A recent article in Tehelka claimed that the Indian rock scene is a sham. We completely disagree. Amit Gurbaxani explains why.
The headline was full of promise: “The Truth and Lie about Rock Music in India”. It intrigued us enough to pick up last week’s issue of Tehelka. “Could someone have really written an in-depth story about the Indian music scene?” we thought. Then we read it and realised that the piece seemed so under-researched, the arguments so hollow, and the conclusion so assumptive that perhaps it was not worthy of reaction. But this was Tehelka, one of the country’s most respected publications. Why would they be superficially provocative?
The truth is, we don’t know. What we do know is that we were quizzical right at the strapline. “The media’s hysterical coverage of Indian rock bands is a sham”, it read. “Why is everyone so desperate to sell a scene that does not even exist?” Sadly, the writer doesn’t even answer his own question.
We agree that the coverage given to rock bands may seem disproportionate to the number of people who attend rock concerts, but by extension so is the coverage given to your average Bollywood film when compared to the number of people who actually go and see it. But the writer does not direct his ire to the media alone. He attacks the music, saying in effect that Indian rock is quite simply not worth being written about. Now not only does that imply that he is indirectly against freedom of speech (ironic that this was published in Tehelka) but also that he violates the first principle of reportage: his personal bias seeps through the entire story. He interviews a number of musicians and a music journalist, but every quote is used only to add heft to a conclusion that seems to have been drawn even before the first phone call was made.
His opening paragraph mentions how bands are “wowing audiences across the nation, with exciting new sounds performing alongside such internationally renowned and critically respected acts as the Backstreet Boys.” We think he was aiming for sarcasm here but given that he mentions nothing about the backlash that followed the announcement that the boy band was headlining a festival called ‘Rock in India’, we’re not sure he succeeded.
We’re also not sure why his first point of comparison is the obsolete measure of CD sales. To say that because rock music accounts for less than one per cent of total music sales, “rock bands simply do not register on India’s musical landscape” is to put it kindly, foolhardy. Had the writer researched, say, what percentage of overall music downloads rock accounted for, we might have taken him more seriously. Relying on near-decade-old statistics, uncited at that, is just lazy.
In an article that attempts to deal with far too many issues at the same time, the writer then takes on the music journalist. “The vocabulary and context for rock criticism does not exist in India” he says, following it up with “In many ways, shoddy coverage is a symptom of shoddy music: what can you say about a band that doesn’t say anything?” We don’t know how many rock journos the writer has been speaking with other than the one quoted in his story, but most writers I know truly love the bands they write about. As the music editor of a Mumbai cultural magazine for nearly five years, I had little trouble finding a lot to say about bands that said a lot. The nature of the publication, Time Out, is recommendatory; it guides the reader to the best gigs out there. It was thus with some shock that I read the quotes from the sole journo quoted in the Tehelka article because he was, at one point my counterpart in the Delhi edition of magazine. I don’t know about him, but every band I wrote about, I did so because I believe they deserved to be heard.
In fact, because of the restrictive format of the magazine, which wrote about events in advance, I felt the need to write for another publication. At Indiecision, the editor, Arjun, and I not only write concert reviews, we also deliberate a pretty comprehensive annual best-of list. At the end of last year, we published a list of the Top 25 Indian rock songs and albums of the 2000s. It wasn’t easy, and as the comments testify, quite a few people felt we could have included a lot more acts in our selection. The writer could of course say that we have bad tastes, but he has no right to call us dishonest. Unlike the journo he quotes, we don’t “work in euphemisms”.
As for bands not having anything to say, here’s a sample of some of the track descriptions we wrote to accompany our decade-end list of the top 25 songs: –
“…the slow-burning electro-ballad, which they said was about Shaa’ir aka vocalist Monica Dogra’s troubles with cultural acclimatisation, captured the melodic depth of Randolph Correia’s songwriting and graceful power of Dogra’s singing.”
– “‘I, have I been wasting time?’ In one line Delhi’s finest alternative act summarised a crucial, terribly Indian parent-child relationship.”
– “Only Kolkata’s post-punk purveyors The Supersonics could take the most clichéd phrase of the 2000s and turn into a crunchy paean about not letting it all get to you.”
