Friday, August 19, 2005

This was a piece commisioned by Tehelka in 2001 to provide an overview of the popular music scene in India. Rabbi Shergill nothwithstanding, how much has really changed? (a 2005 update at the end)

Only the singer-songwriter can save Indian pop

Indian pop is the adolescent who's refusing to grow up. Occasionally, it shows signs of maturity and intelligence but those are aberrations in an overall bleak scenario.

The simple reason is - the absence of genuine singer-songwriters. Elvis Presley may have made rock ‘n’ roll a household phenomenon in the 1950s but it was really the 1960s that saw it attaining artistic respectability. Bob Dylan in America and the Beatles in Britain spectacularly broadened the scope of the popular song and led the way for it to become one of the most significant art forms of the 20th century.

The singer-songwriters were the ones who contributed the most. They were musicians not motivated by trends or markets but by the need to express themselves without inhibitions, without self-conscious limits. They wrote songs about almost any subject under the sun and vitalised pop, rock, folk-rock, country-rock, soul, whatever. They are the giants of popular music, the ones who gave it its voice, as it were. Look at any list compiling the greatest/most influential pop or rock musicians in the last 40 years. More than 95 % will be singer-songwriters (even more so in the decade just gone by). Artists like Elvis Presley (who gave the pioneering impetus) and Aretha Franklin (one of the great voices of our times) are exceptions who prove the rule. The greatest songs in pop/rock are not interpretative; they are personal. It is just the nature of this art form.

This kind of singer-songwriter has never existed in our popular culture. Mainly because film music is the popular music in our country. Indian cinema has produced many wonderful songs with excellent melodies, but all within a very limited format. Ultimately, a film song has to fill a situation in the film. And today, popular Indian cinema, with its accent on ‘timepass’, cannot produce songs of depth and passion. The format in which they exist simply won’t permit it. Even the older songs ultimately suffer from the same sentimentality and melodrama that the films themselves were steeped in.

This is where pop/rock/folk can play the important part it did in the West. For that, we need those kinds of singer-songwriters (clarification: a songwriter isn’t just the lyric-writer) who express private views and feelings and in turn reflect the world around them - a very rare commodity in India. Which is why Indian pop is still desperately trying to find its feet. Impressionable and fearful of introspection, most Indian pop is shallow, transient rubbish, more focused towards the latest trends than personal expressions. The spillover of sentimentality from Hindi Film traditions and ersatz emotion from mainstream international pop often make things worse. An array of quality singer-songwriters, in different genres, can change Indian pop/rock forever.

Still, outside the mainstream, there are perhaps a handful of such people in India - Suman Chatterjee, of Bengal, for example. He’s a ‘folk’ singer influenced by Dylan, Pete Seeger, Rabindranath Tagore and the Bauls, among others. Though his format often seems Western (just acoustic guitar and voice), his sensibility is very, very Bengali. He sings about the Calcutta he loves so much; about a man who had to walk 25 km in the hot Orissa sun for a job and died of sunstroke; of an office peon who has to shrug off commuting injury if he is to keep his job; about a group of boys playing cricket in a Calcutta galli with a ball that turns out to be a bomb; about an old man coping with loneliness in the vast expanse of the city. His voice is compassionate and expressive - tackling a version of Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind (with a distinct Bengali touch), or a Tagore song, with such aplomb that they seem to come from the same spring. Since he sings only in Bengali, he’s not known outside Bengal. Maybe other regions in India have musicians of this stature too? Then again, maybe not.

The bluster
What about Indian Rock? Well, for starters, it’s not Indian Rock, it’s American Rock in India. The vocalists sing in accents more American than the Americans themselves, their ‘attitudes’ are postured, their concerns borrowed. Take any rock band, from the ones in college to the established ones. Parikrama, Orange Street, Pentagram, Brahma, even Indus Creed (now Alms for Shanti) ... their music has never echoed the feelings of the people they’ve lived amidst. Maybe some of them can argue that they have a “Westernised” lifestyle (with an accent to boot) and that this is their ‘voice’. Clearly, the timbre of the ‘voice’ is distinctly American. It’s sad, because bands like Parikrama often display scintillating instrumental virtuosity, yet come up cropper when they try to express something original. The horrendously pseudo singing accents of these bands suggest that they cannot escape from being entirely derivative. Their music brims with imported emotions, concerns and accents rendering it largely pretentious and unoriginal. Even when they do covers in rock concerts, they are usually trying to be as faithful as possible to the originals. So, they don’t even interpret the songs, just unimaginatively reproduce them like Xerox machines. And then, they crib that record companies don’t want to give them opportunities. If they tried to express something from their own lives, using the same tools, as products of their/our environment, it is likely that they would come up with something that would make everybody – from record companies to the audience, take notice.

