Indie rock in Mumbai: A decade in review

Indie rock in Mumbai: A decade in review

Editor Arjun S Ravi at, our mainline to the Indian indie music scene, describes the growth of rock music in Mumbai and the bands to look out for now
"The easiest way to sneak alcohol into Rang Bhavan was to hide it under a girl’s jacket. The notoriously long queues of people waiting impatiently to enter Mumbai’s legendary open-air theatre were predominantly male, which meant that the security guards at the gate would only frisk guys. A girl, depending on her stature and the size of the jacket, could slip in anywhere between four to eight cans of Kingfisher beer. Inebriation was as crucial to the Rang Bhavan experience as the Metallica-inspired, 1990s metal cover bands. As the sickly-sweet smell of weed wafted through the air, the Indian hipster kids of that era (long hair, unwashed jeans, Classic Milds smokes) soaked in the atmosphere of Indian rock music’s flagship annual event -- Independence Rock". Excerpt from an MTV article in 2009, "Ready or Not, Here We Come: Indian Rock Music’s Long Hard Fight to the Light" by Arjun S Ravi.

Rang Bhavan MumbaiA now deserted Rang Bhavan. This open-air Mumbai rock institution at Dhobi Talao has been silenced by red tape.In the late 1990s and up to the early 2000s there were few sights in the Mumbai monsoon as striking as the serpentine queues of black t-shirts curling around the Dhobi Talao area of south Mumbai. Every August, around Independence Day, Rang Bhavan, Mumbai’s most celebrated open-air amphitheater, would play host to Independence Rock, Indian rock's biggest live event. Bands from around the country would compete I-Rock to become the underground's hottest new act. Tested by only the most vicious Mumbai audiences, acts that weren't hard enough were booed off, abuse and bottles were hurled at pretentious vocalists, and heaven forbid if the obligatory Metallica/Nirvana covers weren't note perfect.

Mumbai was Indian rock's trial by fire, and Rang Bhavan was the battlefield.

The city itself has been the breeding ground of several I-Rock heroes. While the relative stature of a cohesive Mumbai rock scene is perhaps arguable, it is beyond doubt that local acts such as Indus Creed and Pentagram have made Indian rock a national phenomenon in the last two decades.

Bombay beat groups of yore

The seeds of Mumbai rock were sown back in the early 1960s. Bell-bottomed, hair-waxed, clean-shaven boys and girls would tell their parents they were headed out for overnight study group meetings and make their way to The Venice at Hotel Astoria near Churchgate to watch 'beat' bands like The Savages, The Trojans and The Jets perform covers of groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Ventures. 

Right up to the late 1990s, Indian rock was all about the covers.

Bands that did perform original material sounded like budget versions of the bands they previously tried to cover. While this had much to do with the availability of recorded music in stores and via radio and TV, it also stemmed from the fact that bands were performing to essentially a stagnant audience. The same kids who'd check out bands at I-Rock would be at college festival gigs; the only other source of live rock in Mumbai -- the club-rock scene -- had, for all practical purposes, gone up in smoke. These extended growing pains of Mumbai rock into the late 1990s were reflective of the Indian scene in general -- a dated  subculture struggling to be taken seriously. Essentially, Indian rock was finding it hard to reach out to newer audiences, those that didn't know it existed. It languished in the same way that independent film culture and graffiti art did, without support from the mainstream. 

College rock festivals in IndiaCollege rock festivals usually garner the biggest, most raucous rock audiences in Mumbai.

Cut to 2010.

We list, on, anywhere between 10 to 25 rock gigs a week in Mumbai. Bands from around the city and the country perform here at a variety of venues, playing predominantly original music that, quite often, I believe, pars international artists. Indian bands are beginning to score gigs at international music festivals and listeners worldwide are slowly but surely becoming aware of a scene beyond "Slumdog Millionaire's" theme song "Jai Ho".

In the last five years, more Indian bands have recorded and released more albums and EPs than in the preceding 50. 

While this change may seem a bit sudden, make no mistake, it has been, as MTV Iggy (the channel's new global pop culture and music blog) described it, a "long hard fight to the light". Without support from mainstream media and a cultural infrastructure that did not welcome this decidedly non-Indian art, indigenous rock music had to find its own way into the country’s social consciousness.

It is safe to say that the present and the future of Indian rock has been determined by events of the last decade.

In Mumbai specifically, these events have seen the growth of a self-styled, non-college competition derived, listener-rewarding scene that’s home to some of the country’s most cutting-edge artists. From the angular thump of Shaa’ir + Func's electro-rock, to the dry lyrical pop of Sridhar/Thayil, to the gritty hardcore metal of Scribe, this new breed of Mumbai bands is going to put Indian rock on the world map.

Sridhar-Thayil Lyrical pop duo Sridhar-Thayil on stage at Blue Frog, Mumbai.
Shaa'ir + Func Shaa'ir + Func shoot for Rolling Stone magazine's India edition in 2008.Five Mumbai rock acts you need to know:

 Shaa’ir + Func: Monica Dogra and Randolph Correia (Pentagram) concoct a gripping blend of electronica, angular rock and kitsch.  

Tough On Tobacco: Sidd Coutto (Zero, Helga’s Fun Castle) combines urban witticisms and affable pop-rock. 

