Sanjeev Nayak, who plays violin for Bengaluru’s Swarathma, in a just-happy-to-be-here tone, suggests that Indian rock is ready to enter the mainstream: “Reality shows and Bollywood have helped: rock bands are more visible now. Peoples’ tastes are changing — bands are making an entry into the mainstream, and I think they’re getting there.”
But then, Bollywood is a fickle beast — Rock On!!’s soundtrack didn’t feature a single Indian rock group, preferring to keep the production in-house: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy handled musical duties for the film, while Javed Akhtar handled lyrics. Kutty, for his part, is irked. “Bollywood doesn’t really understand what’s happening,” he says. “It’s just another commercial thing for them, something they could make money off. Most people who get influenced by this stuff don’t get the scene, anyway.” Unfortunately, the people influenced by that stuff are those who are actually beginning to get into the scene.
The disproportionate attention heaped on Indian rock is premature and, in the end, a disservice to a sub-culture still trying to find its feet – adding to the uncomfortable sense of faddishness and novelty attached to the new attention it’s attracting. Split rhythm guitarist Melroy D’Mello is resigned, “In the US, rock is powerful in a mainstream kind of way. We’re not even close to being a minority yet. We’re a micro-minority. Even the best Indian rock album would only sell 5,000 copies.”
Historically, rock’s roots lie in American “race music” (black rhythm and blues, soul and gospel) — a dangerous outsider art and product of a marginalised underclass. Its mythology is, in an understatement, colourful: blues pioneer Leadbelly was ‘discovered’ as he served a jail sentence for attempted murder, his third period of incarceration; piano-masher Esquerita, equipped with improbably extravagant pomp, was said to have made a Texas woman faint just by looking at her; Ed Sullivan’s producers decided to film Elvis from the waist up, worried that the sexual energy stored in his hips would destroy American values, one thrust at a time. Even The Beatles began their career playing seedy German brothels, half-drunk and out of their minds on amphetamines.
Rock was (and is) so culturally potent in the US and the UK that intelligence agencies kept tabs on the likes of Elvis, John Lennon and Mick Jagger — presumably to ensure that they weren’t in league with the dread pinkos. The politics of rock and roll build from the politics of the outsider dissatisfied and fed up with status quo — Chuck Berry’s now-standard No Particular Place to Go epitomises this sense of restlessness and nervous energy and packages it in an insecure but sexually aggressive machismo. That’s rock and roll — and this strain still runs strong through western rock.
The rock idiom in India, by contrast, lacks anything resembling character or personality. By and large, its practitioners do not have much to say, musically or lyrically — fundamentally, our homegrown rock is rooted in affectation, not origination. While many bands have tried to cultivate their own sound, many more are openly derivative or, even worse, uninterested in developing their own rock vocabulary, even if they do write their own songs. Grewal offers an explanation: “We’re still too impressed by our western icons and we tend to ape them. We’re too caught up in emulating and not songwriting.”