This blog is all about the nonsensical. We have talked about troupes of dancers seducing mongooses, tricks you can do with a kielbasa, and spitting cobras turning up on power-point slides. We have sung ditties from 80’s indian television commercials (with translations to boot!), and we have described strange nightmares full of howling dogs and hummingbirds. We have even prescribed optimal bender strategies. The point is .. er… not there. So, where was I going with this? Ah, yes. Music. Wow, talk about logical prose.
You know what it is like when you suddenly rediscover something you used to love but had forgotten about? In a recent conversation on music from the nineties, the name Agni came up in the context of indian college rock. Since I used to be a fan, I ended up digging out a copy of Agni’s first album “Wind dance with fire” (1994?). As I relaxed in my chair, slightly doped out from cough medicine (I’ve come down with a minor bout of the ‘flu), the music brought back memories of smoke-haze filled rock concerts, of hours spent jamming with extremely drunk mates – of cool college rock band names like Urja (which stood for the names of the four founders) and “An ode to Urja”- and of a quaint little periodical called the “Rock Street Journal” that was published out of (of all the places in the world), Allahabad.
I have always liked Indian rock. Listen to some of the good indian bands – the aforementioned Agni, Orange Street, Krosswindz, Indus Creed (formerly Rock Machine), Pentagram, and of course, Parikrama – There are some really great original compositions there – far far better than some of famous names on the Indie rock scene in the US – and yet, they never have had *any* success outside of India. (For some strange reason, Pakistani rock bands seem to have done better.) I have often wondered how an Aussie band like The Mark of Cain, or for that matter, Jet, make it big in America, while Indian rock is almost never talked about. There are a couple of possible explanations – i don’t know whether any or all of them are true.
The first is the curse of the familiar. There are thousands of rock-acts here in the U.S. – most of them never get noticed even if they produce great music – so why should an Indian band be respected. That of course, does not explain the success of Aussie rock. In addition, the concept of “indian” music is so strongly associated with either a sitar-playing ravi shankar, or kitschy bollywood crap in the west, that most of my american friends have a hard time believing that India actually has a thriving college rock scene.
The second is the range of topics covered. While a lot of music here is full of pimply angst, there is a considerable body which cover more pressing political and social issues (not implying pimply angst is trivial, but still.) This is possibly made worse by indian bands, though not always, when they heavily resort to culturally non-transplantable Indian themes – song titles that reference mythological figures and all that. Don’t get me wrong – it is highly appreciable artistically speaking, but it does not make for good cross-over material.
But I think there is a third- and more fundamental reason. It has something to with conditioning. Growing up in india, it is hard not to be influenced by Indian Classical music and its bastard child – Hindi Movie music. Indian music tends to be exclusively melody based – attempts at harmony being limited to a tanpura playing a constant drone. The vocalist (and even Indian instrumental music is fundamentally *vocal* music – all indian classical instruments are evaluated on the basis of their ability to emulate the human voice) sets the pace and the rhythm, and the percussionist merely follows on. This influences all of us – musicians and listeners alike. Consequently, a lot of indian rock – even the heaviest stuff – has an emphasis on melody – a certain discipline while ascending and descending the scale, that is not entirely appreciated by a western audience – but appeals to an ear that is conditioned to it. Many of my American buddies, while appreciating Indian fusion music, don’t quite get the point of it. Perhaps, something like this is at work in case of Indian rock too.
There should be some kind of cultural award for coming up with insights like these. We could call it the Heh-heh award for gyaan-dispensing, and its first winner would be Heh-heh. Or maybe not. There are loads of desi-bloggers who seem to have taken it up as a full-time profession.