The Rise of the Indie
“History is written by the victors”, Winston Churchill once said. This is not an uncommon trend in tales of humanity’s past – the tendency for the history books to be written by those with the loudest voices. Often, what is remembered of human history and culture is what has been documented by those with the means to document, the platforms for their voices to be heard, and therefore the means to actively shape how history is remembered and internalized by present and future generations.
Here in India, the story of the rise of indie rock culture and the independent music scene in India is generally believed to be a relatively recent phenomenon – as the story tends to go, the music scene was dominated only by cover music until the nineties. We all know the story of how Rock Machine (now Indus Creed) were catapulted into stardom space when their original music/music video appeared on the newly launched MTV Asia in the early 90s; how bands like Pentagram and Parikrama would soon became household names, often credited as being the pioneers of indie rock/independent music making in India. Today, names like Indian Ocean, Zero, The Raghu Dixit Project, Swarathma, Thermal and a Quarter (to name just very few) are all well known and synonymous with the independent music scene in India. What’s harder to trace is the stories of the pioneering artists/musicians that came much before these bands, with ground breaking sounds and original music that was years ahead of its time. These were bands making independent music at a time when the most basic equipment/instruments were near impossible to come by, let alone any form of artist support from the media.
We can trace the roots of indie rock culture in India back to the sixties when rock music from the West first hit the country – during the era of the Bombay ‘Beat’ groups. Audiences at the time were lost in the world of bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Shadows, The Ventures, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd – and so the success of many Indian bands at the time was determined by how well they could cover these bands. Popular on this scene were acts like The Jets, The Trojans (featuring Biddu Appaiah who would go on to have a successful solo career), The Beat X, The Spartans, The Savages. Though covers seemed to prevail at this time, bands like The Savages were also composing original music – and in 1967 they won a popular music competition organized by the Simla cigarette brand called the Simla Beat Contest – which awarded bands for their originals. This contest would provide a platform for many other bands also making originals during that era. In 1968, The Savages also won another popular contest called Sound Trophy, under the categories ‘best band’ and ‘best composition’.
A young musician named Remo Fernandes soon joined the band – an individual who would go on to become the highest selling English rock musician in India with his albums “Pack That Smack” released in 1986, and “Bombay City” in 1987. “I was doing original compositions with my band in Goa, The Beat 4, and in the 70s with The Savages and solo, in Mumbai”, says Remo, recounting the era with fondness. Even in the early years, Remo was experimenting with an Indian element in his music, tuning his guitar to make it sound like a sitar and teaching himself to play the Indian flute. His composition Jalwa – composed for a film of the same name – is what would eventually push him into the limelight – a unique 15 minute piece that incorporated vocal/flute techniques that were unheard of at the time, and are still emulated today. Though he achieved success back then, Remo at the time avoided working full time with the Hindi film industry – worried that he’d have to compromise on his artistic integrity.
The late 70’s in India saw the release of thousands of Bollywood records – but there was one band at this time that would create a groundbreaking psychedelic rock record – that band was Atomic Forest. Obsession – a compilation of the band’s recordings re-released recently by Los Angeles based independent music label Now Again Records – is the only psychedelic rock record ever produced in India, and was the voice of a revolutionary underground subculture that existed in Bombay venues like Slip Disc, Blow Up (Taj Mahal Hotel), and Hell (Hotel Hilltop). The band was fronted by Madhu Dhas, with Neel Chattodpadhyaya on lead guitar, Keith Kanga on bass and Valentine Lobo on drums. The original tracks on the release – Obsession ’77 and Butterfly Version 1 – even when listened to today, have a futuristic and gritty dose of funk infused psychedelia, accentuated by Chattodpadhyaya’s legendary fuzz guitar and replete with wild experimentation. The record speaks of a time and place when musicians in India were experimenting with sounds (and sometimes substances). Human Bondage was another talented act producing some fascinating original material around that time that can be likened to early raga rock.