The audience

We shouldn’t just blame the bands, though. The audience in rock concerts come for the screaming and shouting, not for the music. Otherwise, why would they always demand covers and boo when a band launches into something original?

At the end of the day, the music-listening public is amazingly unevolved - unresponsive to innovation and exposure. The college and over-30s generations are still unable to graduate beyond Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, The Eagles, Jethro Tull and The Doors. Good as these musicians are, being hopelessly devoted to them is rather like being crazy about Suresh Wadkar and Mahendra Kapoor while Kishore Kumar and Mohammed Rafi remain unheard. Genuinely appreciating people like Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, R.E.M., Van Morrison, Radiohead, etc requires a certain amount of participation from the listener, something that doesn’t stand up to peer pressure, maybe. The teeny-bopper lot is too strongly weaned on the highly commercial TV and FM music channels to develop and evolve its tastes. Anything that’s not “timepass” is “hi-funda”. That familiar fascination for technique over soul (an international phenomena, sure, but not as comprehensively as in India) manifests in budding singers wanting to be say, Mariah Carey and not Joni Mitchell (or even Alanis Morissette), Michael Bolton and not Marvin Gaye (or even Beck). The media contributes, gloriously, to the shallowness. So, eventually everything – from the paraphernalia to the music, feeds the fad.

The fads
Fusion is not a new fad. Most of the acts in this genre in India produce ‘designer’ sounds that can sound ‘different’ initially, but almost invariably lack passion, and more often than not, sound trite after a while. Colonial Cousins’ music is the best example. “Krishna” and “Indian Rain” stood out from their highly overrated debut album but there hasn’t been much else memorable from them. They’ve been singing the same two-three template songs since, with different garnishing. But still, Hariharan’s superb voice and Leslie Lewis’s good sense of melody at least save their music from being the abject dross most other artists in this genre are. ‘Lady’, ‘Guiding Star’ and ‘Mata Pita’ from their next two albums are certainly listenable, but their best moments surprisingly are in their MTV Unplugged, as the accent there was towards performance. In the ultimate analysis most of their music is merely the juxtaposition of two musical styles. Unfortunately, the soul seems to be lacking.

The remix fad is another moronic diversion for musicians unable to create anything original on their own. Forget the lesser musicians, even someone of Asha Bhosle’s stature fell prey to this. Consider her abysmal work in pop - from the rubbish turned out with Leslie Lewis, to that awful duet she sang with Code Red – it was sad to see how clueless the great lady was outside the film industry. She justified her foray into remixes with the claim that she was ‘popularising’ older music. Thankfully, she got out of that phase.

The Bhangra fad, that made unimaginative artists like Daler Mehendi superstars, seems passé now. Shankar Mahadevan’s breathless gimmics have, thankfully, been relegated to the past.The fad of Rock bands singing in Hindi hasn’t really worked either. Euphoria may have been “successful” to some extent, but really, they seem to be all style, two styles actually – the Hindi film song and the advertising jingle – self-consciously so.

The business
The entire ‘music machinery’ in India perpetuates the nonsense. Most music companies seem to have a lot of musically un-inclined people working in them, not in a technical sense, but in terms of exposure and interest (a prominent label head once told me that listening to music bored him silly!). While it is possible to understand their problems (audience apathy to something different, high costs of production, etc), the complete lack of imagination they repeatedly display when it comes to new talent is unforgivable. No business (or industry) can thrive without a genuine passion for quality and innovation, without at least some calculated risks. The saturation and creative bankruptcy we see (or, hear) today is the result of this very myopia. A distressing side-effect is that music companies find it much easier to release music from middling American rock bands rather than record Indians as good (or middling) as them because it costs much more to record and release than to simply release available material from abroad.

TV music channels may be compelled to go filmi to survive, but there is no reason why a little innovativeness and out-of-the-box thinking cannot coexist with the drivel. Channel[V] at least is trying (with terrific shows like “Jammin’”), but others (especially MTV) seem content to be promo channels for Bollywood. FM radio could have made a huge contribution to the music scene, but now seems indefinitely mired in ridiculous bureaucratic tangles. Even before this, the signs weren’t too good – characterized as it was by a phoniness and a clone-mentality. Even music retails stores are unable to think differently. Some (like Groove) have even been injecting that same pseudo “youth culture” within its premises. The stores become glorified discos for a while, complete with low-IQ DJs showcasing fake accents.

It’s also interesting to see the array of pop/rock acts turning up to perform in India lately. Aqua and Vengaboys, of course, have a huge unevolved audience here; tapping into this market makes perfect sense for them. For faded bands/stars like Air Supply, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull and Bryan Adams, India affords a wonderful market-expansion exercise after they’ve pretty much lost the Western, Japanese and Australian markets. Interestingly, when Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, George Harrison or Mick Jagger pass through India, no one seems particularly dismayed that are no performances.

