It took the marketing efforts of a beverage brand to finally get music back on Indian television. Though MTV dropped the “Music Television” tag from under its iconic logo years ago, it’s impossible to dissociate what made that channel cool in the first place. And the dearth of it, or at least of the non-promo-clip-for-Bollywood-film variety, in the noughties was palpable. So much so that many, including myself, hailed the coming of Coke Studio to India, along with a host of other advertiser-backed music-based programming, as the dawn of a new era in Indian television. The music video (at least on music television) was dead and shows like The Dewarists, MTV Sound Trippin’ and others created a brand new economy for the genre of choice: “collaboration”. Two years, and a few hits and misses later, we find ourselves asking the question, what next?
With the heavy baggage of the incredibly popular Pakistani edition of the franchise weighing it down, the first season of Coke Studio in India had its work cut out for it. Viewers were familiar with the format and were looking to the show to showcase the incredible depth of musical curiosity in India, a country with a rich classical, folk and contemporary repertoire. The channel relied on Colonial Cousins man Lesle Lewis, Shah Rukh Khan’s production house Red Chillies Entertainment, a reasonably well-curated selection of Indipop stars and playback singers, and a large marketing budget to do the heavy lifting. Its subsequent failure to receive any measure of critical acclaim was unsurprising. Lewis seemed keen on being involved in every little aspect of the music, almost frustratingly so. He said in an interview, “I’ve composed, I’ve played guitar, I’ve sung, I’ve produced, I’ve arranged, I’ve remixed… So, I feel the whole conceptualization and creation of music has pretty much been in my head, all brought together by the musicians and everybody’s love and passion.”
Along with the practised, manicured delivery of most of the vocalists, it left a slick, Bollywood-esque sheen on a lot of the material. A production house still grappling with the aesthetics of shooting music in this format didn’t do the show any more favours. Cheesy graphics, sloppy camerawork and lackadaisical editing were a regular feature of the on-air cuts. In the words of one of my favourite punk bands Social Distortion, it wasn’t a pretty picture.
The season did have its highlights though, and in retrospect, that’s all it really needed. Performances like Harshdeep Kaur’s Hoo and Tochi Raina’s and Mathangi Rajshekar’s Yaar Basainda were rousing, and well worthy of repeat-listening. For those few highlights, viewers stayed put in front of their TV screens, and focused their attentions (which otherwise on the channel in question were focussed on a variety of cringe-inducing reality shows) squarely on music. We tuned in, turned up the volume, grooved, and tweeted. The list of improvements the show needed to make in Season 2 to keep its viewers interested were pretty much laid out in front of it.
Season 2 hit the ground running with a host of changes. Lesle Lewis was out, and in his place were 12 producers across a range of musical styles, including Bollywood producers Amit Trivedi, Ehsaan Noorani and Hitesh Sonik alongside the likes of genre-hopping producers Nitin Sawhney and Karsh Kale. Each producer brought with him his own unique sensibilities and arrangements, making for some truly refreshing listening. Technical expertise at the recording desk and the production house was improved and the show was a more engaging audio-visual experience as well. The wide range of musicians (over 100) showcased on the season brought with it a unique set of challenges and opportunities, and while not all the collaborations were equally stirring, most were resounding enough that we found ourselves running to Google to find out more about the talent on offer.
Season 3 of Coke Studio sees even bigger names added to the producers roster, with even A.R. Rahman being thrown in the mix. While I do fear that enlisting mostly big-name producers will make this a “headliner”-driven series, I’m looking forward to how this bunch intends on keeping us glued to our screens and headphones. If there’s one thing you can thank Coke Studio and the host of other brand-driven music series for, it’s bringing to our attention some of our country’s otherwise ignored musical craftsmen and women.
NH7 is an indie music website that organizes the NH7 Weekender festival.