picture courtesy of tina bordoloi
The Alternative Music movement since its inception in the late ’80s has reached out to every corner of the world today, and of late, the Indian indie music scene has been its best and most diverse in years. Even though many of the early 60s classic rock legends such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and The Byrds were heavily influenced by Indian Classical music as a method of reinforcing psychedelia in their music, rock music had not entered the realm of popular music until the mid ’90s, as much of the ’80s music were Bollywood Pop Music infused with disco.
A parallel can be drawn to the new wave synth-pop music of the ’80s in the west with the Bollywood disco of India. Just as raga rock gave rise to the forever evolving psychedelic sounds of experimental rock bands of today, the new wave helped shape one of most memorable times in the pop music of India in the ’80s – a time when disco, a seemingly foreign genre, reigned supreme with the likes of Pakistani pop singer Nazia Hassan, Indian artists such as Usha Uthup, Bappi Lahiri, and none other than Mithun Da, the poster boy of disco in India.
Because of Bollywood’s surreal collisions of influences and preponderance of vocals, songs were rarely as techno as they could have been, but they seemed to be directing towards electronic music in the future, which, at that time, was a far-fetched imagination. In 1981, German electronic and techno music greats Kraftwerk performed in Bombay for their Computer World Tour which involved a concoction of eastern and American sounds, triggering a strikingly original musical intent among amateur artists growing up in the Indian music scene in the ’80s.
Poster of Kraftwerk’s Computer World Tour
Just as disco fizzled out and MTV arrived, tastes rapidly changed, and bands were encouraged to incorporate more hardened and underground styles of thrash and alternative metal. Rock Machine, later to be known as Indus Creed, came into being, and are still one of the most popular rock bands from India. A lot of bands converged the popular Britpop sound with post-grunge, ancient Indian classical tunes with raga rock, which led to the emergence of fusion rock, often synonymous with Indian rock worldwide.
The 2000s saw the rise of individual singers and boyish Indi-pop bands such as Palash Sen’s Euphoria, Silk Route, Lucky Ali, and KK, amongst many others, which were accepted by the Bollywood industry and marketed as Indian pop musicians. Simultaneously, hard rock and metal scenes were being set up from the ground up with an anti-pop mentality in major cities of India, with its similar but varied rock n roll expression in the English language, as well as many regional Indian languages.
Bangalore, being the new age rock/metal capital of India, housed experimental bands like The Raghu Dixit Project, Kryptos, and Swarthama. Bangalore has also been a popular destination for international rock and metal acts such as Opeth, Iron Maiden, The Rolling Stones, Bryan Adams, Scorpions, Sting, Aerosmith, Elton John, Deep Purple, Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth.
Delhi had Parikrama, Menwhopause and Indian Ocean, while Motherjane and Thaikuddum Bridge of Kerala represented Malayali rock. Kolkata, an eastern city of India, arguably is the originating hub of Indian Rock music in English, with bands like Krosswindz. The city also has a rich regional rock scene, i.e. Bengali rock spearheaded by Fossils, Cactus and Moheener Ghoraghuli. Mumbai, the city of Bollywood, is also the birthplace of homegrown hard rock and metal acts such as Bhayanak Maut and Pentagram.
For the longest time, the alternative scene in India only consisted of heavy metal and hard rock, and was largely influenced by the manic and hard-core rock period of the late ’80s. It continued in similar directions till the 2010s, when indie music started to sober down and become very avant-garde, influenced by ’90s alternative rock, 2000s garage rock revival, and dance-punk.
Electronica also made its way with talented artists like Sahej Bakshi AKA Dualist Inquiry, a Delhi-based producer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist. His music is indietronica at heart, but absolutely genre-defying with guitar-driven sounds, an eastern rhythm, and beats which stand out from the ever-growing pervasiveness of commercial electronic music.
On the other equally creative side of Indian indietronica is Nucleya. Udyan Sagar AKA Nucleya is, without a doubt, one of the most skilled artists from India. His music comes from the busy and festive streets of India, with their complementing but wildly diverse cultures. Udyan Sagar has revamped the indie scene, grabbing the attention of Bollywood as well as mainstream music fans with his hyped-up Indi-dubstep music with ponderous bass drops. He has performed at numerous music festivals around the world including Glastonbury, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Lille 3000, and the Electron Festival, where he performed alongside artists like Diplo and Modeselektor.
