down and nodding and getting lost in the music and the visuals that they put together for the gigs. They use decorations like incense, flowers, candles and rich Indian fabrics to create the ambience in the venue. Their goal is get their music out to as many people in the world as possible, and they implore you to listen without prejudice to their sound. Apart from popularity across India, they have gained fame on an international stage, collaborating with international artists and performing at festivals like Glastonbury and concerts around the world.
With all its Bollywood glory, India’s music scene is breaking new boundaries as new forms of music are being exposed to all classes of society through the silver screen and a diverse range of sounds from folk to classical to electronica are being fused with western beats. As more Indian artists experiment abroad and more foreigners come to Mumbai to connect with the tunes and make it big, India is making its mark on the world. “That’s the beauty about music,” explains Bobin. “You don’t need to change your sounds to reach an international audience. There’s a great scene happening outside of Bollywood.”