Airport: Finally a Hindi rock band that’s confident about using the language without sounding cheesy or overwrought. 

Medusa: Catchy, Radiohead-inspired, electro-rock that’s simultaneously engaging and ambient. 

Scribe: A keen understanding of hardcore and Bollywood makes Scribe one of the country’s leading metal acts.

Online: Bands criss-cross the nation

The Internet is responsible, to a large extent, for this change. To Indian rock fans it gave access to a world of new, contemporary music that was unavailable in music stores and altogether unseen and unheard on TV and radio. To the bands it allowed an expansion of their musical influences and enabled them to connect with a core set of fans from around the country and the world. Soon it was no longer cool for bands to perform a set of grunge covers with a few OCs (original compositions -- college festival slang for songs written by the bands themselves) gratuitously sprinkled in the set. Indian rock had its own anthems. Many of these came from Mumbai bands – Zero's "PSP 12”" and Pentagram’s "Drive", to name a couple.

Forums, blogs and zines unified a disconnected scene that previously struggled to break out of a cannibalizing regionality. Post punk bands from Kolkata found audiences in Bangalore, and Chandigarh punks found listeners in Chennai. In 2008, I started Indiecision, a music blog dedicated to Indian independent music. Every year, we put together a free compilation of music from bands around the country under the moniker Stupid Ditties. 2009's compilation featured songs of 21 bands from regions as far flung as Aizawl in the north east and genres as diverse as comedy rock and electro-acoustic. This year will see the launch of Indiecision v3.0, a singular source of news, information and music of independent artists from around the country and the world. Yes, there is that much going on. With television channels and radio stations unwilling to look past Bollywood in their programming, it is online media such as ours and social networks like Facebook and Twitter that are figuratively and literally seeding the rock movement in India.

Something RelevantJam band Something Relevant have become something of an institution in Mumbai's club scene.

Offline: The club revolution

Offline, a cultural infrastructure to support this unrest is slowly beginning to take shape. Right up to the mid 2000s, even a city the size of Mumbai had just two clubs (Not Just Jazz By The Bay and Razzberry Rhinocerous) willing to give rock bands a stage. Two clubs! Over the last five years however, we’ve seen a host of new venues open their doors to loud, live rock, so much so that on any given Thursday, a music lover actually has options.

While most of these live nights are still driven by corporate sponsorships, business managers, the economics of rock is becoming far more lucrative for all parties involved -- venues, marketers, event companies, fans, and most importantly, bands. While we lost The Venice, we gained the Blue Frog, two Zenzis, a Hard Rock Cafe, a Firangi Paani, an il terrazzo, a Cafe Goa, and a host of establishments willing to let rock musicians perform on their premises. And pay them for it.

The MavynsBritpop-rock influenced Mumbai quartet The Mavyns.

Catch a live rock gig in Lower Parel, Mumbai:

Blue Frog: Arguably the best indoor live music venue in the country, posh Blue Frog has live music, six nights a week.

Zenzi Mills: Always a supporter of new local talent, the neighboring Zenzi Mills programs some pretty exciting rock acts upstairs.

Hard Rock Cafe: With a slant towards retro and covers acts accompanied by beer and a cheeseburger you'll be hardpressed to ignore, HRC is a valuable addition to Lower Parel's bustling pub crawl.

This club revolution is a nationwide phenomenon, and is driving a brand new feature in the Indian rock scene -- a legitimate touring circuit. Bands are now regularly able to take their act to multiple cities on tours that hit New Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai among others.

Gig promoters are thinking bigger too. Where once the only music festival a rock fan had to look forward to was I-Rock, now a host of newcomers look to seek his audience, and his rupees. Not all of these have been successful. The one-time, promising Eastwind festival in New Delhi fell through on account of lack of sponsorship, and this year's Ladakh Confluence is faced with an insurmoutable political roadblock on the eve of it's second edition. But there are definite signs of cheer as festivals featuring international bands and local talent are promised in the near future. 

Indian rock goes out of bounds 

MedusaMumbai electro-rock act Medusa's 20-something frontman Raxit Tiwari.And while the scene grows domestically, international eyes and ears are beginning to take notice of these rumblings in India.  In 2008, the British Council, as part of its SoundPad project, invited top British producer John Leckie (Radiohead, The Stone Roses) to select four Indian bands to record a couple of songs each with him and play a short tour of the United Kingdom. Swarathma (Bangalore), Advaita (New Delhi), Medusa (Mumbai), and Indigo Children (New Delhi) performed showcases in several British cities including much acclaimed The Great Escape music festival in Brighton. More recently, Mumbai metal giants Scribe and Demonic Resurrection (the only Indian band to make it to the soundtrack of "Global Metal" along with the likes of Lamb of God, Sepultura and In Flames) played short tours of Norway and Swarathma are currently headed home from another successful British tour.

Judging by the fact that over the last five years more Indian bands have played gigs at international venues and festivals than ever before, it is but a matter of time before an Indian rock band successfully breaks through international markets.  

These are exciting times for Indian rock. And while Mumbai is poised to be the hub of the impending uproar, it's never been a better idea to check out a local band in your own city and be part of the revolution.