The dampeners
With this being the environment, it’s not surprising that the Alisha-Anamika-Anaida kind of music is being constantly rehashed. Or the template Biddu tune foisted upon some chocolate-faced wannabe. Or the inane formulas repeated with the Dalers, Babas and the Sukhbirs.

You have the Bollywood end of the spectrum, where artists like Adnan Sami, Bombay Vikings and Sonu Nigam offer up worn clichés in glitzier packaging. Even fine folk artists like Gurdas Mann, Hans Raj Hans and Jassi find themselves in the drivel machine, as record companies attempt to squeeze out as much as they can from a new trend.

And you have the pseudo-hip spectrum where pretentious bands like Vedic Chant spew out aural excreta and Ehsan-Loy-Shankar wonder what to loop next. No one worries about songwriting – it has never been on the agenda. There is no precedence - after all, even pre-eminent Indian pop stars like Gary Lawyer and Remo could never showcase the virtues of great songwriting.

An interesting example of overlooking songwriting talent to one’s detriment is the album Piya Basanti, where Ustad Sultan Khan and Chitra sung tunes of a young composer Santosh Shandilya. The tunes resembled film songs mostly and despite a couple of pleasant tracks (especially the title track), it was reduced to an easy-listening album. The Ustad’s earthy, mature vocals went waste. Then, the Ustad himself wrote two songs for an album called Bhoomi, including the stunning “Kate Nahin Raat” and wonderfully demonstrated the virtues of singing one’s age and expressing one’s own feelings.

There are many other talented artists too, who, despite a worthy one-off here or there, haven’t been able to produce a single consistently brilliant album. Shubha Mudgal’s, Suneeta Rao’s and Usha Uthap’s magnificent voices unfortunately haven’t been able to give déjà vu compositions a great shelf life. Shaan and Mehnaaz (particularly the former) show promise; if only they’d do something about the songwriting.

The sparklers

Yet, despite such bleakness, some truly magnificent music has happened in the last few years. In the forefront is Lucky Ali – an unlikely source, given his Bollywood pedigree. But all three of his albums (Sunoh, Sifar and Aks) consistently demonstrate what great songwriting and an honest expression can do. Besides the superb musicianship and his lived-in voice, it’s a personal examination of feelings that is so enchanting about his songs, always tinged with a compassion that perhaps only age brings.

Indian Ocean is easily the most impressive band in India today. Though they don’t like to call themselves a “rock band” (since their music is melody not chord based), their format (drums, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, tabla, vocals, for the most part) is certainly close to rock and their improvisational meanderings suggest the spirit of a jazz band. The most exciting thing about them is that they take traditional Indian hymns, chants and poetry and give them these terrific contemporary treatments (like in the album Kandisa). Nobody in India uses such a universally recognizable format to create such quintessentially Indian music. They give a new dimension to songwriting, that is every bit as riveting. A smart record label would have made them international superstars.

Silk Route’s first album Boondein was a watershed too. With a fresh and unspoiled sound, lovely harmonized vocals and clean melodies (some derived from Himachali Folk), they seemed a real class act. Their follow-up Pehchan punctured that notion a bit, as the songwriting never touched the previous heights and considerable self-consciousness crept into many of the tracks. One hopes that this decline wasn’t record company-induced and if it was, they address that. With the loss of Atul Mittal (the oldest member), they seemed to lose maturity, but Mittal has rejoined and it’ll be interesting to see what they do next.

Anjan Dutt’s Bandra Blues was the first quality lyric-led, acoustic guitar-styled album in one of the two mainstream Indian languages (English). It’s the first album that delved into life in urban-India, in its many dimensions (much like Suman Chatterjee in Bengali). Despite a weak opening, the album had a wonderful, spontaneous do-it-yourself feel that should have been a source of inspiration to budding singer-songwriters. Inexplicably, it was hardly promoted.

Meanwhile, Pakistani pop/rock has been demonstrating its considerable superiority over our scene. Much more passionate in spirit, their clean melodies come with very little posturing – perfect ingredients for top class pop/rock. Junoon’s Azadi was the breakthrough – an utterly breathtaking album, meshing a robust Punjabi sound with elements of pure rock. All the songs - electric and acoustic, gained from the focused songwriting and the scintillating performances. Unfortunately, in their next two albums – Parvaaz and Andaz, they seem to have made a formula of their sound, falling prey perhaps to market forces. Duur by Strings is another classy offering, the title track a true masterpiece in popcraft. With the obvious influences of U2 and Simple Minds driving the instrumentation of distinctly sub-continental melodies, and a heartfelt and unaffected vocal delivery, the East-West contrast between vocal and arrangement works beautifully.