In terms of their approach to electronica, Dualist Inquiry and Nucleya are on two opposite sides of the plane, but share youthful camaraderie as musicians and pioneers of new age electronica in India. A collaboration between them would be nothing short of thrilling; it would push Indian electronica to the next level. Other notable artists from this sphere of music from the Indian Subcontinent include Sandunes, Sid Vashi, and Madboy.
Shaa’ir + Func, composed of Monica Dogra and Randolph Correia and formed in 2007, were the pioneers of alternative electro-pop and dance music in India, but of late, there have been many distinguished and unique dance-punk bands. The most successful of the lot has to be The F16s and the Ganesh Talkies.
Album covers for The F16’s ‘Triggerpunkte’ and The Ganesh Talkies’ ‘In Technicolor’
Chennai/Bangalore-based dance-punk band The F16s have a penchant for the weird. The ‘Kaleidoscope’ EP is packed with groovy introspective tunes merged with a punk rock delivery. It proves how a band can use electronica to win over both bass-heads and rock fans. On the same page as bands like The Arctic Monkeys, The Strokes and Vampire Weekend, The F16s also drive into the dance floor with electronica influences ranging from trip-hop to dubstep.
At their live gigs, they follow American electro alt-rock band Mutemath’s lead and switch instruments around for a noisy closing jam, all drums beating and guitars on overdrive. Their very first album ‘Triggerpunkte’ was released in August of 2016. Mastered in the famous Abbey Road Studios, it’s nothing less than alternative music’s gift to the indie scene. Employing noisy blues and amped-up dance-punk sounds, the album is inspired by the constant struggle against the triviality of mainstream music today.
Essentials Tracks by The F16s: Lightbulb, Blackboard, and Jacuzzi from ‘Kaleidoscope’ EP, and Moon Child and Cannibal Life II from ‘Triggerpunkte’.
On the other hand, Ganesh Talkies from Kolkata is everything the F16s are not. They, for one, embrace the corny Bollywood pop culture and maximize it with a quirky combination of punk-rock and disco, making them probably the only note-worthy Bolly-punk band in India. They describe themselves as a keora/changra-rock band (keora and changra are Bengali slang words describing the “out-of-control youth” in Kolkata, who typically smoke pot and enjoy rock music).
Their only album so far, ‘In Technicolor’, includes upbeat anthem-like dance rock songs with an obvious Bollywood undertone, making the record one of the most creative by any Indian band in the circuit in years.
Essential Tracks by Ganesh Talkies: Item Song, Dancing! Dancing! and Fight Club from ‘In Technicolor’
Speaking of Indian indie, we come to the dream-pop duo of Nischay Parekh (vocals, guitar, synths) and Jivraj Singh (drums, electronics), together known as Parekh & Singh. Experimental pop has not been a defining genre in India, but this duo is breaking boundaries with their soft, dreamy, and minimalistic electronic pop music. Rolling Stone India named ‘Ocean’, their first album, one of the best albums of 2013, which the duo released independently. The band re-released ‘Ocean’ in October 2016 on Peacefrog, a British indie label.
Parekh & Singh then re-released the single I Love You Baby, I Love You Doll. Its music video, which was shot on a US$5000 (INR₹3,22,324) budget, features an aesthetic influenced by the American film director Wes Anderson. It has since garnered over 9,00,000 views on YouTube, considered to be a significant feat for an Indian indie band. They have had an album tour in the UK and have just begun charting worldwide success.
A few of the other Indian indie musicians and bands that have stayed true to the alt-force including everything from brilliant riffage rock the likes of The White Stripes and Franz Ferdinand to alternative Hindi rap and hip-hop:
01 Skrat – Stomp
02 When Chai Met Toast – Firefly
03 Sky Rabbit – Hilltop
04 Naezy – Asal Hustle
05 Nicholson – For What II
Culturally, for a certain type of music to prosper, it is necessary for a scene of conscientious musicians to stay true to their DIY ethics, and this should be well-supported by the niche audience and organizers in pockets of every major city in the country. For a nation which is obsessed with over-produced Bollywood party numbers, an alternative music movement will not be welcomed with open arms, as people tend to criticize what they do not understand. But as long as good music is being made by authentic artists, a dominant indie music scene in India will gather numbers, and will change how people from here and everywhere perceive Indian music.
And that is the dream.