The original version of a contentious and controversial (pitchforks, torches and profound indignation trending on Twitter) commentary on Indian rock and roll.
If you’ve been following the papers lately, you probably already know that rock and roll is booming in India. Finally their turn in the pop culture spotlight, rock bands are wowing audiences across the nation with exciting new sounds, performing alongside such internationally renowned and critically respected acts as the Backstreet Boys. No longer content with simply playing out their careers on the dinky college-IIT circuit, they’re making their presence felt at events like ‘Red Romanov Rock In India’, which featured four international acts (including the headlining BSBs) and two honest-to-goodness national bands as support in Bengaluru and Delhi this February — all in the name of vodka. Yes, times are good to be an Indian rock band: dedicated music magazines like Rolling Stone’s India edition have nearly as many correspondents as they do marketers; newspapers like The Hindustan Times describe how rock is “becoming as important to a [Bollywood] soundtrack as the item number once was”; and movies like Rock On!! have finally broken Indian rock into the mainstream.
Except none of this is exactly accurate. For starters, whoever thought it’d be a good idea to invite a has-been boy-band, over a decade past its expiration date, to headline a major national rock festival should be meted swift, merciless, justice and made to actually listen to them.
Though its profile has undoubtedly benefitted from the Bollywood treatment, and from reality shows like Rock On With MTV and Channel V’s Launchpad, Indian rock music remains a niche market, far from anything resembling a lucrative industry or any kind of cohesive creative movement — despite whatever image the newsmedia is pushing. In fact, many musicians invested in the country’s rock scene are strongly divided on what Indian rock is and where it’s going.
To begin with, rock bands simply do not register on India’s music landscape — industry data indicates that a massive 72 percent of all music sales in the country are film-related, with devotional and regional artists bringing up the rearguard. Bobby Talwar of Only Much Louder, a Mumbai-based company that operates the Counter Culture record label (in addition to offering artist management and promotion services), says top-tier groups like Pentagram and Zero (who disbanded in 2008) generally manage to sell roughly 10,000 albums. The vast majority of bands typically sell 1,000 to 2,000 CDs. Hardly encouraging. “To be brutally honest,” Talwar says, “rock will never really ‘arrive’ in India. It’s a particular genre of music that a very select community of people finds more interesting than Bollywood.”
While there is a discernable uptick in the number of Indian rock festivals – The Great Indian Rock Festival, the South Asian Bands festival, the Independence Rock Festival, the Kingfisher PubRockFest, for instance – this has yet to translate into any ground-level success. The rock scene is still largely made up of the same old faces coming to see the same old bands. As Amey Chautray, bassist for veteran Mumbai metal act Infinite Redemption, states flatly, “The audience for rock here is a certain group of individuals who know what they want to listen to — most of the shows we play are attended by guys who’ve been there for the past 10 years.” The question, then, of whether rock culture actually exists in India, and what rock and roll means in this country, continues to nag.
These questions clearly rile Indian Ocean guitarist and co-founder Susmit Sen, who curtly shoots back, “[The term] ‘rock’ is an easy way out for journalists. What is rock? There have been bands who’ve been brought into a more ‘modern’ way of musical expression. I would not that call ‘rock.’”