Cut to 1982 – one man and his Roland Jupiter-8 keyboard, a Roland TR-808 drum machine and a Roland TB-303 in Bombay, would produce what is being regarded by some to be the world’s first ever acid house record – Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat by Charanjit Singh. “Charanjit Singh as a composer and his attempts are clearly contiguous to the rise of acid and techno music around the world; the first acid house records were produced a year later (in 1983) in Chicago, by a group called Phuture, founded by DJ Pierre, Earl Jr. and Herbert Jackson in 1983).” says Samrat B, one half of cutting edge indie electronica duo Teddy Boy Kill. Samrat has gone through great lengths to document the work of Charanjit Singh, and has incorporated Singh in his book HUB – which documents the rise and evolution of electronica music in India.
And of course there was Bengali band Moheener Ghoraguli – the pioneers of Bangla rock who infused Baul and folk influences with rock elements, creating revolutionary music way back in the seventies that often spoke of social/political causes. There are many other bands from this era who deserve mention but only so much space on a page – but it is evident that, though relatively isolated and not widely accepted by the general public at the time, signs of indie culture and independent music movements have existed in the country for quite a while. What’s truly interesting is the fact that they were being created in relatively challenging circumstances with limited support from audiences and the media. However, the stories that are most often in the limelight today are the stories of bands that broke into the scene as late as the nineties.
One key difference, and perhaps a reason for this, seems to be related to the rise of the indie music media – a relatively new phenomenon which seemed to take shape alongside the rise of many of the bands credited with revolutionizing India’s independent music scene. MTV Asia makes its debut in India in 1992, and Rock Machine’s music video release is met with much success and public acceptance. In 1993 Amit Saigal founds the Rock Street Journal – the only one of its kind on the block – which would also propel many bands into the spotlight. “If there was not a media entity like RSJ, people would not know about my band. And it’s not just me – it’s many musicians who I know, anyone would tell you” says Anirban Chakraborty, lead singer of Orange Street who shot to fame with their track Candywalk in 1997. Anirban currently heads RSJ after taking over the reigns from Saigal.
Unfortunately, when independent musicians like Remo Fernandes were making original music in the eighties, the media was predominantly controlled by the government – which didn’t offer ‘English music’, let alone Western influenced/rock music by Indian artists, an on-air platform. Hence, there was minimal scope for TV or radio airplay for artists such as Fernandes. The only media entity that existed during the Bombay Beat era that supported Indian artists and the music scene was a youth magazine called the Junior Statesman, which documented many bands/gigs of the generation – though unfortunately the magazine faded away too early and lasted just under a decade.
Today’s independent music scene shows much promise – the advent of tools like the internet and social media fit in quite aptly with the indie DIY ethic, allowing many up and coming bands to market and promote themselves and their music instead of relying on the mainstream media. Indian indie music today often takes on a unique avatar with bands that incorporate classical Indian and folk music with more contemporary textures, sometimes sung in regional languages – which also enables the music to reach wider audiences in India. However, the future of independent music culture in India lies in unifying and patronizing new and diverse Indian talent that currently lies scattered around the several corners of the country, instead of continuing to focus the spotlight on the same few artists that guarantee revenue/public interest/festival ticket sales. The future lies in providing the appropriate frameworks and infrastructures that can foster the growth of emerging artists – and the media can play a huge role in enabling this to happen.
To bring us back to the words of Churchill – “History is written by the victors”. Though the stories of a few of the bands involved in the independent music movement in India have been well documented and pushed into the spotlight by the popular music media – many other stories are often left untold and forgotten. I only hope that when the history and culture of the independent music scene in India is remembered in years to come, that the books include the stories of individuals from eras gone by – individuals who quietly made their contributions without the aid of media infrastructures their future musical counterparts would have on their side. It would be nice to see some of the true pioneers recognized, for some of the most important contributions to the indie music scene in the country were made by individuals and bands who have since faded into oblivion and will remain in our blind spot unless we do something about it.
This article was published in Book V of Alap Magazine
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Photos Courtesy: India Sixties and Beyond Music
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