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Don’t believe everything Tehelka says about Indian rock!

April 13, 2010

TAAQ - Delhi - Nov 09

My friends at Thermal And A Quarter and I read Inder Sidhu’s outcry against “the media’s hysterical coverage of Indian rock bands” (and before that, in 2008, Deepanjana Pal’s diatribe against Indian rock) in Tehelka with familiar feelings of resigned amusement and piquant regret. While Sidhu makes some pleasant noises and points available fingers at the usual suspects, he disappoints us by stating the obvious and therefore fails to offer us any fresh insight into what actually ails the rock scene. What ails the media we already know.

First off, Tehelka could have attempted to address the question: What is uniquely “Indian” about the Indian rock scene? You get really excited about Indian writers in English, so why can’t an electric guitar and English lyrics employed to express Indian themes excite you as much? Is the Indian rock “movement” — as some like to call it — merely about the explosion of rock band competitions and sponsored collegiate rock festivals? Is it only about the so-called mushrooming of venues for Indian rock? Is it about the legitimacy accorded to it by weak-willed Bollywood flicks such as Rock On? Is it more than a West-aping deluge of residual post-adolescent hormones? Or is it merely a vehicle for selling phallic fantasies associated with jeans, bikes, movies, or alcohol?

Why can’t the music scene you obsess about be the product of entrepreneurial activity or the struggle of independent artists to secure a platform for expression in a milieu notorious for the absence of infrastructure or patronage? Is it not also about artistic independence — and what is indie in an Indian context anyway? Is it not about the paucity of industry support for independent music (and just what is this “industry”?)? And why are we in such a hurry to pack it all up in one store shelf labelled ‘rock’ – what about Carnatic blues, or Indian jazz-rock, or Indian prog-rock, or Indian death metal, or Devotional jazz-rock, or Malayalam thrash metal, or Hindi country blues, or Kannada funk?

Which part bothers you the most: that the Indian media is writing about Indian rock music at all, or that it is covering rock without balls or brains? After all, we read your magazine because it tells us what we believe is closest to the truth. But never has it once offered lip service to this movement, apart from getting musicians to applaud their favourite bands at the back of the book. When it comes to the coverage of underground music acts in India Tehelka, too, is part of the “lazy press” you love to deride. Your dispirited coverage reinforces the fact that in this country we have no national newspapers or news-magazines — only parochial ones. When it comes to covering the independent music scene, even Tehelka cannot look beyond Delhi or Mumbai before your vision gets all blurry and your perspective degenerates to homogenising what you attempt to analyse. Isn’t it time you became free, fair and fearless in writing about this too?

Sidhu writes that the “vocabulary and context for rock criticism does not exist in India.” When was the last time you met an editor who condescended to carry a major story about any Westernised urban counterculture in India? When was the last time any self-respecting commentator (such as you, we hope) turned away from the clippings morgue and did some legwork to find out what’s really happening in India’s underground music scene?

For instance, how do Indian bands approach songwriting, where do they learn to play their instruments, where do they rehearse? How do they finance gear, studio time and production efforts? What level of initiative does it take for a band to bag concert dates at Hard Rock Cafe or Blue Frog, or plan a five-city tour? Or to cut an album and market it independently?

These realities offer story ideas for any journalist with a serious interest in writing about Indian rock. Perhaps Sidhu might want to consider exploring these areas instead of expending two thousand words on a subject he believes is not worth writing about. That’s laughable. Of course, we are aware these stories can’t be written within a week’s deadline but has any journalist cared to investigate the possibilities, or any editor dared to commission them?

We’d be happier if the media did not write about the “scene”, because clouding these half-cooked reports and analyses with poor reportage, bias and myopia is far worse. As some wise guy once said, “It’s better to shut up and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Every “music journalist” wants to be the next big commentator on the Indian rock music scene. In 14 years of being associated with the independent rock music scene in India, we’ve seen these megalomaniacs crash and burn and we have outlived them all.

Frank Zappa said, “Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” Thermal And A Quarter wrote a song about journalists like that – it’s called Paper Puli. And we have an annual award for music journalists who satisfy Zappa’s criteria. It’s called the Paper-Pulitzer. We might consider nominating Mr Sidhu.

(A version of this note was sent as a letter to the editors of Tehelka, and subsequently posted on Thermal And A Quarter’s Facebook page)

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. IRMP3 permalink
    April 13, 2010 12:44 pm

    Very well written.. I wish Mr Sidhu had done little more research about the scene rather than using fancy words to get attention.

  2. April 14, 2010 11:31 am

    hi,
    i love music and am always in search of finding great new sound. so when I read sidhu’s article, i agreed on several points he makes. i would not list them here, but bring to attention a few points which I think are central to the concept of music.

    1. The question is, what are these upper middle class rock acts saying through their songs? why should you exist? having a scene because you want a scene (because your aspirations only know of following western footprints, and not creating new ones). great new music has come from beyond wanting to be just a band.. it has come from wanting to raise a voice.
    music evolves from something greater than what you mentioned in your repartee.. (the gig rituals, the ‘tribulations of booking blue frog’ et al is surely not (and should not be) the focus of sidhu’s analysis) its a voice that needs be heard. its a voice that breaks out from the hearts of a populace or an individual. tehelka has tried to chronicle such attempts in India. for eg. i remember reading an article about a folk singer from punjab who lost his limbs for supporting marginalised farmers. i believe some leading act from mumbai did help this singer record his songs.

