Indie India: “Early Influencers” (Pt. 1)

This post is the first in a short series detailing my learnings in India.

For the last decade, indie music has been battling for a credible presence in India’s first-tier cities, like Mumbai. Despite some media outlets prematurely breaking the shell of an ‘Indian indie scene’ sometime ago, Mumbai’s music community has continued pipping its way into an internationally recognised industry. Now, though still teething, there are very few who would refute India’s emergence onto the world’s independent music stage. Earlier this month, I spent two weeks embedded in Mumbai researching what’s really going on. Starting with the Nokia Music Connects conference [review to follow], I couch-hopped across the island-city from gigs to gurus, receiving a unique musical and cultural education, and uncovering a surprising trail of Australian musos in the process.

A brief history: Mumbai is one of a few cities on the Asian continent where colonial occupation has had a significant cultural influence, locally, particularly with music. The Brits may have handed over control of India in 1947, but their soft power continued to reign through classic rock acts like The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Iron Maiden, to name a few. Covers dominated live performance (gig) scene, right up until the late 90s and bands brave enough to bear a sneaky original number, were often bottled off-stage. Between the late 90s and the turn of the century, original music began to creep into Mumbai’s dive bars and open-air amphitheaters with early acts like Indus Creed (glam rock), Zero (guitar rock), Indian Ocean (Hindi rock fusion) and Pentagram (electronic rock) are credited with establishing the roots of the country’s original, indie music community.

Bobby Talwar, Founder of Artist Management and Events company Only Much Louder and original member of Zero, confesses, “We used to get bottled off stage for the first four years of our existence. And we just kept doing it. At the end of four years people started listening to our music and saying, “You know what, this is kind of good.””

Some are still making music, some have split and some have reformed with new acts.

It’s a common opinion amongst the Indians I spoke to that the 90s were also an era when Bollywood was in its prime. One example is the work of renowned music director A.R. Rahman, who’s most recent (and most successful western release) Slumdog Millionaire pales in comparison to early film work, like Roja, Bombay and Dil Se [via Steve Harris, filmmaker].

Arjun Ravi, founder at Indiecision.com (now NH7.in), the country’s leading indie music blog, uncovers the source of some frustration for young acts in India.

“90% of Bollywood is completely rehashed, utter tripe, that’s put out year on year and they get such sterling review by magazines like the New York Times. And that makes it difficult for, people like me, who want to make ourselves known, not just because we’re Indian, but because we’re making good music or good art that stands up internationally. A lot of times this sort of patronising eye seeps in when people are talking about South Asian bands or Indian bands and they’re like, “Oh look at this great band from India, they know how to play Sweet Child of Mine, with the sitar”. I mean, that’s just so lame.”

Indie music didn’t exist in India a decade ago, which is what makes watching it gradually unfold, so fascinating. Over this period it’s grown from a community of passionate, young musicians to legitimate, commercially viable industry and even Bollywood wants a piece of it.

Next: What’s the fuss about? (Part 2) –the state of the India’s indie music scene today.