– “‘Yeshu Allah Aur Krishna’, an artfully biting comment on corruption in post-Godhra India, is the kind of song that makes you think when you’re not paying attention, a song so insidiously emphatic that it moves even the most unmovable of audience members.”
The writer has heard of some of the acts behind these songs because he quotes some of the members in his piece. We’re not sure if he’s actually ever listened to them.
Then, he makes the most vapid argument of them all: Rock, he says, was “built from the politics of the outsider fed up with the status quo and packaged in insecure, but sexually aggressive machismo. This strain still runs through western rock”. Without giving examples of current acts from say the US, where Nickelback has been the best-selling rock band of the past ten years, he goes on to say: “the rock idiom in India, by contrast, lacks any character. In a complete reversal of the genre’s origins, our homegrown rock is almost exclusively upper middle-class territory—and its practitioners don’t seem to have much on their minds”. Smacking of reverse racism of the worst kind, the article suggest that if you belong to the upper middle-class, you have nothing worthwhile to say, which the above examples, go some way in proving wrong.
But it’s unclear what the writer means. If he means that rock does not appeal to anyone other than the upper middle class, he’s never been to a free, outdoor concert. People across socio-economic backgrounds can be seen headbanging and headbopping to the music if it’s played right. If however, he means that rock is only played in towns and metros by rich kids, he needed to have made clear his definition of rock. If, for instance, rock to him means music that is played to the accompaniment of an electric guitar, neither infrastructure nor income levels across the country are conducive to the growth of such a genre. But if rock is such an alien Western concept that holds no relevance to Indian audiences, how does the writer explain the popularity of hip hop among for instance kids from Dharavi?
Next the writer says what countless music journalists (yes us hype machines) have said countless times before: that Indian rock bands fall short in the lyrics department. If only he had given us a better example than a love song written by Delhi band Them Clones when the band members were still in their teens. Yes, the lyrics are banal but when they started out, guess which band wrote such lofty verses as “Love, love me do. You know I love you, I’ll always be true, So please, love me do. Whoa, love me do”. Some call them the greatest rock band of all time, and to be fair to them, they wrote that song when they were in high school.
To confirm that is they not the bands that suffer from a colonial hangover, the writer and the journalist save their praise for but one band: Indigo Children. Their pretentious name notwithstanding, the Delhi group was one of Indian rock’s biggest hopes (we’ve heard they’ve broken up) but when our duo tells us they love them so because they “couldn’t believe it was an Indian rock band”, we’re left wondering if they’re unhappy with the state of Indian rock because the bands don’t sound Indian enough or because they don’t sound Western enough. It mirrors the same lop-sided thinking that says all Indian fiction writing in English is pretentious and inauthentic because English is a foreign language.
In the concluding lines, we’re told: “Where Indian rock is headed, if it’s even going anywhere, remains a sticky point of contention. Luckily, we’ll have the media to decide what’s going on for us.” We’d like to know which newspapers the writer has been reading. We can’t remember the last or the first time an Indian rock band made the front page of a national daily. You’ll find them all over the feature supplements and niche-interest magazines, where they are written about because of two possible reasons: writers have nothing else to write about, which might be true some but not all the time; or because their readers want to read about them. The writer perhaps believes editors and journalists have a personal interest in wasting valuable column space on “a scene that doesn’t exist”.
But that contradicts his opening argument. There’s little money in Indian rock. Journalists have nothing to gain by writing about rock bands. In fact, the bulk of writing on Indian rock is done on the internet, written by fans turned bloggers who do it out of their love for the music. So what then is the answer to the writer’s own question: Why is everyone so desperate to sell a scene that does not even exist? Maybe because most rock fans, however minuscule they might be in the writer’s eyes, belong to that lucrative advertising/marketing segment known as the youth. Why do Romanov and Kingfisher sponsor rock festivals? Why does Levi’s continue to back an annual competition? Why does the Hard Rock Cafe bother with staging gigs if, as the writer claims, only 30 people are actually interested in the band? These are some of the questions we were naively hoping for the answers to when we read that headline.
Amit Gurbaxani is editor of the webzine www.mumbaiboss.com.