    2. Indian rock scene (barring a few) is just about ‘being in a band’ and not truly saying something you believe in. there is hardly any innovation in the form as well..
    from whatever little i have heard, it mostly seems wholly uninspired. it often is out of context of where and to whom it is being played. so bands singing in american accent and talking of non-identifiable nostalgia surely cuts no ice with anybody but with a few gig-loyalists who had dreams of being in a bands.
    where is stuff like Rabbi’s ‘bilqis’ ? they are so few.

    attempts at ‘indianising’ rock is also futile. why should you? form and content gets shape from what needs be said. from waltz beat to illapu and victor zara’s nationalistic signature instrumentalisation.. the choice (creation) of form of music was born of a what is being said too..

    so, the question is really simple… what is the indian rock saying?

  3. April 14, 2010 7:16 pm

    @Ajinkya:

    As to what Indian rock is saying, I don’t have a single answer for you. As you rightly say, many bands are merely making noise. But there are a few that are really saying something, and these bands comprise the leading voices of this counterculture. And because it’s a counterculture, you need to really dig in to find out what’s being said. Turning on the tap or the TV won’t get you there. Bands like Indian Ocean, Indus Creed, Thermal And A Quarter, Swarathma, Advaita, Them Clones, Junkyard Groove, Something Relevant, etc. (and this is only a partial list) are saying something, and what they are saying is not necessarily lyrical — it’s through musical expression. Their songs are commentaries on society, urban life, culture and the emotional landscape.

    There’s culture, and there’s counter-culture. The mainstream (Bollywood) and the subaltern (Indian rock) share many similarities. For most aspiring Bollywood stars, ambition is being in the next big movie (and not really about expressing themselves). It’s similar for any performer. For startup rock bands, especially college-going youngsters, the thrill of being in a rock band overrides everything else. But when bands continue to press on and pursue a serious career in making music, and actually expend creative effort on making music, what does it take to make it? That’s why the issues of booking a gig at a big club is important. There’s enough that the media finds juicy in pathos of the kind you mention – because tearjerkers make sticky headlines.

    Now, my question to you is really simple: What is Bollywood really saying? Is it addressing real issues seriously? Most Bollywood films are rubbish but we give them a lot of attention in our media because they are heavily promoted. While Rock On made a lot of yuppie kids think it was cool to grow your hair and look like a rock star, it was slammed by the indie music community because it was a load of rubbish that did not address the issues honestly or sincerely or even credibly.

    Indian rock is not speaking to a mainstream audience, and never will. But the niche audience that it addresses is growing and that seems to bother some people. All magazines, including Tehelka, make a big deal of Bollywood movies. Is it because they contain relevant content? No, because they are so hyped up by their promoters that some attention needs to be given or their magazine won’t be considered “current”. The indie rock counterculture in India makes no claim to fame, but it is making relevant original content for its audiences. These fan bases are honest, loyal audiences unlike Bollywood cinegoers.

    You say Indian rock concerts are “out of context of where and to whom it is being played.” Where is the industry support for Indian rock? It must be played in whatever space is available. Not all bands are singing in an American accent but then, there is no uniform Indian accent either because it varies regionally and socio-culturally. Why, even the morons in Bollywood are talking with an accent (does that come complimentary with the visas stamped on their passports?).

    You say that your analysis stems from “what little you have heard” of Indian rock music. I encourage you to explore further. You’ll start getting the picture.

  4. Anupam Roy permalink
    April 14, 2010 9:06 pm

    I love how everyone promptly forgets about the north east and how the rock bands are neither rich, nor upper class, and are VERY pissed off!!

    Tsk tsk. Shame. Today’s journalists = doggy poo.

  5. April 15, 2010 11:32 am

    Spot on.

  6. manu permalink
    April 15, 2010 2:30 pm

    Bulls Eye … Sidhu solpa dig in maad amma

  7. October 8, 2010 4:08 pm

    Great article. I’m not a journalist by trade. But I’m a writer and photographer with an interest in music and marketing.

    I did the leg work and recently traveled to Bombay, spoke to artists, managers, venues, labels, brands and fans in an attempt to understand what’s really happening in Indian indie music. I completely agree with the questions you suggested journalists should be asking. One of the main questions I asked everyone I spoke to was “What’s uniquely Indian about independent music in Mumbai?”

    While I’m still guilty of focusing predominantly on Bombay. I feel like it’s important to start somewhere and first tier cities like Bombay are a efficient place to start when it comes to research. I have tried to acknowledge the diversity of Indian indie music though.

    Would love to have your thoughts on some of the words I’ve published on Indie India so far:
    http://pitythecool.com/?tag=indie-india

  8. October 13, 2010 4:17 pm

    Andy,
    Thank you for your comment and sorry for the tardy reply. I’ve moved most pages of this blog to bijoyvenugopal.com.

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