The Pakistani pop scene is superior because it doesn’t have to coexist with an indigenous kitschy film culture. The impact of Bollywood on the creative scene in India, is that of gravitational pull on a man who has jumped off a building – plummeting is the only alternative. A.R. Rehman, for all his prodigious talent, is a perfect example of this debilitating influence. In fact, you can test this theory further, by seeing what happens to Lucky Ali next. He seems to be getting into the Bollywood scene in a big way; let’s see if his fourth album can keep up with the high standards he has set so far. You can offer odds that it won’t. The Bollywood influence invariably screws up the sensibility.

The interesting commonality between all the artists mentioned above is – age. All, without exception, are over 30. This is what brings a certain balance and maturity to their songwriting. But it does make one wonder if the rock/pop culture has become ours yet. It seems to be taking time to come up with the original expressions this art-form demands. It's particularly distressing because as a people, we Indians are exposed to a lot more than people of any nationality. Yet, we seem to imbibe only the shallow aspects of the Western Pop culture. Conversely, in the West, more than a handful of musicians use our tools to produce breaths of fresh air, from George Harrison to Steve Winwood to Tom Petty to Cornershop to Tea Party to Beck and lots in between. In India, how often do we mix the two sensibilities and produce something meaningful and long-lasting?

Yes, pop/rock is, in essence, a Western art form. But then, so was English a Western language. And cricket a Western game. To make this art form entirely our own, the vitality has to come from the fresh talent. Unfortunately, until the younger, more introspective, hot blooded singer-songwriters emerge in India and give proceedings a kick on the arse, Indian pop/rock will remain stunted.
May 2001

Sadly, not a whole lot has changed in the four years after the above piece was written. Marketing pressures have destroyed the mainstream space further. It’s a mess now, with remixes omnipresent.

And yet…

Indian Ocean did two fine albums after Kandisa – Jhini and the film soundtrack for Black Friday. Jhini did not deviate from their quintessential sound, yet produced more than a few surprises. It had a couple of weak tracks, but the four classics (maybe five) on the album more than made up for that. Black Friday, on the other hand, expands their sounds, with newer instruments (including electric guitar on the huge hit “Bandeh”) and several polished and fluid instumental pieces that provide the background in the unnecessarily controversial film. The band is touring all around the world, and yet the Indian mainstream press does not cover them anywhere near how they should (but that’s another story).

Silk Route did one weak album after Boondein and then nothing. They still perform live but apparently ego problems within the band have prevented creative growth. Whether that’s temporary or permanent, time will tell.

Lucky Ali too, produced a weak album in 2004, his first after three excellent ones. The comment about Bollywood adeversely affecting his muse proved to be accurate (much to my own disappointment).

Agosh came up with an interesting album in 2002 called Paisa, but have been silent ever since. Pakistani bands Strings and Fuzon came up with strong albums, and look like they might give rock/ pop lovers a lot to look forward too. Strings, however, is working in Bollywood now – hope they don’t go the Lucky Ali way. Junoon could never recapture the brilliance of their Azaadi album.

However Bollywood too has had some interesting moments. A R Rahman came up with two magnificent film soundtracks for the same film director, Lagaan and Swades. Vishal-Shekhar are doing some interesting work, as are Ehsan-Loy-Shankar sometimes. Shantanu Moitra has emerged as a very promising film composer too, with his soundtracks for Parineeta and particularly Hazaaron Khwaaishein Aisi.
But the biggest gain in these four years has been the emergence of Rabbi Shergill and the ease with which his self-titled album has shaken up the mainstream. Exemplifying the power of quintessential and universal singer-songwriter music on local terms, and a bunch of powerful singles (starting with “Bulla”) to keep him on music channels and FM charts, Rabbi could be a very important force in the Indian popular music scene.


Blogger mayank said...

The Pakistani pop scene rocks because they don't have a huge movie industry like ours spewing hundreds of songs each year...and bollywood music has got such robust financial backing.The indian non filmy music won't grow until music companies realise that there is a market for it....the only non filmy stuff we get to hear is Punjabi pop....also the indian rock bands find it equally tough to cut out an album...coz there's niche audience for it who'd rather like to have stuff downloaded.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous Amit said...

Wow what an insightful analysis of indian pop music scene. I totally agree with you that we niether have original musician/songwriters nor good Indian pop music. Pakistani bands are simply much better because they are connected to the ground, to the culture and language of masses. They do not need faux american hinglish or accent or style to be a rock band.

Basically Indian Rock sucks.

11:11 PM  

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